Introducing the Centre for Asian Studies in Africa

(Excerpts from online message of Prof. Alf Gunwald Nilsen, Director of CASA, University of Pretoria)

Our Centre aims to be a premier hub for knowledge production about Asia and Afro-Asian connections in South Africa and on the African continent. Our bedrock will be an ambitious array of innovative research initiatives that responds to Asia’s geopolitical significance in the twenty-first century, and to the concomitant need for critical expertise on the region from a distinctly African perspective. This bedrock will take its form from the deep and layered connections between the Asian and African continents – connections that are rooted in the past, which shape our present, and which most certainly will continue to animate our future in decisive ways. 

On this foundation, CASA aspires to contribute to teaching activities at the University of Pretoria and to be a resource to the worlds of government, business and work, to the arts and cultural and creative industries, and to civil society actors. We also intend to make the knowledge that we will produce a contribution to informed exchanges about Asian dynamics in South Africa’s public sphere. It goes without saying that this is needed in a context where Asia and Asian actors – both sovereign and private – are becoming an increasingly salient presence in the continent’s economic, political, and cultural life. 

At CASA, we are busy developing an intellectual agenda that reflects the imperatives of our times. These imperatives are defined by a conjuncture in which we witness the interlocking of consequential world-systemic transformations and equally consequential global challenges. 

What I mean by consequential world-systemic transformations is this – that over the past two decades, major countries in the global South have emerged as economic powerhouses and as geopolitical forces to be reckoned with, often establishing multilateral collaborations as a counterbalance to western dominance in world affairs. Asia, which from its western edge at the Bosphorus Strait to the Pacific Ocean is home to 60% of the world’s population and multiple emerging powers, and which constitutes the world’s largest continental economy, spearheads this process. When we consider in addition the remarkable global reach and influence of the continent’s cultural and creative industries, its art, and its literature, it is perhaps no wonder that the twenty-first century is also referred to as the Asian century. 

However, these transformations are deeply entangled in complex global challenges that demand keen attention and serious engagement. The world economy in which Asia has become such an important player is shot through with perverse inequalities. Just think, for instance, of the fact that 52% of global income and 76% of global wealth accrue to the richest 10% of the world’s population. Challenges are also manifest in the political realm, where an intensifying wave of autocratization has rolled back the global democratic advances made since the 1980s. And crucially, the impacts of climate change, which takes a disproportionate toll on countries and communities in the global South, and the very real possibility of climate disaster raise pressing questions about the prospects for sustainable planetary futures. 

CASA’s research agenda endeavours to take up the gauntlet that is thrown down by these interlocking transformations and challenges. We are fashioning spaces where global development challenges such as inequality and the future of work, democracy, governance and human rights, and sustainability and environmental justice can be explored – critically, independently, vigorously, and always with a keen eye with to how these development challenges are shaped by our multipolar world, a world in which Asia stands as a pivot of development dynamics. 

In doing so, we also focus closely on Asia’s role in and relationship to a changing global South. Here I want to highlight that it is not at all insignificant that CASA has been instituted at a point in time when the epistemic hegemony of the global North in academic knowledge production is increasingly being called into question and even challenged by open revolts. I highlight this because there is no denying that the field of Asian studies, as well as area studies more generally, have their roots in multiple unequal encounters – partly in the encounter between western colonial rulers and their subjects, partly in the encounter between the post-war geopolitical stratagems of the United States and the non-western world as a Cold War battleground, and partly in the encounter between a “developed” West and an “underdeveloped” Rest.  

CASA will make a concerted effort to contribute to the labour of disrupting, unsettling, and shifting prevailing ideas about the world beyond the West, and we will do this in no small part by committing ourselves to advancing epistemic justice in the study of Asia and Afro-Asian connections, as well as by making South-South collaborations a central pillar of our activities. Throughout – and in and through – our initiatives, we intend to explore what global area studies might look like when carried out from a Southern standpoint. I must admit to a certain epistemic uncertainty here: I don’t know what the end result will in fact look like, but I am convinced about the route that we must take to get there, and that is a route that proceeds via trans-regional dialogues – that is, dialogues between Asian and African scholars, dialogues between research-based knowledge fashioned in Asian and African contexts, and of course dialogues between Asian and African publics, engaging the challenges and questions that define our troubled conjuncture.  

Working at the intersection of consequential transformations and challenges and against epistemic asymmetries is daunting. However, I’m confident that this work can be done. The reason I say this is of course that Afro-Asian connections have proven themselves capable of sustaining some of the most daunting work witnessed in recent history. I’m thinking, of course, of how Afro-Asian solidarity both drove the work of overthrowing what Kwame Nkrumah referred to as the “bastions of colonialism” and underpinned the building of nations that would provide, in the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, “justice and fullness of life” to all their people. 

Now, I am not, of course, equating the building of a research centre with this movement of emancipatory world-making. I am, though, suggesting that we will do well in drawing some of our sustenance from this audacious insistence that progressive transformations are possible if our efforts are underpinned by a capacious solidarity. 

CASA, for one, will certainly do so as we go about the business of making knowledge from the global South for a changing world. 

I hope to cross paths with all of you along the way.

Share This