Reconfiguring the knowledge project by adopting a human-centric approach

Published On: 14 April 2022|

The changing world we live in – where movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter, alongside campaigns like Fees Must Fall – call for a radical reshaping of the knowledge project. The need for an emphasis on the social sciences and humanities has never been greater, said Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of Universities South Africa (USAf) last week.

He was addressing the 87 guests who were gathered to witness academics being honoured for their outstanding research at the seventh HSRC-USAf Medal for the Social Sciences and Humanities event, last Tuesday. The ceremony was hosted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in partnership with USAf.

Speaking to the theme of the evening, Engaged Scholarship, Professor Bawa (left) stressed that there was an urgent need for engagement – with community, society, industry and government. “This might seem nonsensical, coming from a theoretical physicist who works in elementary particle physics. But, while it might still be important for us to work in esoteric areas like analytic philosophy or maths analysis, the core of our activities must be around issues of engagement.”

The theme, Engaged Scholarship, was not randomly chosen as a ‘nice to have’ but rather to help highlight thoughts around the future of South Africa’s knowledge project.

Professor Heidi van Rooyen, Acting CEO at the HSRC, echoed Professor Bawa’s sentiments. In her welcome address, she used the pandemic to illustrate how new ways of thinking were necessary in this era.

Referring to the loadshedding-related technical glitches that marred the hybrid event and left many virtual participants unable to join the ceremony, she said CoVID had taught us to ‘roll with the punches’. She added that the pandemic had upended things and taught us much about who we are, both as human beings as well as about how we work.

“It has taken so much too, in terms of the lives that have been lost, illness, death, mortality, morbidity. It has fundamentally shifted, in the most negative way, the way the world is. But it has also given us a lot of opportunity. For me, one of the greatest gifts of this different world is that we must show up in a different way and open ourselves up to that difference, to the possibilities.

“We have the ability to see each other much more as human beings than we did before,” Professor van Rooyen (left) said.

Talking about challenges with Zoom meetings, she laughingly related a story of trying to have a serious meeting with a colleague whose body-proud, bare-torso son was in the background embarrassing his mother. “We laughed about it. CoVID has given us that sense of humanity; that we are so many things – work selves, but also mothers, fathers and grandfathers. CoVID has taught us to have compassion for each other.”

“The topic of Engaged Scholarship feels important at this time because CoVID has taught us to question who we are and how we are. It is also asking very different questions of us, as scientists, and of us in the social sciences and humanities.” She said nothing could be taken for granted anymore. The ‘old ways’ of doing things – designing questions, doing the research, popping out results and expecting policy makers use it – needed revisiting.

“Engaged scholarship is asking us to think differently about our practice; about those questions we shape; for whom, with whom. We need to rethink our outputs, our citations, our papers; we need to think of broader ways of disseminating and making accessible what we do.”

Professor van Rooyen stressed the importance of these awards that recognised excellence, but also encouraged more participation.

What inspired the HSRC-USAf partnership and the Engaged Scholarship theme

Professor Bawa, saying it was a pleasure for USAf to share this occasion with the HSRC again, remembered how it began. An initial meeting with the then HSRC CEO, Professor Crain Soudien, and the USAf team, raised areas of intersection between the two organisations and the research medal project “leapt out at us”.

Providing the context behind the choice of the evening’s theme, Professor Bawa said

at the end of 2021, USAf held a Higher Education conference titled The Engaged University.  Adding that it would be fair to ask what prompted that conference topic, the USAf CEO told this story.

“In October 2016 – I had just arrived at USAf. Eighteen of our universities were at a standstill, with the other eight teetering on the edge of collapse. This was during the Fees must Fall / Rhodes Must fall campaigns.

“The conversation was around whether the universities should be shut down; we finally decided not to shut down. Something struck me that night: there was absolutely no defence of the university system. Not from government; not from industry; not from communities, not from students, not from staff. There was absolutely no defence of the university.

“The only people who were struggling were the administrators of the universities. It struck me that the social ownership of our universities had been completely eroded.”

Out of this came his conversation with the HSRC’s Professor Soudien and his team, and from that, the focus was placed on engaged scholarship.

But Professor Bawa believes there is not enough collaboration among the different elements of the South African science system.

Saying that he was pleased with the pairing of USAf and the HSRC, he noted that there was no similar relationship with, for example, the CSIR. Referring to the collaboration with the HSRC he said: “This is about engaged scholarship in the social sciences and humanities.  The HSRC is central to this as it is a humanities and social science enterprise. “But we also need to speak to the centrality of the role of the humanities and social sciences in the South African system.”

Integration of knowledge is crucial

He told a story of an Indian chemist and Chair of the Indian National Science and Technology Committee in 1956, who posed a question nine years after India’s independence. “He asked: why is it that the great promise we had that science would lead us to development, to a better quality of life, has not come to pass?

“The centrality of that question to developmental societies around the world has to do with the fact that we’ve adopted a closed sight approach to development. We have not integrated, as much as we could, issues that should be addressed by humanities and social sciences. There is a need to wind these together in producing developmental plans.”

The White Paper produced last year, he said, dealt with just this issue. “We are asking what we can do to galvanise science in the more general sense to lead to better outcomes, to more human centred developmental trajectories.

“There is the need for much higher levels of integration.” Professor Bawa also told a story of how particle physicists, like himself, have tons of knowledge about the fundamental particles of nature, which make up everything in the universe.  “But if you said to us, here’s a bundle of quarks and gluons and electrons, please will you build a proton, we’d have no idea how to do it. We are extremely good at reductionism but hopeless at integration. It seems that’s a huge lesson for us to consider.”

Ethical Engagement

Professor Bawa added: “We are sitting at a moment in our history where we are recovering from huge levels of corruption, poor behaviour in business and by government officials.

“There is a dramatically important role for the humanities and social sciences to play in producing a new generation of young people who are ethical and engaged.” He said it was becoming increasingly clear that it is not enough for universities just to produce engineers, or physicists or medical practitioners. They must have an infusion of the humanities to provide them with broader perspectives.


He identified as one of the challenges that emerged between 2015 and 2017, the issue of decolonisation. “We must think about decolonising the entire knowledge system. For me, it ties back to engagement. It is about asking whether we can focus our knowledge production systems on producing knowledge about the issues that really matter to people and industry in South Africa.”

Referring again to integration, he raised the question of how to bring the physicist to bear on challenges facing society.  “The 4th issue is around the new technology moment we are in. Some call it 4IR, but it is risky to call it 4IR – soon it will be 5IR then 6IR…

“So let’s call this a period of intense shift in the use of digital technologies. We must remind ourselves that there are massive impacts of this moment on humanity. It is not just about asking whether we can develop an approach to this 4IR / new technology moment that will galvanise the economy. To do that, we’d better be sure that we don’t produce more unemployment.”

Professor Bawa, who announced that this was his last awards ceremony as he is retiring this year, said that the awards were important and necessary. “They are necessary for encouraging the role of humanities and social sciences, for encouraging integration and thinking publicly about engagement as something around which to hang our knowledge production system.”

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa