“Growing up in apartheid South Africa deeply shaped my political consciousness” – 5in10 with Scarlett Cornelissen

Scarlett Cornelissen is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Stellenbosch University (South Africa) where she lectures on international relations, global governance, and foreign policy analysis. She holds a PhD from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, an MA in international studies from Stellenbosch (South Africa), and a BA from the University of Cape Town (South Africa). Her research mainly relates to changing dynamics in Africa’s political economy and the continent’s international relations. She has worked on the topic of Japan’s aid, diplomatic and corporate ties with Africa for nearly two decades, and in recent years she has extended that interest to explore emerging relationships between Africa and other Asian powers. 

What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?

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Scarlett Cornelissen (Photo: Swen Reichhold/Universität Leipzig)

I grew up in apartheid South Africa, which was – to say the least – a very strange place. But that distinctive history of South Africa, the unique experience of the negotiated and largely peaceful transition, and the leaders’ attempts to craft a new state and nation, were all things that deeply shaped my political consciousness and inspired a passion for the study of political societies. For me there are always questions of inequality, justice, and power to uncover in any study about political systems and about the world. In the context of today’s South Africa, for instance, it’s important to keep on asking difficult and challenging questions about the nature of the state and the state’s relationship with its society, in order to ensure that the political vision set at the time of the transition is indeed achieved.

How would you explain your current research to a stranger in an elevator?

My current research, in a word, tries to understand what kinds of interactions there are between the African and Asian regions within a context of globalization and rapid change in both regions. It is often said that this is the Asian century, given the growing economic power of states like China, but also South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, and so forth. It is also clear that many of these Asian powers are engaging more intensively with African states through investments, trade, and diplomacy, and we are further seeing the phenomenon of Asian migrants settling in Africa and Africans settling in various parts of Asia. What do all these new trends mean? How do they impact African political economies? How do African and Asian communities encounter each other and what sorts of social spaces are arising? These are some of the questions underpinning my research.

In the summer semester 2015, Scarlett Cornelissen was appointed the Leibniz Professor in the Leibniz Programme of the Research Academy at the University of Leipzig. During her time in Leipzig, she worked on a project related to her research on Asia-Africa relations and contributed actively to the academic life. Among others, she co-taught a postgraduate course on cultural transfers and world order and gave two lectures, her Leibniz Professorship inaugural lecture on “Asia in the African Scholarly Imaginary” and a guest lecture in the colloquium series of the Global and European Studies Institute on the higher education sector in South Africa and postdoctoral career paths.

As the most recent Leibniz Professor at the Research Academy of the University of Leipzig, what were your first impressions and what has been the greatest surprise following your arrival?

The University of Leipzig is a highly dynamic environment and the time at the Research Academy has been extremely stimulating. I’ve enjoyed in particular the chance to interact with scholars from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds either affiliated with the Research Academy or with other research centres, such as the Institute of Anthropology. The Centre for Area Studies’ public colloquium and seminar series offers an excellent platform for lectures by renowned scholars from all over Germany and the world, and it’s been fascinating to attend the seminars. And Leipzig is clearly a city on the move. I’ve enjoyed exploring the city’s cultural richness.

What are the fields you are currently working on and how has Leipzig in this respect been beneficial?

My current research principally looks at the political economy of Japanese industry in Africa, although I explore this against the larger dynamics of industrial change within East Asia, which therefore also requires an understanding of China and South Korea. Being at the University of Leipzig has been quite useful because I’ve been able to tap into the university’s rich documentary and other resources on East Asia. I’ve therefore spent much time in the Oriental studies library, among others. Further, there are important debates underway at Leipzig about the nature and value of area studies, which have been useful for my own understanding about the future of Asian studies in the African context.

You taught a joint seminar with Professor Matthias Middell (Global and European Studies Institute, University of Leipzig) on world orders and cultural transfers. What is your impression of the students here in Leipzig and what do you think about your teaching experience?

I find the students in the global studies and area studies programmes to be of high calibre indeed – they are engaged and enthusiastic about their studies and have strong educational backgrounds. It’s therefore been a pleasure to interact with the students. Given their multiple geographical origins, the students have diverse viewpoints on matters of cultural influences, world order, and global change, which enliven discussions and certainly make classes very interesting.

Stellenbosch and Leipzig universities are bound by a long-standing partnership. When comparing the two, where do you see similarities and where is productive divergence that may inspire future cooperation?

Leipzig and Stellenbosch universities have both pursued internationalization policies over the past decade or so, and both seem to have utilized certain strategic resources quite effectively. These include things such as optimizing regional location, which has enabled both institutions to activate strong regional networks, the clever use of institutional heritages as marketing tools, and optimizing existing intellectual assets to position the university more prominently nationally and internationally. Of course, the partnership between Leipzig and Stellenbosch can be viewed as an outcome of the internationalization strategies of both. It is interesting that the two institutions have built up different partner networks on the African continent. In the future, the two universities can explore how to link their divergent African networks, perhaps in the form of trilateral or multilateral partnerships centred on joint research and/or postgraduate training.


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