The Work of the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice

Over the past five years, the institute has developed into a critical space that brings different voices, ideas, and practices together to advance the Human and Academic Projects of the University of the Free State. Students, staff, and community members meet here to find ways of engaging with diverse views, realities, and aspirations. We endeavour to cultivate humanity on the basis of deep scholarly work for the pursuit of social justice to be expressed in our everyday lives and the work we do on our campuses, as well as within the national and global higher-education systems. The institute has four major streams of work.

  1. Higher Education Transformation

 We contribute to institutional and national higher-education change by doing transformation work and developing intellectual cultures in support thereof. Through our various critical conversations, public lectures, seminars, and colloquia, fresh understandings and ideas come to the fore and new, inclusive ways of doing life in local, global, and pluralistic societies continue to emerge. Apart from academic contributions, these insights feed into the university transformation plan, transformation charter, and transformation report. The institute has hosted numerous events over the past five years, including more than 80 critical conversations, 15 book launches, 15 seminars and 8 colloquia, and we have co-hosted 5 public lectures.

Part of our main task is the positive positioning of the university within national and international processes of higher-education transformation; this we are steadily achieving, given the growing national appreciation of the university’s efforts. We play key roles in transformation debates within the sector. The UFS, through the institute, is well-positioned to make contributions on a national level. Prof André Keet was co-opted onto USAf’s Transformation Strategy Group and appointed to the Ministerial Transformation Oversight Committee (TOC) tasked with advising the Minister on Higher Education Transformation. Prof Keet was also appointed to the Council on Higher Education (CHE) and as a Social Cohesion Advocate for the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC). JC van der Merwe represents the UFS on USAf’s Transformation Managers' Forum and also serves on the executive of the Anti-Racism Network in Higher Education (ARNHE) and Anti-Racism Network South Africa (ARNSA). Senior staff members of the institute sit on the following institutional committees in order to contribute to transformation: Language Committee, Naming Committee, Internationalisation Committee, Employment Equity Committee, Galleries Committee, and the Arts Hub.

The institute has been involved in several campaigns such as the No-to-Racism /Yes-to-Equality campaign, USAf’s Common Days Campaign, Celebrating 20 Years of Democracy, and has partnered with the LGBTIQ community on various initiatives over the past three years. During May 2014, the institute opened an office on the Qwaqwa Campus; and runs research projects and a seminar series, as well as a volunteer programme on the campus.

The institute, partnering with university centres that focus on issues of transformation and social justice (CANRAD at NMMU and WiCDS at Wits), is participating in the Amarightza programme of the Foundation for Human Rights and the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development. The purpose of the programme, which is funded by the European Union, is to organise several national dialogues on race. The institute has already held three dialogues – one in Bloemfontein, one in Kimberley, and another in Qwaqwa.

The volunteer programme on the Bloemfontein and Qwaqwa Campuses aims to give campus students who are interested in the work of the institute an opportunity to get involved in the daily work of the institute, as well as to play a role in issues that concern the institute’s daily functioning. Collaborations with entities such as the Psychology Students Association, Independent Electoral Commission, Free State Department of Basic Education, and the Human Rights Commission of South Africa have been formalised to develop an all-round experience of human rights activism, advocacy, institutional transformation, and overall understandings of community engagement. Each year, 20 students from the Bloemfontein Campus and 20 from the Qwaqwa Campus are involved in the volunteer programme.

The institute has a systematic student engagement programme that uses a bottom-up approach by having regular student consultancy sessions in the form of student forums, student research groups, and critical discussions. These sessions give students the opportunity to express their concerns regarding transformation at the UFS and probe ideas for productive resolutions. The transformation officer of the SRC liaises with the student body, stakeholders, student associations, and the SRC regarding transformation on campus; these initiatives feed into broader university management processes.

2. Human Rights, Democracy, and Citizenship

Since its inception, the institute has developed a Human Rights Desk that promotes, protects, and monitors human rights across our campuses through advocacy, education, training, and complaints handling. This desk has been frequently requested to support the work of the South African Human Rights Commission and to provide advice and support to other state agencies. From the beginning of 2016, this function has developed into an independent academic Centre for Human Rights (CHR), an outfit that provides human rights advocacy, human rights protection, and human rights scholarly work through research, as well as an interdisciplinary master's and doctoral programme. The CHR is hosted between the Faculty of Law and the institute.

3. Arts and Social Justice

The institute has secured funding from the National Arts Council (NAC) for a National Flagship Project in the Visual Arts to be facilitated through the institute. This project was implemented across three universities: Rhodes University, the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, and the UFS. The objectives of this project are to enable Art students and professional artists working in the university surrounds to critically grapple with issues around Social Cohesion, the National Development Plan, and the Visual Arts.

The institute also hosts an annual Arts and Social Justice Week. The main objective of the Arts and Social Justice Week is to explore new and different ways of understanding social relations through artistic encounters in a manner that encourages dialogue about our democratic responsibilities as South African citizens. The festival spotlights social justice issues through drama, dance, music, poetry, film, public lectures, and art exhibitions. The Arts and Social Justice Week has established itself as an endeavour that is crucial to the institute's objective of confronting the histories, policies, and practices that have shaped and constrained the intellectual and social mandates of universities.

Arts and social justice formed an impetus that has resulted in a full-blown programme in its own right with national and international collaborations; close working relations with state departments, public agencies, and non-governmental initiatives; and a productive community engagement function.

4. Research and postgraduate work

The research vision of the institute is to be a premier interdisciplinary site for intellectual inquiries relating, but not limited, to: social cohesion, reconciliation and social justice; critical studies in higher education transformation; and scholarship on human rights and critical human rights education. A range of strategies have been conceptualised and implemented to drive this vision:

  • The implementation of research projects that encourage collaborations; advance praxes in the three fields of study; and bring together and develop research capacities within the institute (inclusive of students and staff).
  • Conscious planning to make time for research and research writing
  • Recruiting postdoctoral fellows to broaden diversities of thought and praxes; import global experiences into the work of the institute; and contribute to the research outputs of the institute
  • Inviting and appointing research fellows and visiting professors to assist with supervision; contribute to the intellectual and academic project of the institute; broaden international collaborations; and act as critical friends of the institute
  • Build, carefully and selectively, international collaborations that not only advance the academic and practical work of the institute, but crucially reflect the dispositions required for ‘real’ social justice work and critical academic citizenship; attuned to a larger, global sense of purpose.
  • Shape and advance the postgraduate programme of the institute; including the implementation of a Structured master's located in the Faculty of Theology.

The institute’s research, organised around three programmes, is being developed and supported by 10 master’s students and 12 doctoral students; 8 postdoctoral fellows, 8 research associates, and 7 visiting professors from across the globe. The first structured master's on Reconciliation and Social Cohesion in South Africa was designed and accredited through the work of the institute, and has been offered from 2016. In addition, sponsored research projects on a national and international level have started to grow; and the institute’s research outputs have increased significantly over the last three years.


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