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What are academic disciplines teaching about race, and do research practices in South Africa support problematic uses of race and other human categorisations in science?

These are some of the questions under the microscope at an upcoming conference that tackles the use of race and other forms of human categorisation in South African scholarship. The conference, hosted by Stellenbosch University’s (SU) Committee for the Institutional Response to the [Khampepe] Commission’s Recommendations (CIRCoRe), aims to interrogate the use of questionable – and possibly antiquated – human descriptors in science that may perpetuate scientific racism in South Africa.

“A comprehensive investigation into how race is used in contemporary South African science and a reckoning of the state of contemporary scientific racism in South Africa is well-overdue,” says Phila Msimang.

Msimang heads CIRCoRe’s workstream for understanding issues of race and human categorisation in the context of science, and teaches in SU’s Department of Philosophy, where he recently launched a course on the philosophy of race.

“A series of controversial research articles over the last five years, following a long tradition of scientific racism in South Africa, have been catalytic to raising the problems of using race and other human categorisations in science to a question of national importance in the research agendas of institutions across the country,” says Msimang.

“There is already a considerable literature about the problems with historical racial thinking and the scientific racism of previous periods in South Africa, but there are relatively few studies that trace the legacy of racial thinking into present day research practice and research ethics controversies as they have become manifest across the higher education sector nationally today,” he says.

Prof Sibusiso Moyo, SU’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies, says that understanding the use of race within the South African academic discourse presents a multifaceted and contentious topic deeply intertwined with South Africa’s history of apartheid and colonial rule.

“Racial categories historically served as a primary instrument of oppression and dominance wielded by the apartheid regime to enforce segregation, discrimination, and uphold white supremacy,” says Moyo. “For the University to thrive in its core functions – learning and teaching, research and innovation, and engagement with its stakeholders – it needs to openly allow for platforms to deepen discussions and contribute to perspectives and solutions that will contribute to the sector as a whole, where transformation remains a challenge despite significant progress made around access to higher education.

“The issue of who contributes to which research, what voices are heard and how knowledge is constructed and deconstructed should make it interesting for potential participants in the conference,” says Moyo.

Piecemeal attempts to redress not enough

These problems have been acknowledged by higher education institutions and the Department of Higher Education and Training, and policies and deliberations by ethics committees have attempted to address them, Msimang says. But these responses have been mostly reactive, and more needs to be done to create systemic change in research and teaching practices.

The conference, scheduled for 12 and 13 June at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS), aims to provide the platform for this discussion, ultimately aiming to spark work towards developing best practices for the academic enterprise.

Registration closes on 5 June 2024. For more information, contact [email protected]. DM

Phila Msimang

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