Jen Whittingham reports back on a seminar held at UCT on 16 November 2017.

Amidst ongoing debates surrounding decolonisation within our academic institutions, this timely conversation was the start of a constructive and reflexive dialogue to think anew about knowledges and the importance of interrogating and transforming our research approaches and methods. This report seeks to be a synthesis and a record of the ideas and themes that arose during the seminar that can be taken forward as we continue the conversation. The seminar was a chance to widen the conversation beyond the university and to involve groups involved in collaborative projects with universities, especially in the bio-economy and agroecology domains.

We gathered on top of blankets, under trees in the Secret Garden at UCT. We became familiar with each other and set our intentions for the day ahead, as the hum of traffic lingered behind us; connecting over our collective questions regarding the messiness of social research. It was clear that we may have the answers on paper, and neat-looking ethics codes and processes, but challenges can arise quickly and chaos can ensue when we get to work. Though what is clear is that it helps to have conversations, to deepen our understandings, to build our own practices. This seminar provided the space for us to ignite these necessary conversations.


Rachel Wynberg, Bio-economy Research Chair and Associate Professor, EGS, UCT
Rachel Wynberg welcomed participants, emphasising that the discussions were timely, connecting very strongly with calls to decolonise not only the curricula at UCT but also the way in which we do research and engage with groups outside of the university. This is especially the case in landscapes where histories of apartheid and colonialism have left formidable traces. Our work on environmental and social justice adds further layers to the way in which we interrogate and critique our research practice. While we might think that we have the answers on paper, and neat-looking ethics codes and processes, things get messy and personally challenging when we get to work.

We need to grapple with important questions about how we deal with different degrees of power, knowledge and ignorance; how we accommodate the enormous richness of different knowledges and cultures in ways that are respectful and open- minded; how we navigate unpredictable or conflict situations; how we justify the time we ask of research participants, the expectations research raises, the intrusions into peoples’ lives, the social impact of research interventions; how we resolve the paradox of being both inside a process – or ‘standing with’ as Kim Tallbear describes it – and simultaneously outside and detached, the so-called neutral researcher; and what, in fact, is the ultimate purpose of doing research – and for whose benefit?

Many of us have struggled to different degrees with these questions, and the one universal truth is that there are no obvious answers. What is clear is that it helps to have the conversations, to deepen our understandings, to build our own practices. The seminar is hopefully a part of that process.

Frank Matose, Associate Professor, Sociology, UCT
In order to approach the subject of decolonising research, Frank Matose started our conversation by talking about knowledge. What is it? How is it made? Whose knowledge counts? And where does it come from? Asking these questions to ourselves, to each other, and to our institutions is imperative if we are to acknowledge the implicit power dynamics construct the research space.

He questioned the normative term of ‘knowledge generation’ and asked us “is knowledge rather not created from within?” This introduced an on-going theme of collaboration and creation with communities, rather than imposing pre-determined research objectives upon them that come from outside i.e. from the university.
Integral to meaningful collaboration is placing emphasis upon the research process in addition to research outcomes. A commitment to process means that we must be prepared to take time to build relationships and expect the unexpected, for research processes are subject to human processes.

In the past, many communities in South Africa have been subject to degrading and inequitable research practices. As researchers, we must acknowledge that we carry this burden and instead of perpetuating existing patterns of inequality, must seek to be agents of change. To do this, we must “start with the self” and understand if our research practices transform and redistribute power or further entrench colonial visions.

Sophie Oldfield, Professor, African Centre for Cities, UCT
Sophie Oldfield noted that scholars working in ‘the urban’ space rarely engage with questions regarding ethics. This seminar provided the chance to consolidate such questions and bring together researchers working in both rural and urban settings.

She then gave an overview of her new book, “High Stakes, High Hopes: Creating Collaborative Urban Geographies in South Africa”. Sophie explored the question of what is at stake in a partnership between an academic institution and a township, grappling with evictions, legacies of apartheid and forced to fight for every right, service, and resource. What happens to teaching when student learning and assessment moves out of the classroom onto township streets and into ordinary people’s households? And what unfolds differently when university practices of research and assessments are infused in township realities and commitments? Also raised during the presentation was the ongoing theme of research relationships: Who are we working with? Who must we answer to? What political relationships and legitimacies are at play? And how do they influence the research?

Sophie acknowledged that collaborative partnerships are often messy and enveloped in conflict. Yet they are also very creative and, more importantly, fundamental if we are to transform and embark on the decentralisation of knowledge. As academics, we have the responsibility to “change our form” and bridge the gap between academic knowledge and popular knowledge.

This means loosening the grip of our commitment to academic publications and rather encompassing and producing different kinds of knowledge – from research posters and neighbourhood directories, to maps, books and community publications.

Vanessa Black, Research and Advocacy, Biowatch South Africa
Vanessa Black of Biowatch South Africa brought to us an NGO perspective. Biowatch supports smallholder farmers but Vanessa acknowledged that it has a broader advocacy agenda; as well as donors that they must be responsive to.
The work needs research for monitoring, evaluation and learning purposes and to provide evidence for advocacy. While Biowatch commissions its own research, its long relationship with farmers also provides an accessible entry point for others. Balancing and finding synergy between these agendas can be challenging, especially for a small NGO with limited resources (time, staff, money). How can they be accountable, foster learning and protect the trust relationship with the farmers yet not act as gate keepers? Biowatch also has a responsibility to ensure community knowledge and genetic resources are not exploited.

It was noted that in Biowatch’s experience, farmer to farmer learning often has more impact than bringing in experts. However, processes need careful upfront design to ensure everyone has a common understanding of concepts and purpose. The farmers should be included in all phases of the research to dovetail with their ways of doing, including reflecting on the outcomes. However, if a research process is too open-ended, with no tangible and documented outcomes, evidence becomes diluted and subsequently, less impactful for policy recommendations and advocacy.

Both research and donor reporting require documentation of practices, processes and outcomes but often, farmers are resistant – with good reason. It helps to build documentation into the process in creative ways that circumvent language and literacy issues that otherwise create barriers to participation.

Philile Mbatha, Assistant Lecturer, EGS, UCT
Drawing from her own research experiences in Richard’s Bay (KwaZulu-Natal), Philile Mbatha described the interface between ethics and the concept of Ubuntu. The former is something one learns, while the latter is the intrinsic goodness one has. She stated that researchers “must have Ubuntu” because we are humans before we are researchers.

Dominant research paradigms deprive us of our humanity, promoting detachment and objectivity in order to acquire knowledge; we need to fight against this. Philile also gave an insight into some of her experiences of being ‘an insider’ in the research process and how different expectations were placed upon her in comparison to ‘an outsider’. These different contexts invite different ethical questions and require different responses.

Often, when a research projects starts, the community want to know exactly how they will benefit. Yet it’s not easy to know this in advance. Philile noted that in her experience, people might benefit more from the process than the often elusive and intangible research outcomes. Participatory-Action-Research (PAR) allows for community voices to be heard.


We have established how important it is to interrogate knowledge. We have also considered how knowledge has been institutionalised in our universities and have taken into account how this institutionalisation is embedded in the colonial vision. How then do we interrogate? Questions surrounding the creation of knowledge must be asked and actively answered in and through the research that we undertake: Whose knowledge counts? How is it created? Who owns it when the research has finished?

We must seek to diversify what knowledge is considered legitimate by decentralising the creation of knowledge. As researchers, we must recognise that knowledge already exists in the spaces that we enter. Through collaborative research practices based on respectful relationships, we can break the cycle of damaging and dehumanising research that has come before us. We must use our privilege and capacities to transform and deconstruct the knowledge hierarchy that is perpetuated by our institutions.

The research process is often neglected in favour of predetermined research objectives and end-points. Funders frequently require more formal documentation of monitoring and evaluation and evidence, which hinders and undervalues the insights that may be gleaned from collective processes. Rather we must seek collaborative relationships, standing with and learning from the communities in which we work. The obligation to funders was often raised as an obstacle to true and meaningful research partnerships. How can researchers be empowered to negotiate the research agenda and place emphasis and value upon the research process?
How can students engage with research ethically and appropriately within a limited time frame? This question is asked against the backdrop of academic institutions that promote individual goals and qualifications over collective involvement – processes that often require time beyond a Master’s or a PhD degree. It is thus the role of the institution to embed these ethical concerns within research requirements.

1. This conversation must be taken forward within wider calls for decolonisation of research and teaching at UCT.
2. The roles and values of the university need wider interrogation. Individual achievements are often valued more than the potential contributions universities can make to serve intellectual movements. Universities are a huge resource for people. We need to seek to find ways to mainstream ‘conscious research’ within academic institutions, including UCT.
3. Conversations about conscious research need to be brought to the NGO space.

1. Blog / website. Write short pieces about ‘doing research’ and the problems we face, with a focus on the themes from the seminar.
2. Circulate readings that speak to the themes that emerged from the seminar. Academic papers, blogs, articles etc.
3. Expose students to radical methodologies to “give us a chance to care”.
4. Convene similar conversations about topics such as research and advocacy; research and training; ways in which research can be jointly conceptualised across institutions.

The UCT Knowledge Co-op builds on a tradition of social responsiveness – and aims to make it easier for community partners to access UCT’s skills, resources and professional expertise. It works by matching community groups with academic partners in a collaboration that meets the needs for research or practical support identified by the community group.