Three academic institutions in Africa have established units dedicated to the study of the United States. They are University of the Witwatersrand’s African Centre for the Study of the United States, the American Language Centre in Morocco , and most recently, the University of Pretoria’s African Centre for the Study of the United States. University of Pretoria Principal Tawana Kupe and Christopher Isike, the new Centre’s Director, explain why Africans need a better understanding of America.
Top universities around the world have research centres and think tanks dedicated to the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary study of other countries or regions. The broad purpose is to understand the historical, social, political, economic, and cultural development of the countries and their people.
It is not only a worthwhile venture for knowledge’s sake. It’s also helpful in formulating domestic and foreign policies to further the interests of their nations. This way, the universities justify their mandates – as both citadels of learning and as influencers of global politics and international relations.
Many universities in Europe, North America and Asia have dedicated centres that study Africa. The continent has recently started returning the favour. In South Africa for example, Stellenbosch University has the Centre for Chinese Studies, and there is the University of Johannesburg Centre for China-Africa Studies.
The University of Pretoria’s humanities department has also approved the establishment of a centre for Asian Studies, which is awaiting senate approval. Relatedly, several universities in South Africa have centres that study European and Asian languages as part of the broader purpose of understanding other societies.
The establishment of an African Centre for the Study of the United States at the University of Pretoria should be seen against this background. It aims to contribute to overcoming Africa’s knowledge deficit in its relations with the US.
The new unit seeks to create knowledge and train experts that African countries need in their embassies, foreign ministries, corporates and academia to influence the formulation of domestic and foreign policies that further the interests of African states. The same applies to Africa’s media and civil society.
Importance of Africa studying the US
This mismatch in knowledge production means the continent relates to the US from a position of disadvantage. For example, African states and the continent as a bloc do not have a defined policy towards the US. On the other hand, US policy towards Africa is shaped by knowledge from its several research think tanks on Africa.
Without a clear African policy towards the US that is based on evidence, the continent is unable to leverage opportunities from bilateral and multilateral relations with the superpower. The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act is a good example.
So, what other factors account for why it is important for Africans to study the US nation and society?
Africa needs to understand the US to inform its thinking, actions and interactions with the global superpower. This includes political relations to economic and trade relations, cultural intersections and exchanges.
Given its superpower status and its economic and military interests in Africa, the US has been an important actor in Africa’s present and future. It also has important cultural connections to the continent through the African diaspora, and its African-American population.
In general, the African diaspora remains largely untapped by the continent in its quest for global influence and agency. That’s because it has not studied its diaspora in the US and elsewhere as much as it should.
The Biden Administration’s policy is to engage African countries as equal partners. This represents a shift in US policy towards Africa, which was mainly driven by Cold War imperatives and competition with China, to mutually a beneficial partnership.
The US ranks second after China in terms of job creation in Africa.
At $50-billion, the US was the third largest investor in Africa after France ($64-billion) and the Netherlands ($63-billion), in 2017. The UK and China trailed behind the US. Each invested $43-billion in 2017.
Besides trade and investments, the US also has a huge technological and cultural impact in Africa. It also has more military bases in Africa than any other nation.
In terms of political systems, there are more liberal democracies than autocracies on the continent. This makes the US an interesting case study on democracy for Africa. This is especially so with the US predicted to become a right-wing dictatorship in 2030.
In addition, American health system benefits from one of Africa’s most underrated exports annually – brain power. A whopping 23% of its physicians were trained in Africa. Between 2004 and 2013 there was a 40% increase in the migration of African physicians to the US.
Africa, therefore, needs more institutions that cast a penetrative gaze on the US. These should create the relevant knowledge for formulating evidence-based domestic and foreign policies that serve it best interests in engagements with the global superpower.
Obtaining a critical analytical understanding of the US – and other nations – is vital for developing pan-Africanist agency, and common positions in its dealings with the rest of the world.
Written by Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University, University of Pretoria and Christopher Isike, Professor of African Politics and International Relations, University of Pretoria