Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa: A Stepping Stone for Emerging Scholars in Africa
This is a cross-post from Research Matters, a digital forum that focuses on emerging research in the social sciences by those who have been recipients of Social Science Research Council funding. Ruth Murambadoro is a three-time recipient of the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa fellowship, and is the first PhD candidate working on transitional justice and reconciliation in her department at the University of Pretoria. This is the story of her journey to a PhD.
Being a Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa fellow for the past three years has been one of the most fulfilling parts of my academic career. I am a young scholar who fell in love with peacebuilding discourse in 2011 when l worked with Dr. Cori Wielenga on a research project funded by the African Peacebuilding Network (APN), that tracked reconciliation processes across Africa. The desktop research I conducted on peacebuilding processes in Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe changed my life because it was the first time I began to dig into the roots of conflict in Africa and, more specifically, in my home country, Zimbabwe. By the time I finished working on the project, I knew I would pursue a career with the goal of contributing to the African understanding of peacebuilding.
In 2013, I continued my studies at the University of Pretoria by registering for a research master’s degree in political science. My work was titled, “The Politicization of Reconciliation in Zimbabwe: A Case Study of the Nkayi District, in Matabeleland North Province.” Nkayi district is one of the communities that experienced grave injustices during the Gukurahundi massacre soon after Zimbabwe gained political independence from white rule (1981-87). I chose to investigate the experiences of survivors of the massacre because I am a community-centered researcher who believes in representing the voices of marginalized local populations. This two-year study enabled me to connect with wounded communities and employ ethnographic research techniques to document and conceptualize how reconciliation processes were understood by the locals. I observed that the way in which peacebuilding is framed by the global community is different from how the local communities perceive it, and it became clear to me that more work needed to be done. My supervisor, Dr. Wielenga, encouraged me to enroll in a doctoral program.
The thought of doing a PhD brought mixed emotions. On the one hand, I knew I could not afford to continue studying in South Africa. On the other hand, I was aware that continuing my studies would make my family and community proud because I would be the first child in both my immediate and ancestral families to pursue a doctoral degree. More so, as a Zimbabwean, I believed I was socially and politically bound to work with my community to establish durable solutions to the political crisis my country currently faces.
At the end of 2014, I decided to enroll in a PhD program, and my supervisor advised me to apply for the Next Generation of Social Sciences in Africa Proposal Development Fellowship. Being awarded the Next Gen fellowship introduced me to a community of scholars who are both knowledgeable and concerned about the advancement of African scholarship.
My research offers an analysis of the global peacebuilding agenda by exploring traditions of justice that have been sidelined by Western epistemologies and explores how local justice systems can contribute to a durable peace in Zimbabwe. My PhD project, “Transitional Justice and Reconciliation in Zimbabwe: A Case Study on Tradition-Based Approaches in Two Local Communities,” investigates locally engineered processes of justice that have been used in Buhera and Mudzi districts. Buhera district, a rural community located in Manicaland province, is home to the leader of the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Morgan Tsvangirai, and other cadres of the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union—Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). This has rendered the district a hot spot for electoral violence since the emergence of the MDC in 1998. Mudzi district is also a rural community. Located in Mashonaland East province, it was a hot spot for the 2008 post-election violence locally named Operation Makavhoterapapi (Where did you put your vote?).
I selected Buhera and Mudzi districts for this study because they had made headlines in reports about inhuman atrocities associated with the post-election violence in 2000, which plunged the country into cyclical conflict. The political instability created by the antagonism between ZANU-PF and opposition parties in Zimbabwe remains unaddressed. In 2008, mediation efforts carried out by the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) orchestrated the Global Political Agreement (GPA), which brought the warring parties to resolve their issues through dialogue and put mechanisms in place to address the underlying issues that stir conflict. Following this agreement, a government of national unity was established, which set up the Organ for National Healing, Reconciliation, and Integration as a national mechanism to address unresolved cases of injustice. As captured in my master’s research, the organ failed to make any progress toward meeting the desires of the wounded communities. It has now been replaced by the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC), which faces similar challenges.1
My PhD project attends to the following: (1) it investigates the gap created by the inefficiencies of the global peacebuilding agenda in meeting local expectations; (2) it explores avenues for redress offered by justice systems present within the local community; and (3) it seeks to establish the best practices for addressing the past in a way that meets the expectations of affected parties. In 2015, I used funds from the the Next Gen Proposal Development Fellowship to conduct a pilot survey with over three hundred participants, on the justice system in Zimbabwe and the avenues for justice available to the local communities under study. The results of the survey indicated that 70 percent of the participants turned to tradition-based approaches as their preferred means of resolving disputes.
During my fellowship, I also attended the Next Gen workshop in Ethiopia, which gave me a platform to share my research findings with seasoned scholars such as Dr. Charles Ukeje (Obafemi Awolowo University), Dr. Sarah Ssali (Makerere University), and Dr. Adam Branch (University of Cambridge), as well as other doctoral candidates. I kept in touch with several scholars from the first Next Gen fellows meeting in Ethiopia and the subsequent workshops in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Zambia. Furthermore, the time spent visiting other African countries exposed me to people from diverse backgrounds; encounters that have refined my views of the continent and enriched me with experiential knowledge which I incorporate in my teaching and writing. My interactions during the Next Gen workshops have encouraged me to continue with my studies because I have a community of scholars willing to give me a shoulder of support and ideas to navigate the emotional journey of attaining a PhD.
In the second year of my PhD studies, I used the Next Gen research fellowship to conduct full-scale fieldwork in Zimbabwe. It included participant observation at the government-led public hearings on the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission, in-depth interviews with thirty-six key informants, four focus group discussions, and one ad hoc community meeting. The collection of data was spread out over nine months (April to December), during which I made multiple visits to the research sites, staying for periods of between one week and two months. I conducted the fieldwork in this manner because my topic touches on a highly politicized issue in Zimbabwe, and I had to be cautious about where I stayed, the duration of the stay, preservation of the data collected, and the overall security of both research participants and the research team.
From developing a proposal to conducting full-scale research to the writing stage of the PhD dissertation, the Next Gen program has been a pillar of support that has enabled me to realize the contribution I can make to the peacebuilding discourse in Africa. I have even used the Next Gen Doctoral Dissertation Completion grant to spend time in the Netherlands visiting various international courts and meeting with leading scholars in the peacebuilding discourse.
The Next Gen fellowship program has transformed the quality of research conducted by emerging scholars in Africa. More so, the program has boosted my confidence to take up leadership roles within the academy. In 2016, l was elected to the board of the African Studies Association as a representative of emerging scholars. Through this role, I advocate for emerging scholars in African studies and facilitate the development of networks that help them overcome their hurdles. I have also begun collaborating with other Next Gen fellows based in Pretoria to establish a writing support group. Since January 2017, I have been meeting with three doctoral candidates every Friday to work on our research projects. These sessions, which we call “Shut Up and Write or Lockdown,” have helped our group remain focused and accomplish weekly tasks that contribute to the completion of our studies.
Furthermore, the Next Gen workshops have given me confidence to speak in public and turn my ideas into scholarly arguments. I have presented conference papers in various parts of the globe, including the Netherlands, South Africa, Switzerland, and the United States of America. Over the past thirty months, I have published scholarly work in the Strategic Review for Southern Africa, the African Journal on Conflict Resolution and Kujenga Amani, among other academic platforms. I have also supervised research projects of honors students at my university who are working on peacebuilding processes in Africa.
By helping me, the first PhD candidate working on transitional justice and reconciliation in my department, the Next Gen program has planted a seed for this field to blossom. I am a Next Generation Social Science Researcher because the Next Gen program has nurtured me to develop an African perspective on the peacebuilding discourse.
- Ruth Murambadoro, "The Politicisation of Reconciliation in Zimbabwe: A Case Study of the Nkayi District," (Masters Dissertation, University of Pretoria, 2014). ↩