Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
CIRCoRe workstream insights: Phila Msimang
Author: Corporate Communications and Marketing
Published: 05/12/2023

Stellenbosch University (SU) has rolled out the structures that will focus on the recommendations of the Khampepe Commission. Our series of interviews with key SU staff steering the Committee for the Institutional Response to the Commission's Recommendations (CIRCoRe) process sheds light on the work of the five workstreams shaping the future of the University. In this interview, Phila Msimang shares insights into a vision for a transformed SU. 

Msimang is a lecturer of philosophy at SU and head of the CIRCoRe workstream dealing with race, human categorisation and science. His academic interests include topics in the philosophy of biology and the philosophy of race. His current research looks to answer questions about how and under what circumstances classifications of community, identity, socio-political affiliation, social difference and biological difference become variables of social and scientific significance.

What motivated you to become involved in the CIRCoRe process?

At this point, my work is predominantly about race and how we use the category in different social and scientific contexts. The workstream which I'm leading is looking at the use of race, human categorisation and science in relation to how research is done at the University, the way it uses these concepts in policy, and how these concepts are used in the general community of the University.

What draws me to this work and why I think it's important is that I've seen how the inappropriate use of categorisations in science plays out, sometimes to deadly effect. For example, one of the areas relevant to our work is the use of categories like ethnicity and race in medicine, and how that affects health outcomes, and even mortality rates. This work is part of the things that I often think about professionally and a question that has been put to my workstream.

How does your CIRCoRe workstream function to achieve its goals?

The workstream is comprised of several experts from different disciplines. We wanted to be able to look at this problem from a multidisciplinary and, in fact, a transdisciplinary perspective. So, we draw on geneticists, historians, philosophers such as me, sociologists, anthropologists and other academics who work with living and past human beings and their remains. We aim to draw on the expertise of all the people we have within the institution working on these questions, and also by looking at resources and people outside of the institution, to approach the question of using race and human categorisations in science from a multifaceted perspective.

What do you think is the value of this process?

The issues we're dealing with are symptomatic of unhealed wounds of South Africa's wider society. The University has recognised part of the issue, and how it plays a role in the perpetuation of this problem. SU is one of the first institutions that I know of that has created a transformation initiative with such a wide scope as the CIRCoRe process to address certain issues spurred on by the recommendations in the Khampepe report. I was really excited to become involved in this initiative. As we make progress towards the resolution of these issues for ourselves, we're not only advancing science, but we're also helping other universities that are in a similar position, as well as the broader society.

The vision which we are working towards is to have a society where categories such as race, ethnicity and gender are not detrimental or something that gives a person an unfair advantage over other people. We want a society where people are able to express their true selves and reach their full potential without the hinderance of discrimination. That is something we also need to look at within research: How do we practice our research in such a way that we are working for a shared humanity that leads to human flourishing? We won't get there until people are on an equal footing.

Looking at the SU community in particular, what we'd like to gain from the CIRCoRe process is to improve the outcomes for our students. We would like to ensure that irrespective of the identity a person holds or their background, they have equal opportunities and equal chances to fulfil their potential at SU.

What unique insights have you gained from being part of the transformation process?

One of the things that might come as a surprise is to find that most people in these conversations have good intentions. But despite their good intentions, they sometimes create stumbling blocks to progress because they are stuck in ways of thinking that are unhelpful. Part of the challenge in having conversations about transformation is dealing with the emotions of people who feel attacked when you're trying to show them that good intentions can lead to unjust outcomes. 

PHOTO: Stefan Els