Covid-19 crisis reveals need to focus on intra-Africa partnerships

President Cyril Ramaphosa, chair of the African Union, has called for the strengthening of the bonds of solidarity which should naturally exist among Africans. / BABA JIYANE/ GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa, chair of the African Union, has called for the strengthening of the bonds of solidarity which should naturally exist among Africans. / BABA JIYANE/ GCIS

Africa is defined by colonial borders, within which states attempt to build viable systems. Universities are a significant part of the national innovation systems that seek to change the socioeconomic and other fortunes of the many poor and marginalised Africans.

As Africa approaches the celebrations of the 57th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the Covid-19 crisis reveals - if we are willing to see it - that there is a need to focus much attention on intra-Africa internationalisation programmes for African higher education.

Because national socioeconomic and health systems are often inadequate, Covid-19 is projected to cause unprecedented suffering for many on the continent. To try and stave this off, borders have been closed and economies have been stifled.

Africans have, as never before, been bound to colonial boundaries. These borders were not developed by internal historical processes. In consequence, they divide kith from kin, limiting trade and commerce across the continent.

State power in Africa today is exercised within post-colonial borders that continue to be weak and porous.

It is also exercised by states that are generally weak. These states take their health-promoting actions to neighbourhoods that often have inadequate socioeconomic and health systems for combating Covid-19. They entrap us in compartments that produce lives that are short and brutish. We would do well to ask how we can decolonise our borders in ways that set us free to change socioeconomic fortunes.

Within the confining arrangements of state power, the health threat of the Covid-19 pandemic has been met with almost every African country adopting stringent health precautions, often resulting in sudden, sharp economic declines. With this, the livelihoods of millions are in jeopardy. African higher education has not escaped the resultant challenges.

The higher education sector is struggling to adapt. To be sure, in many ways, it is producing mighty work. Significant aspects of teaching and learning were moved online, often with great success, sometimes with great frustrations.

At the same time, Africans rightly expect higher education systems to contribute to finding immediate responses to the pandemic threat. In many cases, universities are assisting by researching the coronavirus genome, developing effective and cost-efficient necessities such as personal protective equipment and ventilators, or by researching effective vaccines, medication, and public health interventions.

However, it is difficult to find excellent examples of how these steps are changing national narratives, particularly those that bind us to colonial miseries.

The AU, the successor to the OAU, is trying to build multilateral efforts. It has developed an Africa Joint Continental Strategy for the Covid-19 Outbreak and established an Africa Taskforce for Coronavirus. These efforts seek to foster collaboration between multilateral stakeholders because the AU recognises that to adequately address the crisis, it is necessary that member states, AU agencies, the World Health Organisation and other partners work synergistically to avoid duplication and to maximise efficiencies, given that resources are constrained.

It is encouraging that the AU's chair, President Cyril Ramaphosa, refers to pan-Africanist ideas when he calls for the "strengthening of the bonds of solidarity that exist between us as Africans".

Ideas of African togetherness, underpinned by the philosophy of ubuntu, must inspire African solidarity. They are more relevant than ever before.

It is vital that we think, beyond this Covid-19 crisis, of how long-run co-ordination of African higher education institutions must produce continent-wide systems of innovation that take us out of perpetual poverty, disease, and unnecessary deaths.

Hagenmeier, director: office for international affairs, University of the Free State

Professor Chasi, unit for institutional change and social justice, University of the Free State

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