Future Africa celebrates five years as ‘neutral space for big ideas’

The gold-and-silver-coloured world globes at the five-year celebrations of the University of Pretoria’s (UP's) Future Africa Campus were not just pretty table decorations. Featuring a golden Africa against silver seas, they symbolised what Future Africa stands for: a collaborative Pan-African research platform with the African continent at its centre and connections that stretch across the globe.

“Future Africa is successful because of your contribution and that of people from different parts of the world,” said Professor Themba Mosia, Interim Vice-Chancellor and Principal of UP, at a celebratory event held on 24 May 2024.

The occasion marked Future Africa’s first five years, looked ahead to its next five years, and paid tribute to a higher education leader described as a “continental patriot and global citizen” – Professor Ernest Aryeetey, who is retiring as Secretary-General of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA).

ARUA is a network of 23 research-intensive universities from across the continent, committed to enhancing and expanding the quality of research done in Africa by African researchers.

The alliance has a close connection with Future Africa and UP. Prof Aryeetey recalled his first visit five years ago, coinciding with the opening of Future Africa. At the time, he had been struck by the campus’s eco-friendly character – the first time he had seen this at a higher education institution.

“Thank you to the University of Pretoria for making it possible for ARUA to be part of [Future Africa’s] story,” he said.

Not a centre or an institute but a collaborative platform

Since its story began in 2019, Future Africa has hosted close to 3 000 events and welcomed an estimated 66 000 delegates and speakers from all over the world, among them international figures such Angela Merkel, former Chancellor of Germany, and Antony Blinken, current Secretary of State of the United States.

But, as Future Africa Director Heide Hackmann reiterated, Future Africa is much, much more than a conference centre.

This was clear from the fact that the university executive had decided “to call us a collaborative platform – not an institute, not a centre, but a platform,” Dr Hackmann emphasised, explaining that Future Africa had both campus and research functions.

As a platform for collaboration, Future Africa provides a “neutral space to convene, catalyse and coordinate big ideas, big initiatives – ideas that are too big for one department or faculty”, she said during a Reflection and Engagement session with UP Deans and Directors, held before the main celebration.

“The notion of neutrality means we do not seek to compete with faculties, but collaborate on the basis of common purpose and shared ideas,” said Dr Hackmann.

Transformation beyond transdisciplinarity

Another concept deeply embedded in Future Africa is that of transformation. “The notion of transformation begins to define a unique identity for Future Africa,” Dr Hackmann said. “It’s beyond transdisciplinarity. We are experimenting with an approach to research that would unleash and inform processes of deep systems change.”

Future Africa's research work is focused on “challenge domains”, which are very big ideas explored through its five research chairs, namely African Science and Technology Futures, Global Equity in Africa, One Health (People, Health, Places), Sustainable Food Systems, and Sustainability Transformations.

“This is not just a UP effort,” Dr Hackmann said, noting that the University of Cape Town had seen the value of a Future Africa chair and come on board to co-host Sustainability Transformations.

“Our next chair could be elsewhere in Africa,” she added, indicating that a priority for 2024 is to launch a new domain on youth education, employment and empowerment.

All in all, Future Africa currently has a portfolio of 30 distinct projects and programmes and external research funding of R60 million, up from R7,9 million at its inception.

Making it matter

“I think we have made the last five years matter,” Dr Hackmann said. “We have laid the foundation; we know how to work, we know what we want to do, we have started engaging with experts across the university and other parts of the world, and we have built a solid team of people who are committed to fulfilling the vision of Future Africa.”

She added that this solid foundation had given her “the courage to accept another position”, at Stellenbosch University, and that she would be leaving UP in June this year.

“I am so confident that Future Africa is in safe hands, and I look forward to finding opportunities for productive collaboration with each other.”


From the left: Prof Sizwe Mabizela, Chair of the ARUA Board, Prof Ernest Aryeetey, Secretary General of ARUA, Dr Heide Hackmann, Director of Future Africa, Prof Themba Mosia, Interim Vice-Chancellor, University of Pretoria, at the celebration event.





Future Africa Team during the Reflection and Engagement Session with UP Deans and Directors