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Published on October 29th, 2012

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Social Science in the New South Africa

South Africa has gone through major changes, both politically, economically, and even academically. Popular Social Science has met with Professor Johan Burger of the School of Public Management and Planning, at the Stellenbosch University in South Africa to investigate the status of social science in his country.

His research areas reflect the practically oriented nature of South African social science. Science is there to help solve the country’s challenges, with an applied rather than a theoretical focus. Professor Burger works on public sector tactical innovation, policy-making for equity and sustainability, as well as in the area of sustainable housing.

Johan is from the Afrikaans speaking part of South Africa, that is, where the people eat braaivleis and follow rugby. Afrikaans is related to Dutch, as the Afrikaners are of mainly Dutch, German, and French Huguenot descendent.

 As so many other Afrikaner academics, Johan is an old rugby player, but has recently focused on long-distance running. In fact, he runs races that are longer than a marathon, so-called ultra-marathons. Yet, he is not as great a follower of sports, as his motto is “one should practice sports rather than watch them.”

Historically, South Africa has been well-known for being in the frontier of the hard sciences as well as in medicine, yet little was heard from South African social scientists during the Apartheid era. How is the situation for social science today in South Africa?

Well, in there is a greater incentive for social scientists now than during the previous regime. Hard science still has a high priority, but we also see better times for the soft sciences as well. We have always had the Human Sciences Research Council, but a new post-apartheid addition is the National Research Foundation which provides much government funding for the regular social scientist. There is definitely a strengthening of the structure, it seems like our government is serious about social science.

Is the South African social scientist a follower of the American-led global tradition with a focus on production, papers, and positivism, or is it more European oriented with a laid-back theoretical approach?

I will say there are elements of both in South African social science. We most definitely must, as most countries, follow the American tradition in that we are expected to publish a lot in international journals. We even have a rich flora of our own South African journals; the most important in my fields is Administratio Publica. However, there is a strong South African twist to it, as we are there for solving the practical issues of the society rather than having a strong focus on philosophy and theory, yet the latter aspects are still important.

How is the situation for the Afrikaans language in present day academia?

Well, there are 11 official languages in South Africa, with Afrikaans being one of them. However, in research English is dominating, as it is in most of the world. The Stellenbosch University has a history as an Afrikaans speaking university, and we still have undergraduate classes in Afrikaans. But the position of English is becoming stronger and stronger, even here in Stellenbosch. For example, all post-graduate classes are taught in English.

How is the relationship between the South African government and academia?

The government sees the value of social science, and makes use of advisors from academia. One could say that the government use research as a tool to approach the challenges of the South African society.

South Africa is known as a very beautiful country; however, many potential traveling students are concerned about the crime levels…

Well, there is no secret that crime is an issue in South Africa. Yet, one must take into account that 80 percent of all serious crime is committed by people who know their victim. Tourists and visiting students are not at such a big risk as the media might give an impression of. We also have a tradition for visiting students here at Stellenbosch. Historically we have mostly had Dutch visitors, of course due to the fact that we have been an Afrikaans University. But now we see more and more visitors from other countries as well.

What are the five most important things a visiting student should see or experience while in South Africa?

1)      The nature, most definitely. We have a massive variety of different climate zones, we have the Table Mountain, and you can also go on a Safari and enjoy some big game hunting.

2)      There is the food. We have a tradition for Braai (similar to barbeque) where we eat our braaivleis (meat, spiced in a South African manner).

3)      You should experience a rugby match.

4)      The township culture, especially with regard to music.

5)      Robben Island, one need to understand history to make sure that oppression never happens again.

And with these recommendations from Professor Burger the interview comes to a close. South Africa is most certainly an exciting country, with increasing opportunities and possibilities for the social scientist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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