In South Africa, the struggle against apartheid led to the emergence of university research groups with strong ties to civil society and social movements.
As of 1994, post-Apartheid governments committed themselves to a transformation agenda for academia. A key challenge was to make the transition from institutions segregated by race to democratic, inclusive institutions that promote human dignity against any form of discrimination. In doing so, engagement was seen as a pillar of academia, and as an asset for the transformation of segregation and inequality within both its own institutions and society as a whole. However, despite the country's progressive promises of inclusion, the implementation of neoliberal policies that prioritized the economic incentives and the capitalization of knowledge production of universities have diminished the focus on societal struggles. The commodification of higher education has been highly contested, especially given discussions about the colonial footprint in an academic environment where Black and other marginalized communities are often the objects of study and rarely the agents of knowledge production.
Black and other marginalized communities are often the objects of study and rarely the agents of knowledge production
In this context of historical marginalization where local communities are rightfully claiming their rights, the exclusion of refugees has received less attention. They too had great expectations on post-Apartheid promises of inclusion. However, Refugees must manoeuvre the paradox between progressive laws and a discourse that dehumanizes them as ‘aliens’ and facilitates a competition for scarce resources. While the exclusion of refugees is similar to that of local groups, life threatening attacks that have targeted non nationals have emphasized the degree in which their exclusion has been institutionalized and legitimized.
Against this backdrop, there is a growing expectation that academia in South Africa should take responsibility and act as guardians of justice in an unjust society, thereby contributing to the enlargement of the public sphere and to becoming a space of inclusion and equality. Based on the argument that engagement involves a reciprocal relationship with society, and challenges discourses and practices of exclusion within and around universities, this research explores the potential and limitations of engaged scholarship with refugees in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.