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29 May 2019 | Story Valentino Ndaba | Photo Pexels
Prof Melanie Walker
Fostering human capabilities in universities may potentially transform education, says Prof Melanie Walker.

Education is at the centre of human life, and has the potential to be a crucial support for democratic life. Prof Melanie Walker’s recent research paper strikes a balance in dealing with people, education and the implications for democracy through the lens of human capabilities theory and practice and her own research.

People and papers

In her capacity as the SARChI Chair in the Higher Education and Human Development Research Programme at the University of the Free State (UFS), Prof Walker recently published a paper titled: Defending the Need for a Foundational Epistemic Capability in Education. It appeared in the special issue of the Journal of Human Development and Capabilities in honour of renowned Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s 85th birthday.

Nurturing epistemic justice

Within the context of existing literature such as that of Sen’s concern with the value of education on the one hand, and public reasoning on the other, Prof Walker argues for a foundational epistemic capability to shape the formal education landscape – as well as quality in education – by fostering inclusive public reasoning (including critical thinking) in all students. It would contribute to what Sen calls the ‘protective power of democracy’ and shared democratic rights, which, he argues, are strongly missed when most needed.

“Sen’s approach asks us to build democratic practices in our university and in our society in ways which create capabilities for everyone. If our students learn public reasoning in all sorts of spaces in university, including the pedagogical, they may carry this into and back to society,” she said.

Educating for equality

Empowering society and fighting for justice are some of the crucial contributions made possible through fostering the epistemic capability of all students. “The capability requires that each student is recognised as both a knower and teller, a receiver and a contributor in critical meaning and knowledge, and an epistemic agent in processes of learning and critical thinking,” states Prof Walker.

In a young democracy like South Africa’s, inclusive public reasoning becomes all the more essential in order to achieve equality, uphold rights and sustain democracy as enshrined in the constitution, thereby improving people’s lives. 

News Archive

Book Prize for Distinguished Scholarship awarded to Dr Christian Williams
2016-03-24

Description: Dr Christian Williams Tags: Dr Christian Williams

Prof Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the University of the Free State and Dr Christian Williams, senior lecturer at the UFS Department of Anthropology.
Photo: Johan Roux

When Dr Christian Williams moved from the United States to Namibia in January 2000 as part of the WorldTeach volunteer programme for teachers, he had not anticipated an award-winning piece of scholarship in his future. It was during these visits to Namibia, though, that the seeds for his highly-acclaimed book were sewn.

While volunteering at the St. Therese Secondary School in Tses at that time, Dr Williams – now a senior lecturer at the University of the Free State (UFS) Department of Anthropology – became acquainted with some of the school’s alumni. The stories these individuals started sharing with him soon revealed personal histories of exile and violence by fellow SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organization) members.

These experiences ultimately resulted in Dr Williams’ book, National liberation in postcolonial southern Africa: a historical ethnography of SWAPO’s exile camps, published last year. Due to the book’s literary impact, the university awarded Dr Williams the UFS Book Prize for Distinguished Scholarship on Friday 19 February 2016. Dr Williams is the second academic to be awarded this prize.

Politics of the past


In the 1960s, Namibians mobilised and retaliated against colonial rule under the liberation movement known as SWAPO. This created political tension which resulted in the flight of many SWAPO members to exile camps administered by the party.

“Over its three decades in exile, SWAPO was responsible for the welfare of roughly 60 000 Namibians. This was about 4% of the total Namibian population at independence – most of whom lived in camps,” says Dr Williams. The research originally used as a basis for his doctoral thesis was subsequently developed into this prize-winning book.

Advancing the Human Project

“It’s an honour to receive recognition from the university; it means that they value the kind of work that I am doing. I think it’s great for universities to have such prizes,” Dr Williams says.

Supporting the UFS Human Project, Dr Williams will donate a portion of the R25 000 prize money towards the UFS Student Bursary Fund Campaign, as well as the school in Namibia.The rest will subsidise the purchase of the book for distribution to libraries and as gifts.

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