Wits University. Picture: WITS
Wits University. Picture: WITS

The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) has launched its second country-focused research centre, known as the African Centre for the Study of the US (Acsus).

The new research hub seeks to provide a base for academics, policy makers and business to engage with the US.

"This is the first African centre that will engage with other African countries, regional bodies and institutions to deepen our understanding of a major global power, build on existing partnerships with the US and improve the dialogue surrounding US-Africa relations," Prof Gilbert Khadiagala, Acsus director and head of the Wits international relations department.

He was speaking on Saturday at the centre’s first event, the Africa-US Public Diplomacy conference.

The event sought to provide the space for various US and South African officials and academics to brainstorm on the future of US-Africa relations. It was held in partnership with the University of Southern California, the Department of International Relations and Co-operation, the US’s Public Diplomacy Council, the US embassy in SA and the Global Ties Network

Acsus has received funding from the US embassy, and is expecting contributions from the Ford Foundation. Khadiagala said the centre was in talks with IBM to partner and sponsor its research, events and other programmes.

This could include a facilitated visit of US governors and senators to SA to meet provincial premiers as a way of strengthening economic ties, scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2018 or early 2019.

The induction of the new centre comes at a time where global players are turning to the continent to widen their sphere of influence, and the US is seeking to counterbalance China’s economic influence in Africa, along with negative perceptions about US activity on the continent.

The US is the leading aid donor to Africa, but China surpassed it as a trade partner in 2009.

Despite the warning last week by US secretary of state Rex Tillerson that African countries should be careful not to forfeit their sovereignty when they accept loans from China, US officials assert that the US is not aware of its waning influence on the continent in relation to China.

"We don’t see it as a threat and we don’t see it as a competition either. We think China and a lot of other countries like Brazil and India should play a constructive role in Africa," commented Elizabeth McKay, Acting Deputy Chief of Mission of the US mission in SA, on the sidelines of the conference.

"That’s a Cold-War view. Our focus right now is explaining what we do [in Africa] and why we do it. And this centre will play a huge role in explaining US interests from an academic perspective," she continued.

Wits is also mulling over the launch of a China-focused research centre as well as a global studies research centre as a part of its "internationalisation" strategy.

In the last five years alone Wits has increased its research output by 45% and solidified its position as the top research university on the African continent, with a total of 48 research units, institutes and centres.