Research Focus of the SARChI Chair in Identities and Social Cohesion in Africa (ISCIA)

The approved SARChI Chair proposal focusses on identities and social cohesion, on grounds that training and retaining highly skilled, internationally competitive innovators able to promote equitable, sustainable and inclusive growth in South Africa, depends on an ethos of social cohesion and a stimulating environment for educational experimentation. The research problem is as follows: Since legacies of colonialism are inscribed in South Africa’s aesthetic symbols, artefacts, metaphors and spaces, the recognition of human dignity is understood in terms of the need for emancipatory critique, with the aim of acknowledging and strengthening authentic national identities. However, the main outcome of identity politics has been the assertion of bounded and pristine identities, leading to adversarial events of xenophobia, Afrophobia, and new forms of marginalization that weaken integration and cooperation. This lack of social cohesion undermines hope for the necessary radical re-conception of knowledge production that will produce internationally competitive innovators and help re-articulate lived experience. The research question emerges of how to realise South African communities that are both 1) deeply aware of, and responsive to, their fractious past (which calls upon South Africans to recognize and strengthen authentic local identities), and 2) committed to social cohesion (which calls upon us to unbind the kind of purist identities that lead to exclusion, social antagonism and violence).

Although the new proposed research will be conducted from a philosophical standpoint, the strongly practical focus of ancient philosophies is re-imagined for a contemporary, local context and the three-fold research focus remains closely aligned with the original proposal.

1) The new research similarly seeks to understand and document, at local, national and continental scales, existing philosophical notions of identity, particularly in face of the legacies of colonialism in aesthetic symbols, artefacts, metaphors and spaces. The aim of such research is to develop insightful responses to the question of how to realise South African communities that both respect authentic local identities and remain committed to social cohesion. A basic assumption of the proposed research is an affirmative answer to the question of whether this both/and situation is possible. It seems possible to discover/create an authentically African way of being that understands itself as flexible and fluid.

2) Building on prior research that integrated performance, aesthetics and the politics of difference in Africa, the approved Chair proposal aimed to explore lived experiences and case studies that reveal the significance of aesthetic/cultural practices for social cohesion in four further African societies: Rwanda, Nigeria, Namibia and Zimbabwe. The new proposed research will similarly explore lived experiences and case studies in contemporary African societies to discover aesthetic practices that challenge the construction of primordial identities, and engender more nuanced and complex conceptions of identity. The guiding task is to ascertain whether and how existing aesthetic/cultural practices on the continent provide resources to help South African communities negotiate the double bind created by the opposing tasks of forming authentically local identities and promoting social cohesion.

3) A key aspect of the research is to acquire insight (practical knowledge) into how aesthetic practices may contribute to social cohesion. This involves a re-envisaged process of knowledge production. The academy is traditionally the seat of intellectualized, instrumental education, where theoretical knowledge production predominates and aesthetics is underplayed. But the role of aesthetic practice in promoting a transformative, decolonized educational practice should be taken seriously. The research therefore includes experimental engagement in reflective, creative practice. This draws on a methodology that Finley names “critical arts-based inquiry” whereby philosophers/social scientists and artists collaborate to create, facilitate and reflect upon aesthetic events. The idea is both to engage reflectively with existing projects, and to create experimental events in transformative knowledge production that draw on aesthetic wisdom. The outcome of such research includes creating vocabularies and concepts for Africa-purposed understandings.