South Africa, Japan universities unite for development

Collaboration between South African and Japanese universities should become a catalyst for sustainable development in South Africa and across the African continent. It would also play an enormous role in the realisation of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 – a programme aspiring to create prosperity through inclusive growth and sustainable development.

Those were the words of Professor Cheryl de la Rey, vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Pretoria, at the re-launch in Pretoria, South Africa, on 7 December of the South Africa-Japan Universities or SAJU forum.

Addressing 60 delegates gathered at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research or CSIR’s International Convention Centre, De la Rey – who is also chair of the research and innovation strategy group of Universities South Africa – said the event marked the revival of the SAJU forum in South Africa.

The forum

The forum was initiated in 2007 to facilitate collaboration between universities in the two countries, in solving local and global challenges and contributing to sustainable development.

These goals would be achieved through the sharing of ideas, facilitating student mobility in both directions and collaborating in high quality research. The relationship is themed “Collaboration and partnership between Japan and South Africa towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals”.

The CSIR event was a precursor to the main re-launch ceremony to be held in Japan in July 2017.

De la Rey said the decision to revive this relationship was made in late 2015 by the board of directors of Universities South Africa or USAf. Since then, bilateral discussions had been taking place between South African and Japanese universities through the Department of Science and Technology in South Africa.

As a representative association of South Africa’s 26 public universities, USAf would be the coordinator in this relationship in collaboration with the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Japanese Studies.

“Japan is a top performer by any measure of scientific excellence,” said De la Rey. “An opportunity to collaborate with them is something we must grasp with both hands.”

She said she saw the relationship enabling the two countries to resolve challenges confronting South Africa in biodiversity, climate change, energy and varying disasters, to cite a few examples.

“We can pool expertise, build mutual capacity and increase the output of doctoral graduates across these areas while also giving our scholars exposure in international laboratories, conducting research in these disciplines.”

In summing up, De la Rey said that with a solid foundation now laid, “we need to ensure that SAJU does not start on a high note only to collapse”.

Ensuring benefit

Universities are bridges for ideas and people, and one of their crucial roles is ensuring that the migration of ideas and people takes place across systems.

The SAJU forum is a fitting enterprise to achieve that, and also to facilitate collaboration in research, teaching and learning and student mobility in both directions.

Global challenges such as infectious diseases, power imbalances and social violence also stand to be resolved within relationships such as this one, and the forum looks forward to getting together in a few years to celebrate notable milestones and successes in this regard.

Several organisations delivered messages of support to the SAJU forum. One was the South African National Research Foundation’s executive director of international relations and cooperation, Dr Aldo Stroebel.

While affirming the foundation’s commitment to support the initiative, Stroebel cautioned about the great discrepancies between university types in both South Africa and Japan. He said the National Research Foundation yearned to see opportunities being created for all.

“Opportunity and excellence must go hand-in-hand in ensuring that all institutions benefit from this initiative. If we are to create a greater future for everyone, we must employ a collective, multi-dimensional and participative approach.”

Warm relations

According to Daan du Toit, deputy director general of international cooperation and resources in South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology, Japan was the first country with which the department formed collaborative relations in science and technology in 2003.

He said the partnership had since grown in multiple areas, complementing bilateral diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Japan’s Ambassador to South Africa, Shigeyuki Hiroki, echoed this sentiment when he said education was among the top priority areas of partnership between his country and South Africa.

This was evident in the African Business Education initiative which had already provided 83 South Africans with masters degree studies in Japan, combined with internships at Japanese corporations.

Hiroki said to date, 26 memoranda of understanding had been signed between universities in Japan and South Africa, facilitating student exchanges and academic research.

In addition to education, Japan enjoys a healthy trade relationship with South Africa, manifesting in the around 140 Japanese corporations operating in the country, creating over 150,000 job opportunities in the process. Ambassador Hiroki valued South Africa-Japan’s bilateral trade at over R90 billion (US$6.5 billion) in 2015.

Coordinating the forum

The audience at the SAJU forum re-launch comprised representatives of the governments of Japan and South Africa; and also representatives from both countries of universities, science councils, business entities and organisations operating in the area of science and technology.

The SAJU forum presents another platform to advance the internationalisation of higher education in South Africa. USAf has also built collaborative relations in areas of research and student exchange and mobility with universities in Germany, India, Brazil, Russia and elsewhere.

The Centre for Japanese Studies, with which USAf will collaborate in coordinating the SAJU forum work, is the first of its kind on the continent.

Founded in 2010 to mark the centenary of bilateral relations between Japan and South Africa, the centre was initially located in the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science to support business relations between the two countries.

It has since been moved to the main campus of the University of Pretoria in Hatfield and is now located within the faculty of humanities, to expand the opportunities it presents to a lot more disciplines.

The centre will service all of South Africa – according to De la Rey it is to become a national hub with nodes at various institutions – and will later expand across all of Africa.

Professor Ahmed Bawa is chief executive officer of Universities South Africa and former vice-chancellor of Durban University of Technology, South Africa.