Engaged scholarship should be driven by service and purpose, a visiting scholar declares

Published On: 14 April 2022|

Authenticity, intellectual and moral integrity, radical empathy and compassion are the qualities it takes to be an “engaged scholar”. As Africa and the world exit from the current CoVID pandemic and crisis, engaged scholarship must characterise all research.

These remarks were made by Dr Tade Akin Aina (right), Research Head at Mastercard Foundation, when delivering a keynote address at the seventh HSRC-USAf Medal for the Social Sciences and Humanitiesceremony last week Tuesday.  This was the event where five researchers were recognised and rewarded for their outstanding work as part of a now set tradition within the HSRC.

Dr Aina’s talk, presented virtually from New York to 87 guests, was themed Engaged Scholarship. The event was hosted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), which, since 2021, is partnering with Universities South Africa (USAf) on this project.

Talking of moral necessity, Dr Aina was adamant: “There are no natural choices in our pathways to human well being, social transformation and justice. We must make choices. And, to do this, as engaged scholars, we must examine ourselves,” he told the audience.

Questions that must be asked

He continued: “We must ask ourselves some important questions: Engagement for whom? We can be engaged with those who are dominant and with the sources of our oppression. We can be engaged to powerful forces — those who can always pay the piper.”

Another set of questions needed to be asked, he said: Engagement for what and to what end? Are we engaged with the goals and needs of the most powerful in society? Are we engaged with the desires and aspirations of the privileged?  Are we driven by calls and pressures to eliminate poverty, want, disease, injustice and all forms of inequity and oppression?

“What kind of change and impact do we want to see happen? Is it to see the concrete and significant improvement in the lives and livelihoods of our people; their access to healthcare, to education, stronger food systems, access to greater understanding and autonomous knowledge and decision making in terms of what matters to them in their lives? This, to me is the heart of engagement.”

Privileged to be among five distinguished medallists

Dr Aina said he was honoured to be able to celebrate the achievements of the five distinguished medallists, all of them engaged scholars on the social sciences and humanities arena.

From left, Professor Deevia Bhana from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, who won in the Established Researchers category; Professor Ruth J Stewart from the University of Johannesburg (UJ), whose research team won in the Team Awards alongside Professors Narnia Bohler-Muller and Carin Runciman, whose research team represents a partnership between the HSRC and UJ. Dr Witness Maluleke, from the University of Limpopo, won in the Emerging Researchers category.

“I salute the medallists across the different categories; I rejoice with you at the recognition of your excellence and commitment to scholarship as service and stewardship toward community, to society, to nations and, indeed, to humanity.” There was no better time in the current history of the continent to begin to pay attention to a life of scholarship guided and driven by service and purpose, Dr Aina said.

He stressed that that kind of scholarship is not indulgent and self-serving, or defined by aesthetics of knowledge that sees scholarship as a good and an end in and by itself. “In the world we live in today, particularly in Africa, that position and posture on scholarship will be both an unaffordable luxury and a spectacularly hedonistic self-indulgence.”


He said the past two years (from 2020) had demonstrated how fragile and vulnerable the political and economic models, health systems and civic structures that most nations of Africa – and the modern contemporary world – were operating with.

“In these two years, more than any in recent times, humanity has been confronted with a perfect storm of crisis – expressed in the occurrence of a global pandemic, several economic downturns, widespread civic unrest, political strife, wars and ecological disasters and climate crises such as wildfires, earthquakes, severe hurricanes, tornadoes, locusts, floods and other pest invasions.

“At the same time, we’ve seen the accentuation of 4IR through the massive growth in technological breakthroughs.”

He said this was evident in the integration of the different scientific disciplines in areas such as information communication technologies, molecular medicine and genetics. Included in his list were the humanities – in terms of indigenous knowledge and the application of this across disciplines through super computers and the rise of the digital revolution.

“4IR brought the world of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning, software development, algorithms and coding into our routine ordinary world of work. And yet we cannot operate with any of this if we do not have a set of values, a set of beliefs, a set of ideologies, a sense of how we give meaning to the world we live in.”

Dr Aina said in this same period there had been a significant breakthrough in terms of the make-up and speedy response to the CoVID-19 pandemic. “Of course, we’ve seen the inequity and inequality of access and distribution worldwide. In short, the past two years have demonstrated both the fragility, vulnerability and inequities of our human civilisation and, simultaneously, its potential for resilience, opportunity, invention and creativity.”


The complex articulation of crises and disasters, he insisted, provided unique opportunities for re-imagination, reinvention and co-creation, something seen throughout the world.

