Near the end of 2023, University of Waterloo President, Vivek Goel and AVP Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Anti-Racism, Christopher Taylor led a Waterloo delegation travelling to South Africa and Ghana.

With the Waterloo at 100 vision that includes a decolonized future for our institution, it is important to examine and reimagine our relationships with African institutions.  These countries, and Africa as a whole, represent an opportunity to build pan-African collaborations, and forge a future where relationships with international partners prioritize equity, sustainability, as well as discovery.

“The pace of change and advancement across Africa is accelerating,” says Goel. “For a global research university, this requires us to reimagine motivations, impacts, and outcomes for our international partnerships."

Chris and Vivek looking at a mural

Reimagining Taylor’s work as AVP and our institution’s relationship with the continent are reasons why he and the Goel made the trip alongside members from Waterloo International.

"If we only consider what the continent can offer us, we unfortunately enter into a space of brain drain and exploitation," says Taylor who doubles as a professor of History at Waterloo.

With the highest population growth rate globally, Africa's population is expected to double to 2.5 billion by 2050. Adding 10 to 12 million young workers annually, Africa is projected to be the world's second-fastest growing economy in 2024, with six of the top ten global economies emerging from Sub-Saharan Africa, as reported by the Economist Intelligence Unit and the IMF.

To engage in decolonization work at the University of Waterloo, you have to understand the histories and present-day realities of colonialism and decolonization on the continent. There are many lessons we can learn.

Simply imagining African nations as new markets for students, research partnerships is “neoliberal capitalist positioning,” says Taylor. This is not what interests the historian. Experiencing the continent first-hand is the only way to truly begin to understand it, and from there, he sees a trip like this as the first of many necessary steps in understanding and confronting anti-Black racism on our campuses and in our society.

“To engage in decolonization work at the University of Waterloo, you have to understand the histories and present-day realities of colonialism and decolonization on the continent. There are many lessons we can learn,” says Taylor.  

While the Waterloo delegation did connect with fellow academics at places like Stellenbosch University and the University of Western Cape—with its rich history of leading the fight against Apartheid--they also made it a priority to visit Robben Island. The island is best known as the site of a maximum-security prison where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were incarcerated during apartheid.

Vivek and Christopher at Robben Island prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned

“The opportunity to see first-hand where courageous leaders like Mandela made a stand against colonialism reinforced to me the level of effort, dedication and purpose needed to continue efforts towards decolonizing our institutions and society more generally,” says Goel.

In much the same way Waterloo researchers have sought to be on the leading edge of innovation, the University is also committed to being a leader in the areas of decolonization, indigenization, and anti-racism as well as all areas within equity, diversity, and inclusion.  

“If we're looking at how we're positioning ourselves as an institution when we talk about indigenization, climate justice and reconciliation, places like Ghana and South Africa really understand what this means,” says Taylor. “In Canada, we keep on saying, ‘it's going to take centuries to decolonize and reconcile,’ but Europeans were in South Africa just as long as Europeans were in Canada. Why can’t we learn from each other?”

Both Goel and Taylor agree that it's very important for us as an institution to extend our commitment to decolonization outside of our borders. And as is often the case when venturing outside of traditionally European values, a reorganization of priorities comes as well.

“If we’re moving away from measuring value as “how many students we attract” or “how many memoranda of understanding (MOU) we’ve signed” as markers of international engagement—what is a new metric for us now?”

Vivek Goel exchanging gifts with a colleague at a partner institution

Taylor has a suggestion, which he credits to outgoing Associate Vice-President, International Ian Rowlands: Become partners of partners.

“When we talk about being partners of a partner we don't necessarily have to be only partners with another institution, but partner with an institution that is partnering with communities,” says Taylor.

For Taylor, partnering with universities on the continent connected to grassroots organizations offers Waterloo valuable opportunities for enriched cultural understanding and diverse research, while fostering global citizenship and contributing to sustainable development goals.

“These institutions are tapped into what's happening on the ground, so if we are going to partner with them, they truly understand the needs of these communities and I think that's the way for us to really reimagine what we want from international partnerships.”