The Centre for Indian Studies in Africa

The Centre for Indian Studies in Africa (CISA) was established at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), Johannesburg towards the end of 2007: the first in Africa to focus on India. In 2009, the Centre received major funding from the Mellon Foundation to establish a Chair in Indian Studies and fellowships for graduate students.

CISA promotes teaching, research and public activities concerning the Indian sub-continent, its links to Africa and the Indian Ocean, and builds on the multi-faceted networks developed with Indian universities, research institutions and public agencies. Over the past two years the intellectual remit of the Centre has expanded to include the histories of the Global South: that affective geography between Latin America and Asia.

The Centre’s public activities are part of its mandate to contribute to the consolidation of economic, political and cultural relations between India and countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.


What does CISA do?

The rise of India as a global power presents significant opportunities to the academy both locally and internationally. Sino-Indian rivalry as well as competition with the US challenge the certainties of an older three-world geopolitics and models of ‘North and South’. Existing categories for studying the world (the ‘West’, area studies, third worldism, south-south relations, postcolonialism) have been brought into question.

As an arena in which these developments intersect, the Indian Ocean offers a privileged vantage point from which to track a changing world order. Sino-Indo-US competition plays itself out in both Africa – most prominently over hydro-carbons and other minerals – as well as in the Indian Ocean. The increase in the number of ‘failed states’ in the wake of the end of Cold War policing has become internationally visible: warlordism in Somalia moves out to sea in the form of piracy. Al-Qaida attacks in Kenya, Tanzania, Comoros and Yemen (all Indian Ocean littorals) and the US occupation of the Diego Garcia atoll are other examples which highlight critical international trajectories.

These developments have directed South African attention towards the Indian Ocean, and especially towards India itself. The countries share long-standing historical links and post-1994 there has been a significant intensification of trade, investment, tourist and educational links.

Because India supported anti-apartheid sanctions from its independence in 1947, there was no trade or investment between India and SA before 1994, but there has been a remarkable increase since. Today total bilateral trade amounts to over US$4 billion.

Around 40 major corporations from each country now operate in the other, including many familiar corporate names: Tata, Ranbaxy, Bajaj, ICICI, Anglo American, Sasol, Sanlam and Shoprite. Others such as Infosys and Standard Bank are evaluating possible entry.

In 2006, the University of the Witwatersrand responded to an upsurge of interest and energy in this field by establishing the ‘South Africa-India Research Thrust’ as one of its eight major University-sponsored initiatives. As such, it brought together numerous academics on its staff doing research on Indian issues or in collaboration with Indian colleagues.


What does CISA do?

The emerging research framework of the Centre is based on four themes:

  • Comparisons between India and South Africa on historical and current issues and challenges
  • Connections between India and South Africa and the rest of Africa
  • Cosmopolitanism, or the formation of a transnational public sphere encompassing the Indian Ocean
  • Collaborations in applied research supporting policy and innovation for development

CISA supports Wits scholars in their research projects by assisting with fundraising, establishing collaboration with institutions and individuals in India, and logistics where necessary.

The Centre in addition carries out its own research projects, and consolidates relationships with Indian institutions to promote academic exchanges. During 2009 it ran a monthly academic seminar with visiting scholars and research students, as well as several conferences and workshops, for example on ‘Print Cultures, Nationalisms and Publics of the Indian Ocean’ (in collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society in Bangalore and Roskilde University, Denmark); a postgraduate workshop on transnational Indian Ocean research methodology in collaboration with Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi; and a colloquium on ‘Indian Ocean Security and Shifting Global Geo-political Imperatives’.

Teaching activity is undertaken in collaboration with teaching departments/schools at Wits. Four modules are being offered from 2010 and together they will comprise an MA programme in Indian Studies:

  • Indian Ocean History
  • South Asian History
  • Indian Fiction in English
  • Indian Economy and Politics since Independence

These modules will also be available to postgraduate students across the Humanities and in other faculties as individual options within their Masters’ programmes.

The Centre’s public engagement forms part of its mandate to contribute to the consolidation of economic, political and cultural relations between India and South Africa, and between India and other African countries. Activities include a literary festival- ‘Words on Water’- bringing together artists, poets, novelists and playwrights from India and South Africa in the month of September every year.

The Centre has been involved in public policy development in both India and South Africa, via participation in several workshops on foreign policy during 2008: one in Pretoria hosted by the South African Department of Foreign Affairs, and two in Delhi co-sponsored by the Ministry of External Affairs. It is currently engaged in a project with the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, Government of India, over four years dealing with the migration of labour and capital from India to Africa and emerging notions of global responsibility. As a result of this funding in 2013 we shall have an Associate Professor and Assistant Professor and four graduate students. With this increase in our strength, we shall be locating to a building of our own in August 2012.

At the bilateral meeting between the countries in March 2008, the Centre’s establishment was welcomed by both the Minister of Foreign Affairs, South Africa, and of External Affairs, India.


How does CISA operate?

CISA has been established in line with the policies of Wits University and its Faculty of Humanities. The Dean of the Faculty of Humanities is chair of the Advisory Board.

The advisory Board includes members of civil society, the Indian business community in SA and the SA business community in India. Though neither government defines the Centre’s activities, the Indian Consul-General in Johannesburg and an official from the SA Government Department of Foreign Affairs participate in the Advisory Board ex-officio.