School of Social Sciences

Symposium on Contested Spaces: Epistemic (A)Symmetries, Mobilities, Identities

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UKZN’s School of Social Sciences in partnership with the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London, held their first joint virtual two-day symposium that comprised five panels and multiple keynote conversations on the theme, Contested Spaces: Epistemic (A)Symmetries, Mobilities, Identities.

The symposium emerged from a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between UKZN and SOAS under the guidance of acting Dean of UKZN’s School of Social Sciences Professor Vivian Ojong and the School’s Academic Leader for Research Professor Maheshvari Naidu.

Reflecting on the Symposium theme, Professor Adam Habib (SOAS Director) said, ‘While it is important to unearth knowledge from historically disadvantaged communities, we need to be open to critique and challenge. This is where universities have a crucial role to play. It is the very purpose and mission of universities to create intellectual discomfort and stand for freedom of thought, allowing us to train citizens of the 21st century who have the ability to address global challenges.’ Habib referred to Ojong and Naidu as ‘pioneers’ in the manner in which the partnership was conceived.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Humanities Professor Nhlanhla Mkhize commented, ‘This Symposium is timely and necessary. It is important to know one’s history, especially the fundamental principles of Ubuntu in order to ground the education system on the African continent.’ He added that the African language/s is central in decolonising the curriculum.

Day two was opened by Ojong and Pro-Director, Research and Enterprise at SOAS Professor Andrea Cornwall, with both describing the collaboration as one based on collegiality and mutuality.

Ojong referenced the noted human rights spokesperson who is also the President of SOAS, Dr Graca Machel and spoke on the strategic partnership and the opportunities it will create for early and mid-career scholars as well as PhDs and Post-Docs in the School. She thanked the SOAS convenors Dr Angelica Baschiera, Dr Kai Easton and Professor Wayne Dooling for their tireless work and extended her appreciation to Naidu (School of Social Sciences convener), for her oversight of strategic internationalisation in the School. Ojong recalled the early beginnings of the MoU when Naidu met with SOAS colleagues in London in November 2019.

Said Naidu, ‘This has been the culmination of a vision that began in mid-2019 when I was asked by the Dean Professor Ojong to explore potential partnerships. It has been incredibly enriching to work with the SOAS team.’

The Symposium included an array of high-profile keynote speakers such as Professors Achille Mbembe, Francis Nyamnjoh, Carolyn Hamilton, Ciraj Rassool, Paul Basu, and Desiree Lewis, and Ms Elsie Owusu. The opening address and keynote conversation was attended by approximately 440 attendees from many parts of Africa and Europe.

There were multiple stimulating presentations from the many SOAS academics who shared panels with academics from the School of Social Sciences.

In the panel on Decolonising Knowledge Production/Africanising Knowledge, Professor Paulus Zulu argued that decolonisation and Africanisation of the curriculum are problematic concepts that appeal more to political sentiment than presenting an academic discourse. Dr Monica Otu discussed the relationship between Africanisation and globalisation. Dr Awindo Okech focused on SOAS’ legacy as a colonial training site, reflecting on the risks associated with a decolonisation agenda. Dr Meera Sarabatnam examined various accounts of the structure problematic in anti-colonial thought.

In the panel on Mobility, Migration, and Diaspora Professor Kalpana Hiralal problematised female migration to Natal within a comparative framework, arguing that race, class and gender played a pivotal role in shaping and defining their everyday life in the colony. Dr Biniam Misgun examined the various modes of appropriation, invention and subordination of narratives by Ethiopian transnational migrants. Mr Onyekachi Wambu looked at Remembrance, Restitution and the 10 “Rs”: Processing the past and increasing cultural understanding of legacies of enslavement and colonialism in the African World.

In the panel discussion on Archives, Museums and Heritage as Contested Spaces of Identity, Professor Goolam Vahed discussed his paper, “Where’s Our Monument?” Commemorating Indian Indentured Labour in South Africa. ‘Since the 150th anniversary of indenture in 2010, the demand for a monument has been getting louder, due to both local and global influences,’ he said.  Dr Kai Easton looked at Curating South-North-South Itineraries based on an international travelling exhibition on the archives of J. M. Coetzee, while Dr Ettore Morelli reflected on his ongoing research on Ronald Stretton Webb, English geographer and historian.

Under the panel on COVID-19: Issues of Human Rights and Social Justice Dr Christina Kgari-Masondo looked at how the African child was affected by the sudden migration to digital teaching and learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa. Dr Janet Muthuki noted that management of this health crisis through stringent lockdown measures reinforces existing social inequalities across various spheres of life.

Dr Balungile Zondi critically analysed if the social grant was the intervention that unemployed South Africans needed from the government, while Mr Lukhona Mnguni explored the adoption of “social distancing” in the public health management of COVID-19, in and against “physical distancing”. Professor Fareda Banda focused on the development and roll out of COVID-19 vaccines and Professor Mashood Baderin reflected on whether African countries are fully prepared to promote the right to the best attainable state of health in Africa.

Attendees shared with the convenors that the several panels and the dynamic keynote conversations were both provocative and stimulating.

The two-day event was formally closed by Professors Andrea Cornwall (SOAS) and Relebohile Moletsane (UKZN) with Professors Cornwall and Ojong reminding us that the Symposium is set to be an annual event on the international calendar.

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