UJCI seminar addresses the role of space technologies in the development of African economies

The University of Confucius Institute (UJCI) in collaboration with the University of Johannesburg Library held a seminar on Monday, 11 June 2018 at Auckland Park Kingsway Campus under the theme ‘Satellite Cooperation: The Next Frontier of Sino-African Relations?’

This seminar takes place against the backdrop of a UJ now led by Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tshilidzi Marwala and seeking to take the lead in understanding as well as shaping the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Part of the rationale for convening this platform was to understand the roles that space technologies can play in the development of African economies, since space technology has been argued to have application in matters which confront us day to day, in terms of agriculture, communications, and infrastructure.

Attracting attendance from members of the business community, government as well as students from other universities, the seminar was also informed by the ethos of Industry 4.0 in that it was interdisciplinary; Dr. Zhu, who gave the main lecture, is a social scientist and a historian by training, having completed his PhD in African history. At the same time, Professor Mutambara brought an extensive background of government, and policy involvement having served as Deputy Prime Minister of Zimbabwe (2009-2013), as well as his previous role as a researcher at NASA, having done his PhD in Robotics and Mechatronics and an MSc in Computer Engineering. The Chair was Professor Esther Akinlabi, Vice Dean: Learning and Teaching, in the Faulty of Engineering and the Built Environment (FEBE).

This stems from the understanding that if the fourth industrial revolution is to prove successful, it will need inputs from all fields and that each field has something significant and unique to contribute. It will also require cooperation across countries and across continents and that is why the topic is centered on cooperation between China and African countries in satellite cooperation. The People’s Republic of China initiated its space program in 1958 and has become a leader in the area, having overcome hurdles and limitations, managing to launch, in 1970, the Dong Fang Hong I space satellite. Comparatively, South Africa has 200 specialists in space-related sciences, whereas China has 300, 000.

Dr. Zhu noted, “To date, South Africa has primarily been a consumer and a net importer of space technologies. There is a need to develop systems and sub-systems to support our requirements and to grow the local industry.” The seminar also highlighted the role that student exchanges can play in ensuring that African countries leapfrog and obtain expertise in space-related fields. In 2009, China launched the China-Africa Science and Technology Partnership Plan (Castep). This plan aims to promote technology transfer to Africa and research exchanges, as well as the sharing of more scientific and technological achievements. As result, China has built satellite ground stations in Africa in Malindi, Kenya and Swakopmund, Namibia.

In his response to the lecture, Professor Mutambara highlighted disjuncture at the African Union level. Addressing the low level of coordination, Mutambara highlighted the need for a “distinctly” African space agenda for developmental and civilian (non-military purposes). Mutambara also argued that the coordination at a continental level would mean the tapping of the over one billion population in the continent and the African diaspora across the Caribbean, the United States and Europe, many of whom have gone on to achieve distinction in space careers. The coalescing of efforts would also mean increasing of economies of scale, with over US$2-billion in collective GDP.

Mutambara’s additional argument hinged on the fact that Africa has less developmental “baggage”. Thus due to the lack of wired infrastructure, Africa can make an easier leap into wireless technology, using satellites, something which has already been seen with M-Pesa and other areas of human life including humanitarian activities and climate change. Addressing questions of the prospective abusive use of technologies for undemocratic and oppressive practices by regimes, with the AU having been known for some time as a “dictator’s club”, such as surveillance, vote-rigging and propaganda, he stated that the technical advancements would also have to be anchored in African values of Ubuntu; harking back to his original statement for the need of a space agenda that is “distinctly African.”

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