An academic, intellectual activist and social justice crusader wins an award for his research

Published On: 17 April 2023|

An academic, intellectual activist and social justice crusader wins an award for his research

Dr Vishwas Satgar has been a social justice warrior all his life; even his students think they are part of this associate professor’s crusade to end the ills of society and create a free, fair, and just world for all. Dr Satgar teaches International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand.

The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and Universities South Africa (USAf) acknowledged Dr Satgar’s commitment to ending hunger, fighting climate change and securing a safer, better future for us all by honouring him with the CEOs’ award in Pretoria last Thursday, 13 April. He was counted among scholars who have made outstanding contributions to the social sciences and humanities through their research.

Dr Satgar, 53 (above), received a trophy and R40 000 for winning in the Mid-Career Researcher category.

During his acceptance speech, he explained that he came to the academy late in life, at the age of 40. Before that, he had served as the Gauteng Secretary of the South African Communist Party. He had also led a grassroots NGO, The Cooperative and Policy Alternative Centre (COPAC) where he worked in township communities promoting cooperatives, sustainable local manufacturing, people’s housing, and local food economies.

Social Justice Theme

This year’s theme for the Humanities and Social Sciences Research was Social Justice, According to the HSRC, the adjudication panel identified innovative research projects centred around social justice theories and practice, and which were aimed at achieving transformative impact in communities – socially and scientifically.

Over 30 nominations were received for this year’s awards, which were presented in four categories: Emerging Researcher (R30 000), Established Researcher (R60 000), and Research Team (R40 000) and Mid-Career Researcher (R40 000).

Dr. Satgar was selected, amongst other achievements, for his editorship of the Democratic Marxism series (currently seven volumes), his research project on Emancipatory Futures Studies in the Anthropocene and his research contributions to ending hunger through food sovereignty, including co-founding the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and the Climate Justice


Professor Garth Stevens (left), Deputy Vice-Chancellor for People Development and Culture, endorsed Professor Satgar’s nomination saying: “Vish, as we know him, has worked in three areas of social justice that involved research, theory development and application, but also in public intellectual work too.

“Vish is the principal investigator on the Emancipatory Futures Studies in the Anthropocene… a Melon Foundation-funded project that began in 2019 and will run for five years. His research is built on the idea of the Polycrisis (a cluster of related global risks with compounding effects, such that the overall impact exceeds the sum of each part).

“He uses the Polycrisis to think about the need for systemic alternatives especially to achieve social and climate justice. Through the project, he’s affirmed the idea that the subaltern, the marginal — to use Frantz Fanon’s idea of “The Wretched of the Earth” — indeed have a voice. They can think and act in ways that imagine and construct a different world free from injustice and oppression.”

Professor Stevens added that Dr Satgar was the co-founder of the SA Food Sovereignty Campaign – which was established in 2014 as part of a national dialogue on the hunger crisis that faces South Africans.

Food Sovereignty

“Through his academic positioning, he has brought the idea of food sovereignty into the mainstream of the university. By securing 8000 signatures he has also secured a site of dignity – a space for everything from eco demonstration, food sovereignty solidarity… a space for students to share when they’ve needed to share.”

His students enthused about their teacher. Here are some of the comments:

“Prof gets his students involved in his social justice movement. We attend his meetings as students. As much as our course is about reading and critical analysis and building theories – like any other university course – he wants us to learn and makes us talk to decision-makers, trade unionists — people who are changing policy.

“The course feels like I’m with friends ranting about things I’m passionate about. Prof is very passionate. I love it when he gets angry at the system and goes off.” He conducts his courses from his own knowledge and his own practice. He has lived experience. He’s not coming from a place of just studying. He has worked in activism. He’s done projects that seek to take us to an emancipatory future. The studies are based on fundamental actions of his. That’s why it feels so grounded.”

Tides of history

In his acceptance speech, an emotional Dr Satgar quoted renowned pan-Africanist, Kwame Nkrumah, who said: Thought without action is empty. Action without thought is blind.

“I never planned to be an academic but realised that thinking Marxism is not part of the mainstream of the South African academy. Coming from the national liberation struggle, my ambition was to be like Chris Hani – to serve the masses. The tides of history have brought me to where I am.”

Dr Satgar told the audience that sociologists usually work with two-by-two tables and they have a classificatory system about intellectuals and professional academics, categorising them as ‘critical ones, policy ones, public intellectual ones, and traditional ones.’

Dr Cassius Lubisi (left), Chairperson of the
HSRC, congratulates Dr Satgar for his

“I think we need to think about professional intellectual academics regarding how they relate to knowledge. There are those who produce knowledge that continues exploitation and oppression; those who extract knowledge for their careers, those who speak to the ignorant masses from the summit of their enlightenment, and those who respect the collective intellectuality of society.”

He referred to the works of the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci and German philosopher Karl Marx who recognised that knowledge production was relational and that the background conditions of intellectual practice had to be foregrounded.

On the Democratic Marxism Series, he said there was only one other project like it in the global south; the subaltern studies project about people’s history in India. “I put the Democratic Marxism project together for two reasons: my generation wanted to renew Marxism in the process of our democratic transition. We were excited that messianic Marxism, Leninism and Trotskyism was over. The Communist Party chose Zuma. I chose renewal.

Disservice to students

“I was shocked when I came to the university. I had encounters with identity politics, particularist histories, and discursive notions of the subject and felt that we were doing a disservice in terms of training the next generation of intellectuals in this country without giving them a critical grasp of capitalism and how it relates to the big issues of our time, the Polycrisis. That is one of the reasons why this project was conceived.

“I want to thank all those who committed to this project to pluralise Marxism; those on the frontline of climate justice activism in the world that have contributed to thinking in this series.”

He thanked those standing up against xenophobia in our own country; the feminists who have contributed to the Marxist serie, and Wits Press which has supported the series for 10 years.

“Regarding Emancipatory Futures Studies – the subaltern being able to think, imagine, anticipate and engage in world making – my research and work started before the academy. Waste pickers taught me about zero waste.” He said an essential basket of goods for a woman-headed household was R4900. “Most households cannot feed themselves in this country. We have an uncaring society. So, the work we’ve done and the case we’ve made for food sovereignty is very important.

“Climate famines are around the corner and we have to take this issue seriously. I want to thank the Human Rights Commission for mainstreaming this in our hunger tribunal as well as the leading climate scientists who translate the international science and its urgency for us.

“The climate crisis is here. I invite all of you in the academy to mainstream the climate emergency in research, institutional change, and pedagogy.”

Different joy brought to the judges

Dr Oliver Seale (far right) is the Director: Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme at USAf. He stood in for, and spoke on behalf of the USAf CEO at the Awards ceremony.

Professor Heidi van Rooyen (left, above), the Group Executive at the HSRC’s Impact Centre said: “Mid-career and emerging categories brought the judging panel a different kind of joy. They reminded us that in the midst of stage six loadshedding, corruption, rising interest rates, and food insecurity, there is hope; that this country is in good hands with the researchers of this calibre, whose work and concerns are rooted in social justice.”

Finalists in this category were Professor Luke Sinwell, University of Johannesburg and Dr Alude Mahali, HSRC.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.