Scholar Activist, UJ’s Professor Ashwin Desai, wins the Established Researcher Award

Published On: 17 April 2023|

Scholar Activist, UJ’s Professor Ashwin Desai, wins the Established Researcher Award

His academic colleagues regard him as a highly renowned and well-respected scholar-activist and social scientist who has worked relentlessly to tell the story of the marginalised and the oppressed.

This is why Professor Ashwin Desai (right), Director of the Centre of Social Change at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) was honoured for having produced a considerable body of work at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and Universities South Africa (USAf) CEOs’ Awards ceremony in Pretoria last week.

This year’s theme, Social Justice, earned Professor Desai a medal (and R60 000) in the Established Researcher Category for his lifelong dedication to researching ways to view, understand and uplift the day-to-day lives of ordinary human beings. This is the first year that the lifelong achiever attribute has been added to the Established Researcher category. Another novelty in the 2023 Award was the addition of the Mid-Career Researcher category alongside the Emerging Researcher, the Established Researcher and the Team Award.

These awards, recognising research excellence in the social sciences and humanities, were introduced for the first time in 2016 by the then HSRC CEO, who said at the time: “The social sciences and humanities, alongside all other knowledge forms we have developed, are central to who we are as human beings. Alongside mathematics and what we have come to call the hard sciences, they provide us with our civilizational compasses.”

A fearless scholar

Professor Kammilla Naidoo (left), Executive Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at UJ, who nominated Professor Desai, explained why Professor Desai deserved this accolade. “Ashwin Desai is a highly renowned critical and well-respected social scientist in South Africa. He recently took over as the SARChi (South African Research Chairs Initiative) chair for Social Change, based at UJ. Before that he had spent 10 years in the university’s Sociology Department.

“He has been regarded as dynamic, forthright and fearless – anything but mainstream. He has worked relentlessly to uncover the hidden story – that of the marginalised and the oppressed. He has made tremendous intellectual contributions to local and global social justice scholarship in the area of sport, political economy, and community struggles. He has built new interpretations of where we are, politically and socially, and where we have come from.”

Social commentator

On Professor Desai’s prolific publishing history, the Dean said this scholar had produced 80 monographs, three edited books and more than 100 accredited publications. He had also published numerous newspaper articles. She added: “He is frequently on TV as a social commentator. His work is well cited, and he has high global impact. His famous book, We are the Poors – has been celebrated internationally for its sharp and analytical framing and is prescribed in many countries.”

Another of Desai’s carefully researched books deals with Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian lawyer, anti-colonial nationalist and political ethicist, renowned for his non-violence campaigns for India’s independence from British rule, who spent time in South Africa. Said Professor Naidoo: “His book, The South African Gandhi forced a rethinking of Gandhi’s South African years and sparked global debate.”

Everyday life

Professor Desai, working with contemporary biographies and unexamined archives, has upturned and revised thinking about crucial elements of the everyday experience of life in South Africa.

Professor Naidoo continued: “Through the innovative use of group biography, he grapples with how identity is formed, not just by imposition from above, but by impulses from below.

“We see this in his award-winning book, Wentworth: the Beautiful Game and the Making of Place which he published in 2019.” According to a SAGE-published book review, the story is set in Wentworth, a coloured township located in the south-east of Durban, and the passion of its people for soccer. [available via: Book review: Ashwin Desai, Wentworth: The Beautiful Game and the Making of Place – Shawn Forde, 2021 (]

“Apart from his scholarship, Professor Desai has been an activist involved in social movements. He is a sought-after scholar and intellectual activist regularly invited to interpret current events, offer critique and provide insight into grassroots sentiments. He brings to light marginalised voices, and, in this way, his public scholarship has stretched beyond the academy. We are very proud of his achievements.”

He believes in the free sharing of ideas

Professor Desai said the best thing about working in the Sociology Department was the freedom afforded to researchers to pursue the topics they cared about. “You go off and do the research then come back to the department like some old-time anthropologist – to share your views, to interact, to get some of your theories debunked. For me, that has been the highlight — this critical collegiality that has emerged spontaneously in the Sociology Department, but also in the broader Humanities faculty.”

Growing up

He grew up in the Casbah (Grey Street in inner-city Durban) which was a concrete jungle many stories high. “I was always at the bottom – as one woman told me, one of those young boys who held up corners – hanging out with people. Every day, I’d see thousands of people come into the centre of Durban, into the old Indian quarter. Even then, I had a fascination with the everyday. What did these people do? Who were they? They would get back on those buses and leave and on Sunday, the Casbah was empty. On Monday, they all came back.

“My childhood fascination now finds its resonance in the telling of stories. It is in getting people to talk that you begin to understand why they are making the decisions they are. It is how you make sense of the big narratives – how people receive these messages, how they react against structures, how they change, and how they succumb. This is at the heart of social science.”

How the genius was made

As he received the award, Professor Desai fondly remembered his mother and her desire to make him smart. “It was 1975, matric year… my mother dressed me up to go to Chatsworth High School, telling me I would be head prefect.” His mother’s face dropped when she heard he’d been made bell boy, ringing him awake with the bell he brought home, promising that she would make him a genius, shoving a copy of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night into his hand with an instruction to rote-learn the entire play.

He did, and as a result, he failed English, “…because I didn’t know about the beauty of love or the cross-dressing of Malvolio.” Despite that, Professor Desai was one of the first black students to be admitted into Rhodes University.

“This award, for me, is magnificent and beautiful. My mother is dead,” he said, adding, nonetheless, the importance of honouring parents by telling their stories, and how necessary it is to keep memories going.

Congratulations in order

Professor Heidi van Rooyen (left, below), the Group Executive at the HSRC’s Impact Centre, congratulated Professor Desai for winning this category, saying: “Halala halala Professors Ashwin Desai, Saleem Badat (Free State University) and Malose Langa (University of the Witwatersrand). We take a bow to your scholarship, committed to the rigorous pursuit of knowledge and truth, academic freedom, intellectual autonomy, and advancing knowledge in and through the arts, humanities and social sciences.

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.

“We acknowledge your contributions as social commentators and activists who focus on oppression and resistance, uncover hidden and contested histories utilising the lens of everyday life to tell these stories.

“We see the meticulous and careful way you throw a spotlight on social structures, policies, and actions that sustain inequalities and injustice in society; the way in which your work talks to how these are reproduced. We see how you dig into and try and unearth strategies to address these. We take heart in your work that seeks to eradicate poverty and violence, which shows how these undermine social cohesion and social justice,” Professor van Rooyen said.

She added that the Established Researchers category “gave us the impression of top-class athletes at the top of their game, oozing class and style at their skill and accomplished ways.”

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.