Social science research kept South Africans informed during the pandemic

05-05-22 V4 Creative Support 0 comment

The research of engaged scholars in the social sciences and humanities kept government, and South Africans, abreast of the trajectory of the pandemic.

Dr Phil Mjwara (left), Director General in the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), said this recently, in reference to scholars who were being honoured for their groundbreaking research at the seventh HSRC-USAf Medal for the Social Sciences and Humanities event. In audience were 87 guests at the event themed ‘Engaged Scholarship’, which was hosted by the Human Sciences Research Council in partnership with Universities South Africa during early April. 

The medal is awarded annually to scholars who have made outstanding contributions to scholarship in the social sciences and humanities through their research.

The aim of the awards is to acknowledge and celebrate the social sciences’ role in facilitating an understanding of societal issues. The research also helps inform policies and programmes aimed at improving people’s lives. In his congratulatory address, Dr Mjwara acknowledged the work done by the four esteemed winners – drawn from a group of 44 research scholars around the country.

The five honoured winners included Professor Deevia Bhana (left above), National Research Foundation’s B1-rated scholar and a South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) Chair in Gender and Childhood Sexuality, based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.  She won in the Established Researchers Category.  Her ground-breaking research has contributed to international fields of study spanning education and childhood/youth studies – with particular attention to gender and sexuality studies. 

Dr Witness Maluleke (right above), a qualitative ‘Rural Criminologist’ researcher with an interest in stock theft crime who won in the Emerging Researchers Category.  He is currently attached to the University of Limpopo (UL) as a senior lecturer in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. 

In the Research Teams category, two teams won.  The first was the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ’s) Centre for Social Change (CSC) in partnership with the Human Sciences Research Council’s (HSRC) Developmental, Capable and Ethical State (DCES) division. Co-led by Professors Carin Runciman (left above) and Professor Narnia Bohler-Muller, this team has, since April 2020, been conducting an ongoing cross-sectional survey among adults living in South Africa to determine the social and economic impact of CoVID-19. 

The survey’s main aim was to determine public perceptions of the economic, social and political impact of CoVID-19 on life in general, across the country. It was recognised that there was an urgent need for social science research that could inform the response to the pandemic and understand its effects on society. 

Also winning in the Research Teams category was The Africa Centre for Evidence (ACE) at UJ. The ACE research team is led by an NRF-rated academic, Professor Ruth Stewart (left), a member of the South African Academy of Science who holds advisory roles across national and international bodies.  This team uses evidence-informed decisions to reduce poverty and inequality in Africa.

Dr Mjwara told the audience that at the beginning of the pandemic, a team of science advisory ministers was assembled to advise government, and the president, on how to manage this pandemic. The DG said there were deep implications for society as well as the economy. 

Social scientists as advisors during the pandemic

“The Minister tasked me with putting together a team that we could use to gather the knowledge needed to provide the advice that many of you saw as announcements.”

Dr Mjwara said social scientists provided excellent advice and their viewpoint was considered by decision makers high up in government.  “That is what engaged scholars do,” he said.

The DG went on to say that whether South Africans liked it or not, geopolitics going forward would not be the same. “A reset button has been pushed and we are already seeing signs of what this will mean, globally and for us. People talk about 4IR – I don’t think we fully understand what this means to society. But, I am grateful that we have identified some priorities within the system. The transition will have huge implications for society.”

As an example, he cited the shutting down of coal power stations in Mpumalanga, saying that people might not want to imagine what that means, but that it could be part of a just transition. “The future of society? We don’t know what that means. There are huge issues going forward. We must turn to the social scientists and the humanities to try and understand what this means.”

He said he hoped the winners would work with the NRF and his department (DSI) to ensure that South Africa has an engaged society. “As a scientist, one of my projects that I’d like to do when I retire, in a year, is to take all the masters and PhD theses of all universities and ask what they mean? 

DSI Imbali Pilot Project

The DG said Minister Nzimande had asked for a pilot project in a place called Imbali in Pietermaritzburg where two high schools, one TVET College and a campus of the Durban University of Technology can be found in one precinct. “On one side of Imbali is a range of industries that are being shut down. On the other is the Imbali community that is not doing well.”

He said they had asked the HSRC to investigate how higher education institutions could be part of the transformation of this area; how social change could be implemented through knowledge institutions in the area.  Referring to the United States’ east coast city, Boston, as a benchmark of success in another country, he said: “Don’t be surprised by the progress that has happened in that area. If you look at the knowledge institutions that are there – like MIT (Massachusetts institute of Technology, a private research university) – they have transformed Boston.”  He said the same went for California and other parts of the US. 

In summary, Dr Mjwara said knowledge institutions played a crucial role in transforming society.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa