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Visiting professor highlights female ex-combatants’ contribution to the struggle
Author: Hannelie Booyens
Published: 02/03/2023

A visiting professor from the United Kingdom is working on research about a fascinating part of South Africa's 20th century history, studying the role of women in the country's liberation struggle. 

​Having previously authored a book about the contribution of women in the Irish liberation struggle, Prof Azrini Wahidin from the University of Warwick's Department of Sociology is now focusing her attention on completing her book, Under Siege: The Role of Women in Liberation Movements Under the Apartheid Regime and the Transition to Peace, while at Stellenbosch University in the Centre of the Afterlife of Violence and the Reparative Quest (AVReQ). The book examines women's experiences of political protest and the role they played in configuring the pathway to peace for a new South Africa.

Wahidin is working with  Prof Pumla  Gobodo-Madikizela and Prof John Brewer at AVReQ. She was attracted to the centre because her research addresses societal challenges in places of conflict. “I've always worked in the field of social justice and inclusion," Wahidin explains. “I have a great interest in peacebuilding processes, transitional justice, reconciliation, and how we reconcile past harms when the legacy of conflict is still so prevalent."

By seeking out the similarities and differences with other liberation movements Wahidin hopes her research will inform policy and practice around peacebuilding, restitution, and transitional justice to create an environment where sustainable peace can grow and become embedded in the fabric of society. 

She is particularly interested in the transition of women who had been active in conflict pre-liberation as freedom fighters and revolutionaries to being involved post-apartheid as carriers of social memory and beacons of hope helping to repair a society fractured by conflict. 

Wahidin is taking a life-course approach with her research and is interviewing women from different backgrounds, ages, and ethnicities. Women who were involved in the liberation struggle in South Africa often had to not only fight political oppression but also sexism, she explains. “They had to fight on two fronts – dealing with the hardships and unimaginable brutality of state forces and the security police, but they also struggled to be recognised as equals who had a contribution to make beyond being ancillaries to men. What is very clear is that women played a crucial part in all areas of enabling liberation movements such as the United Democratic Front and the ANC to operate. Women were involved in every sphere in the struggle for liberation – from housing people who were on the run from persecution and providing amenities with the little they had, to being involved strategically in highly complex manoeuvres and the logistics of warfare."

The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa shares a utopic vision for the future with the Irish liberation struggle, Wahidin notes. “Both groups challenged the level of oppression and showed that the discrimination that occurred on the grounds of race and religion in both countries could not continue. Change for a better world was necessary to bring about social justice for all."

Wahidin quotes Irish writer Oscar Wilde who said progress is the realisation of utopias: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing."

The challenge now is dismantling the legacy of injustice and ensuring that is peace is sustained, Wahidin says. “That is why social justice issues should take centre stage of the work we do." She is full of praise for the work of AVReQ. “Both Stellenbosch University and the University of Warwick are doing cutting-edge, revolutionary work to gain a better understanding of the world we live in. We are trying to create an understanding of the ramifications of historic conflict and how the legacy of conflict has impacted on people's lives. We have to ask questions such as how do we address trauma? How do we address issues around transitional justice in a way that brings the social justice forward? What are the limitations or the barriers that prohibit or hinder the process of peacebuilding? These are the difficult questions we're trying to answer," Wahidin says.

She considers herself fortunate to be able to work with academics at Stellenbosch University who dedicate their expertise to a transformation agenda. “The past few months have been phenomenal, truly amazing. The level of engagements from students reflects the high-quality teaching they receive at Stellenbosch University. They are critical and believe in social change. As a professor from Warwick University, I'm delighted to be able to spend time here. The recent Memorandum of Understanding signed between the two universities will strengthen our relationship. I'm sure our students and staff will greatly benefit from this unique partnership of two teaching institutions that are grounded in research excellence and in creating a fair and just community for all."

Director of AVReQ Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela says SU is delighted to be hosting Wahidin. “Her visit presents us with great possibilities for research partnership, curriculum development and cultural exchange. She is making an important contribution to the intellectual culture of our centre, and we want to make the most of her visit in a way that will strengthen the link between the University of Warwick and Stellenbosch Universities," Gobodo-Madikizela says.

Prof Sibusiso Moyo, DVC: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies, is also full of praise for Wahidin's contribution. “Prof Wahidin has been able to share her leadership experiences in evaluating research performance through the work she does in the UK," Moyo said. “We have been able to compare experiences in terms of the Research Excellence Framework used in the UK to our South African Department of Higher Education and Training system of evaluating research. There is a lot to still think about regarding possible areas for further collaboration and we acknowledge AVReQ for hosting her and giving her the space to complete her book project."

Wahidin will be presenting masterclasses and participating in capacity building programmes offered by AVReQ to students. She will also deliver a public lecture in the Vice-Chancellor's Forum Lectures series on 22 March.