A focus on the African continent is central to the University of the Free State's (UFS) internationalisation strategy, which envisages an Africa-imbued internationalisation process that advances Africanisation and decolonisation, and includes a focus on expanding researcher networks across Africa.
The UFS considers internationalisation, Africanisation, and decolonisation as complementary processes, and prioritises engagements with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and African countries. The university's Vision 130 emphasises the UFS's commitment to the development of the African continent.
One Africa together forever
Inspired by its commitment to Africa, the UFS celebrates Africa Month annually, under the motto 'One Africa together forever'. Every year the campaign focuses on a different theme – this year, it is 'Promoting and appreciating knowledge in and from Africa'. This follows 'Celebrating African Education as a Conduit for African Unity' in 2022 and 'Solidarity in Knowledge Production and Recording' in 2021. The diverse contributions from members of the UFS community, including all celebrations since 2019, are available from the Africa Month section of the UFS website.
The university's internationalisation strategy commits the UFS to co-creating knowledge across the African continent. Manifold collaborations with African universities underpin this. The number of scientific publications co-authored with colleagues across Africa is growing steadily. Between 2019 and 2022, UFS researchers collaborated with 381 African institutions, which resulted in 3 002 co-authored publications.
Strengthening formal partnerships with African universities is an important aspect of the UFS focus on Africa. This presently includes the University of Botswana, the University of Namibia, the National University of Lesotho, Niger Delta University, and the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. In an opinion piece published on the 2023 UFS Africa Month website, Prof Hussein Solomon of the UFS's Centre for Gender and Africa Studies shares that "any memorandum of understanding needs to deliver on tangible outputs" and cites the example of a collaboratively edited book which he champions together with his Niger Delta University colleague Prof Jude Cocodia.
Developing partnerships on the continent
The university invests in strengthening existing and establishing new collaborations on the African continent. In 2022, it focused on developing new partnerships in Ghana and Gabon. In Ghana, it was possible to leverage existing collaborations championed by Prof Loyiso Jita, Dean of the UFS Faculty of Education, to establish institutional collaboration with the University of the Cape Coast and formalise the relationship with the University of Ghana. In Uganda, the UFS established a new collaboration with Busitema University, which is championed by Prof Motlalepula Matsabisa from the Faculty of Health Sciences.
New partnerships were initiated with three Gabonese higher education institutions, including the International Centre for Medical Research in Franceville (CIRMF). The institution's Director-General, Prof Jean Bernard Lekana-Douki, and the Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the UFS, Prof Francis Petersen, signed a memorandum of understanding in April 2023.
Collaboration had already commenced with a visit by the CIRMF's Dr Judicaël Obame to the UFS Department of Zoology and Entomology in December 2022, during which he delivered a guest lecture and conducted a workshop on mosquito rearing. The targeted engagement with Gabon also resulted in a delegation from École de Management du Gabon University (EM-Gabon) led by its President, Prof Daniel Idiata, visiting the UFS in November 2022 and subsequently formalising its collaboration with the UFS. Together with the Masuku University of Science and Technology, also located in Gabon, PhD co-supervision commenced as a result of the new partnership.
Qwaqwa-campus-based Dr Patricks Otomo, who champions the collaboration and serves as the campus Subject Head: Zoology and Entomology, explains: "As a student in Gabon in the early 2000s, I benefited from an agreement between the Masuku University of Science and Technology, where I was an undergraduate student at the time, and Stellenbosch University. This agreement allowed me to further my studies in South Africa, eventually earning my honours, master's, and PhD at Stellenbosch University. Knowing the benefits of such agreements and the potential for internationalisation at the UFS, two years ago I approached the Vice-Rector for Research and Internationalisation, Prof Corli Witthuhn, with the idea of intensifying the UFS collaboration with my home country, Gabon. Together with Prof Corli Witthuhn and Dr Cornelius Hagenmeier, Director of the UFS Office for International Affairs, we visited three higher education institutions in the country. We explored collaboration with a specific focus on PhD education. The response was overwhelming: in a short period, it was possible to develop lively partnerships with all three institutions."
One of the UFS's important regional partners is the National University of Lesotho. Prof Petersen visited it in 2022 to strengthen the existing multi-layered collaboration, which is underpinned by a memorandum of understanding. Joint activities are taking place through the Directorate for Research Development, which coordinates the Lesotho Highlands Water Project; the Faculty of Education, the Departments of Pharmacology, Political Studies, and Africa Studies; and the Afromontane Research Unit on the UFS Qwaqwa Campus.
Connecting the UFS to African philosophy and knowledge paradigms
UFS academics are constantly at the forefront of producing and disseminating cutting-edge work on the African continent. During Africa Month, the UFS, in partnership with Sweden's Karolinska Institutet, hosted the first Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever virus (CCHFV) Africa Conference, at which experts from 16 countries – including 12 African countries – deliberated on CCHFV. It was co-organised by Prof Felicity Burt, an expert in arbovirology from the UFS's Division of Virology in the Faculty of Health Sciences.
Another example of the UFS's research leadership in Africa is that Prof Martin Nyaga, Head of the UFS Next Generation Sequencing (UFS-NGS) Unit, chairs the Africa Centre for Communicable and Preventable Diseases (Africa CDC) working group on Vaccine Preventable Diseases (VPD). Meanwhile, research collaboration in the Humanities is also flourishing. For example, Prof Chitja Twala, Vice-Dean in the Faculty of the Humanities, has a long-standing relationship with the University of Ghana's Department of History, and travelled to the partner university in 2022 for an extended research visit.
The UFS is also engaged in many African university networks, which ensures that the university is part of contemporary African higher education discourses. For example, the UFS is an active member of the Association of African Universities (AAU), the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA), and the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM).
Through its manifold African collaborations, the UFS lives up to the commitment expressed in its internationalisation strategy: to connect the UFS to African philosophy and knowledge paradigms. Moreover, the UFS's engagements throughout Africa ensure that the university contributes significantly to promoting and appreciating knowledge in and from Africa.
UFS Rector and Vice-Chancellor Prof Francis Petersen summarised this poignantly during the 2022 UFS Africa Month: "Our engagement with the world needs to ensure that the knowledge emanating from our university, our country, and our continent is shared globally."
The UFS's collaborations with institutions across Africa make a significant contribution in this regard.