“One cannot overemphasise the role of the humanities in this process. These opportunities and the impact they embody can only be realised by the renewal of a transformative and inclusive leadership built on a willingness to adapt and adopt relevant knowledge, and to provide both intellectual and governance breathing space. That knowledge’s fruits and products can only arise through disciplined, focused and relentless engaged scholarship.”

Never let a crisis go to waste

Acknowledging that Africa has been through a trying period, Dr Aina said it was not all doom and gloom. Using the phrase ‘never let a crisis go to waste,’ he said this period provided an opportunity to re-imagine, rebuild and transform. Adding that he did not want to spend too much time on the diagnostics of the direction of this complex set of crises, Dr Aina said there was ample literature on the subject.

He noted that this pandemic has been one of the most studied clinical health and social and economic conditions.

Lessons derived from the pandemic era

Exploring the lessons learnt from the crisis, or as he puts it, “these recent years of struggle and collective trials and pain.”

  • Lesson One
    According to Dr Aina, the current social economic and political systems, built on individualistic market-driven models, are not sufficiently crisis sensitive and crisis resilient.  “We need to rebuild our economies and societies, and our health and education systems on foundations that integrate solidarity with transparent competition, productivity with collective care, conventional western knowledge with indigenous knowledge systems and, of course, the commitment to the advancement of the collective common and public good.”
  • Lesson Two
    Partnerships and collaborations matter. Dr Aina points to the innovations that have been produced in record time. He also refers to the way that governments have supported the private sector and business. “We’ve seen this in families, communities and civil society groups that have provided succour and solidarity and support to those in need. “Thus, we know that the key element of our resilience came from partnerships and collaborations; from our social and cultural networks.”
  • Lesson Three
    Knowledge matters.  The humanities; social sciences – all sciences: Dr Aina says that all knowledge deployed seriously and effectively, and arising from different knowledge systems, matters. He believes that the solutions to our health, economic and climate change problems must counteract conspiracy theories and the peddling of untruths.He says: “I detest the notion of fake news and especially the term ‘fake news’ because of its politicisation and the fact that it’s mostly used in the hands of the peddlers of untruths. Disciplined knowledge is the most effective weapon against economic, social, cultural and ecological crises.”
  • Lesson Four
    Context matters. Local communities are central to the understanding and delivery of transformation and the development of services.
  • Lesson Five
    Communities, people and citizens matter because they are the agents and subjects of social contracts, of solidarity and of civic order. He says: “Every state, every government — at whatever level – must acknowledge the mandate of their constitution and must respond to guarantee citizens safety, security and well being. Otherwise, state and society descend into civil unrest and social strife.”
  • Lesson Six
    Dr Aina says we live in a globalised world. Viruses and disease, floods and climate crises, locusts and drought do not respect national boundaries.  “Therefore, international and regional collaborations strengthen our difference in times of crisis and in times of shock.”

In summation

His summary: “We have learnt that the economy and economic growth matter, but do not suffice. We live in a world of connected and interdependent systems. Social development and sustainable development must be combined with economic development to enhance human wellbeing and long-term sustainability.”

Dr Aina says that when the overall system is resilient and strong and sustainable, it can withstand all systemic shocks – economic, political and ecological. It is his view that all these lessons define how we proceed “as people, as nations, as communities, as leaders, as scholars and as citizens to reconstruct and transform our economies, politics, health and education systems and societies.”

Yet another question that the Research Head at Mastercard Foundation raised was: “What are the implications of the crisis for the engaged scholar?

By way of answer, he said: “Lets start with this: what is engaged scholarship in Africa? We hear of it in the humanities and the social sciences from the perspective of the Gramscian organic intellectual, intricately connected to social or political movements that want systemic change and transformation.

“…Even our universities acknowledge three pillars of the academy as teaching, research and public service. There is implicit common understanding that the scholar lives in some concrete, lived context with others in society and not in splendid isolation in some distant desert hermitage,” Dr Aina summed up.

His perspective

He believes that engaged scholarship arises out of a confrontation or engagement with the fundamental needs, problems, values and questions of the context in societies. “It is this that interrogates our conditions of existence with material and non-material challenges and explores our relationships – power relationships, power dynamics – and the connections between ourselves.”

Our institutions, he believes, are collective visions and aspirations and that scholarship accounts for “the state of our being and becoming as we aspire and strive to build better lives and livelihoods and improve individual and collective well-being”.

For Dr Aina, neither the contents of our conditions of existence, nor our pathways to whatever we define as wellbeing, are neutral and innocent.

They are, he says, often contested based on our vested interests, convictions, beliefs and identities.

His conclusion: The choices we make are often not based on reason and knowledge alone but on the configuration of several factors.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa