Where POLICY implications meet social REALITIES

Public servants and researchers in the social sciences have their comfort zones. Public servants may often ignore the uncomfortable questions coming from academics, while researchers are in a space where they often do not have to confront directly the policy implications of the unyielding social realities that they study.


  Staff member photograph
  Dr Themba Masilela
Coordinator; HSRC
CEO for Research

Public servants and researchers tend not to interact as much as they should.  Understanding this, in 2010 and 2011 the Department of Science and Technology (DST), in cooperation with the HSRC, embarked on a programme of workshops on social issues. These workshops brought together academics and public servants to analyse research evidence and administrative experience, policy options and solutions.


There were four workshops. The two held at the Mafikeng campus of the North-West University and at the Eastern Cape’s University of Fort Hare tapped the underutilised resources of the country’s rural universities, focusing on migration and on the ‘knowledge economy’ and community renewal.


Two linked sessions on the developmental state were held in Pretoria, the first dealing with transformative social policy, and the second with improving access to basic services. The Pretoria workshops were designed to address the roles of ministries grouped under the Social Protection and Community Development cluster and the Human Development cluster.


Guest author Seán Morrow reports on some of the presentations and the vigorous debates they stimulated.


These ranged from broad themes and concepts to specific reports on the latest research in a number of areas. Both categories – overlapping in many cases – are represented in the articles that follow.

The programmes of all four workshops are available on www.hsrc.ac.za




Shireen Hassim, Associate professor; Political Studies
University of the Witwatersrand

With characteristic flair, Professor Ben Turok raised the provocative issue of the balance between social welfare and economic and educational investment in the developmental state, and of the state’s capacity to implement a developmental agenda.


Professor Robert van Niekerk’s historical study of the social democratic tradition in the African National Congress, stressing the movement’s long-standing commitment to welfare, and implying that this is a tradition that should continue, was in many ways an implicit critique of aspects of Turok’s presentation. How, though, does a society generate the sort of commitment to fellow citizens needed to support social policies benefitting the poor and underprivileged?

The discussion that followed Dr Andrea Hearst’s paper on ubuntu, a community-oriented philosophy which, however, some argued, may sap individual enterprise and initiative, went some way to address this issue.

Questions of community solidarity and individual endeavour also permeated Dr Janet Cherry’s presentation on the limits of conventional economic thinking in relation to impoverished urban communities. How, she asked, can such communities sustain themselves in satisfying and environmentally realising sustainable ways while bypassing the unrealisable dream of formal wage employment for all?

Focusing on specific research issues, the authors of a number of papers dealt in detail with aspects of migration, settlement, poverty and their social consequences. Ms Catherine Cross, in two linked papers drawing on research in Johannesburg and Tshwane, drew a vivid picture of the dynamics of urban and peri-urban housing for the poor, illuminating in particular the dilemmas of women, and showing how crucial transport is to patterns of settlement and the search for work.

Ms Geci Karuri-Sebina, from the dual perspective of implementation and research, looked at the experience of a specific government programme to regenerate townships, identifying the difficulties faced in moving towards beneficial long-term structural change.

Xenophobia is undoubtedly one of the byproducts of urban poverty and un-employment. Mr Jean Pierre Misago discussed why in some communities, in 2008 but also at other times, this resulted in extreme violence against immigrants, while in other apparently entirely similar places it did not and still does not.

Echoing issues raised by Turok and others, Professor Shireen Hassim discussed the South African social welfare system in relation to women. While, she argued, women are the beneficiaries of many social welfare grants, these grants are not designed to challenge the structural disadvantages that they experience, or to alter gender imbalances in domestic work.

Dr Glenda Kruss reported on her research into university community outreach programmes. Her preliminary findings indicate that criteria for success in this field are less rigorous than for the other university responsibilities of teaching and research. As a result it is often difficult to measure the impact of such programmes and their prestige tends to be low.

The DST workshops were a bold experiment. As with all experiments, the results must be analysed and further development planned.

Future directions might be towards a more extensive and more widely accessible forum in which policy-relevant research would be reported and debated between researchers and officials.

There might be a series of 'think tanks', focused intensely on particular issues, bringing together the relevant public servants and researchers with specific expertise. Whatever structure is decided upon, a robust foundation has been laid.

Guest author: DR SEÁN MORROW, from Ngomso Research, Writing and Editing Service, and a former chief research specialist at the HSRC,was the rapporteur at these workshops.