The HSRC and USAf honour researchers seeking to change people’s lives for the better

Published On: 14 April 2022|

Scholars who make a significant difference in the everyday lives of human beings were recognised – and rewarded – for their distinguished and often ground-breaking research.

The esteemed four winners – drawn from an impressive group of 44 research scholars around the country – were honoured at the seventh HSRC-USAf Medal for the Social Sciences and Humanities event on Tuesday night.

Up to 87 guests (57 in person and 30 online) were co-hosted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and Universities South Africa (USAf) at a ceremony themed ‘Engaged Scholarship’.  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 award is to acknowledge and celebrate the social sciences’ role in enabling understanding of societal issues. Social sciences and humanities research helps to inform policy as well as programmes to improve people’s lives.

The award was bestowed in three categories, named below, with the winners.

Established Researchers Category
Prize: R50 000

Winning researcher, Professor Deevia Bhana (left), is a National Research Foundation (NRF) B1-rated scholar and a South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) Chair in Gender and Childhood Sexuality, based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. First appointed a SARChI Chair in 2016 and renewed for a second five-year cycle in 2021, Professor Bhana’s recognition as an undisputed international leader in her field has been re-affirmed.

Her ground-breaking research — spanning education and childhood/youth studies – with particular attention to gender and sexuality studies, has led to a reconceptualisation of childhood sexualities in an emerging field on the African continent, thus contributing to global debate with significant practical value in improving children and young people’s lives.

Accepting the Established Researcher Award, Professor Bhana laughed, expressing delight that she had decided to make the trip from Durban to Pretoria for this event. “I’m so grateful. This award recognises quality and excellence and helps to build a cohort of scholars in the social sciences.”

She added that this acknowledgement encouraged research into “things that matter, in the country, on the continent and globally”.

She said she hoped her latest project, titled Reimagining Reproduction, would help grow research on reproduction, gender and sexuality on the African continent.

Her publications on childhood sexuality are considered essential reading, often used by policy makers seeking to redress structural and gender inequalities. She has published 101 peer-reviewed scientific papers, published 11 books and 41 book chapters. She has also supervised 47 master’s students, 12 PhD’s and mentored five post-doctoral fellows.

Emerging Researchers Category
Prize: R30 000

Dr Witness Maluleke (right) is a qualitative Rural Criminology researcher with an interest in agricultural crimes – specifically stock theft.  He is currently attached to the University of Limpopo (UL) as a senior lecturer in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Winning this award, he said, was a humbling experience; one that honoured his father’s memory. “I have always tried to follow in my father’s footsteps. He was a policeman who was killed during the apartheid regime, in Katlehong, Gauteng in the unrest of 1992. I was six years old. It influenced my life, my career. My father had served communities and it was what I wanted to do. So, I went into policing, and it grew from there. He would have been so proud to see me receive this award. It shows that doors will open, with hard work.” He also went on to honour his mother, who cannot write her name nor read; the hard work was not in vain.

In his chosen field of stock theft he has, between 2014 and 2021, published more than 50 accredited research articles in national and international peer-reviewed journals.

His achievements include:

  • The UL Best Overall Upcoming Researcher in the University’s 2021 Vice-Researcher’s Excellence Awards.
  • National Research Foundation (NRF) Y2 rated researcher (recognised as having the potential to establish himself as a researcher.)
  • Being selected to participate in the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) Future Professors Programme in 2021-2022.

Research Teams 
Prize R30 000

Two teams won in this category. One was the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Change (CSC) in partnership with the Human Sciences Research Council’s (HSRC) Developmental, Capable and Ethical State (DCES) division.

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 the CoVID-19 pandemic. The study was commissioned in recognition of an urgent need for rapid response social science research that could inform the response to the pandemic and understand the unfolding effects thereof, on society. The survey’s main aim was to determine public perceptions of the economic, social and political impact of CoVID-19 on people’s lives across the country.

Leaders of the HSRC-UJ research partnership that won the first team award: Professor Carin Runciman (2nd from left) and Professor Narnia Bohler-Muller. They are flanked on both sides by Professor Ahmed Bawa (far left), USAf’s CEO and Dr Phil Mjwara (far right), Director-General in the Department of Science and Innovation, who congratulated all the winners.

One of the team leaders, Professor Narnia Bohler-Muller, from the Developmental, Capable and Ethical State Research programme said it was wonderful to be recognised in this fashion. She acknowledged, however, that the intensity of the research took its toll on the team members who were utterly immersed in taking the national temperature of how South Africans were responding to all aspects of their lives during a deadly pandemic.

“Since we started in Lockdown Five, we did all the research remotely and online. I’ve only met a few of the 16-member team in person as we were spread across the country,” she said, adding that she hoped to use the R30 000 prize money to bring the team together for the first time.

The professor said that they had accumulated a body of data unlike anything South Africa has seen. The survey was adapted as the pandemic progressed.

“By late 2020, as CoVID-19 vaccines became available, we adapted the survey to include questions on CoVID-19 acceptance and hesitancy. We also adapted each round to gather more data on key issues pertinent to the time period in which the survey was conducted.”

At a certain stage they included a question on the public’s view on whether the 2021 local government elections should be postponed. Professor Bohler-Muller said: “We put everything into it. The good thing is that this research includes information that will be available forever – we have not yet begun to unpack all the data we collected,” she said.

The information gleaned from the data would, nonetheless, facilitate a better understanding and more options regarding how to do things should there be another pandemic.

Research Teams

Also winning in this category was The Africa Centre for Evidence (ACE) at UJ.

The ACE research team is ably led by an NRF-rated academic, Professor Ruth Jacqueline Stewart, who is a member of the South African Academy of Science and holds advisory roles across national and international bodies.

This team, made up of researchers from South Africa and from Cameroon, Kenya, Ghana and Uganda – to name a few countries – enables evidence-informed decisions to reduce poverty and inequality in Africa.

Accepting the award, Professor Stewart (left) was at pains to say that it was important to remember why the research was being undertaken, pointing out that 25% of “our people are hungry” and stressing that research had to make a difference.

“Our strapline is: Only together can we render evidence-informed decision making a reality. We are committed to partnerships and collaboration.”

ACE works to collate contemporary research and make it available for policy makers. In the last three years, ACE has shaped changes in South Africa’s policy development processes — ensuring routine use of the best available evidence.

Professor Heidi van Rooyen, Acting CEO at the HSRC, welcomed the guests at the ceremony and, subsequently, Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of USAf, explained the HSRC-USAf Medal for Social Sciences and Humanities research. The Director-General in the Department of Science and Innovation, Dr Phil Mjwara, delivered the congratulatory message.

USAf and the HSRC will continue to report on this event early in the coming week.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.