We explore the role of religion and spirituality in civil society in South Africa.
The Centre’s beginnings can be traced back to 2006, when the University kick-started its plans to establish the Desmond Tutu Chair. That chair, it was envisioned, would honour the legacy of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu – who had served as UWC Chancellor for almost 25 years – through teaching and research aspects of the Tutu legacy in theology and social transformation.
The vision of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice is to promote transdisciplinary research-led community engagement that focuses on the critical intersections between Religion and Social Justice.
The mission and objectives of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice is to facilitate transdisciplinary research and community engagement on the critical intersections between religion and social justice through:
- Facilitating ongoing debate and critical discourse on the intersections of Religion and Social Justice through conferences, workshops, seminars and other collaborations with civil society
- Engendering activist collaboration between academia and civil society
- Developing resources such as research and graduate fellowships for the transdisciplinary study of Religion and Social Justice
- Publishing and disseminating the findings of research conducted within the Centre
Religion and Gender
The Centre seeks to foster critical research and civic engagement, which actively challenge the intersecting and systemic powers that produce and maintain the marginalisation and oppression of those who identify as female and queer. Projects within this thematic focus draw on the variety of resources available within feminist, queer and masculinity studies to develop knowledge and just-action in the complex and diverse areas where religion and gender intersect. These include, but are not limited to, sexual reproductive health rights, violence against women, sexuality, queer identity, women and leadership, and religious and cultural laws and traditions.
Religion and the Economy
South Africa is regarded as one of the most unequal countries in the world, with growing statistics of income inequality, and the persistence of poverty. Economic justice is linked to moral principles which support the possibilities for people to live dignified material lives rooted in creativity and productivity. This thematic focus area seeks to interrogate the ways in which religion is implicated in the institutionalisation of economic oppression and examines the resources available within religion to destabilise prevailing imbalances of economic power. Furthermore, the ways in which gender, race, and ethnicity intersect with the economy of the sacred are explored.
Religion and the Environment
This thematic focus area foregrounds the role of religion in the pursuit of ‘justice for the earth’. The religion and ecology research focus area critically engages the connections between anthropocentric and androcentric discourses and practices and examines the ways in which religion and the environment are connected with culture, economy, politics, community, heritage, and indigenous knowledge systems. Research in this area explores the position of religions and cultures in determining and contesting commonly accepted norms that constitute the relationships between and among all living beings.
Religion and Politics
With this thematic area, the Centre encourages research, conversations and partnerships that challenge the taken-for-granted nature of concepts and configurations such as democracy, equality, justice, reconciliation, and human rights in the social sciences and society. In light of the role of religion in general and Christianity in particular, in both the colonial and apartheid projects, the Centre is dedicated to exploring the possibilities for social justice through scholarship that engages religion as a critical concept and as a central component of human existence. This is demonstrated through our commitment to providing teaching and research that prioritises giving voice and visibility to religious traditions and aspects of religious experiences that have hitherto been marginalised in the academy.
Religion and Education
Given the decolonial fervour sweeping through the academy, the study of religion is undergoing a paradigmatic shift that the scholarship from South Africa is poised to lead. Critically reflecting on pedagogical praxis is a key task in this context – and therefore we focus on both transforming the content and the processes required for more decolonial, feminist and queer pedagogies. Furthermore, under this theme, we conceptualise the postgraduate training workshops and supervision, offered within the Centre as a step towards ‘educational justice’. The postgraduate training programme is a project in the decolonisation and democratisation of education. Through focussed thematic weekend workshops, the process of academic writing is demystified, while students are given the necessary support they need to navigate the research process.
SARChI Research Chair in Religion and Social Justice
Professor Sarojini Nadar
Director, Prof Sarojini Nadar holds the Desmond Tutu SARChI Research Chair in Religion and Social Justice. She obtained her PhD in 2003 from the erstwhile University of Natal (now UKZN), where she also held the position of coordinator of the International Network in Advanced Theological Education (INATE) from 2002 to 2005. The network was based in eight countries and spanned five continents.
Dr Lee Scharnick-Udemans
Senior Researcher, Dr Lee Scharnick-Udemans’ current research focuses on religious diversity and pluralism. It is important for both its intellectual contribution to the interdisciplinary and intersectional study of religion and for its social significance for understanding and enacting equality in a vastly inequitable world.
Dr Megan Robertson
Researcher, Dr Megan Robertson obtained her PhD at the University of the Western Cape under the Desmond Tutu SARChI Research Chair in Religion and Social Justice, researching in the area of queer sexuality and institutional church culture. She is driven by a commitment to social justice and has a keen interest in developing method and pedagogical practice in that area.
Ms Ferial Marlie
Administrator, Ms Ferial Marlie has been with the Centre since late 2018. Apart from providing logistical and administrative support, she also has skills in online and print design, creating and updating social media pages, managing publication processes associated with academic journals, as well as a solid background in database administration, which makes her skills invaluable for postgraduate student administration. She also has a keen interest in pursuing research in the area of gender, Islam and the human sciences.
Professor Evelyn Parker
Evelyn L. Parker is the Susanna Wesley Centennial Professor of Practical Theology at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University and is a J. William Fulbright Scholar, 2019 -2020, Cape Town, South Africa focusing on the role of religious leaders in preventing and intervening in teen dating violence. Parker received the Bachelor of Science from Lambuth College, Tennessee, and the Master of Science from Prairie View A&M University. Upon receiving her MSc she served as a research scientist in the department of Human Biological Chemistry and Genetics at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. She attended the two-week Christian Educators Seminar at Perkins School of Theology from 1986 until 1989. The seminars were the impetus for further study in theological education and the transition from a vocation in biological research to one in educational ministry. Parker received the Master of Religious Education and earned her PhD from the Joint Program of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary/Northwestern University in Religious and Theological Studies, with an interdisciplinary emphasis in Christian Education, Womanist approaches to religion and society, and education and public policy. Parker is the author of Between Sisters: Emancipatory Hope Out of Tragic Relationships, (Cascade Books, 2017) and has also published several chapters and journal articles on adolescent spirituality, including “Divine Fortitude : A Reflection on God’s goodness in black female child soldiers,” in Susan Willhauck, ed., Female Child Soldiering: Gender Violence and Feminist Theologies. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2019.
Professor Rosalind Hackett
Rosalind I.J. Hackett is Chancellor’s Professor, Professor of Religious Studies, Adjunct Professor in Anthropology, and former Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, at the University of Tennessee, USA. She studied in the UK (Leeds, London, Aberdeen) and went on to teach and conduct field research in Nigeria. She has held fellowships at Harvard University and the universities of Notre Dame, Cape Town, and Groningen. She publishes in the areas of indigenous religions, new religious movements, gender, art, human rights, pluralism, media, and conflict in relation to religion in Africa. She is currently conducting research on sound and religion. Her most recent (co-edited) books are New Media and Religious Transformations in Africa (2015) and The Anthropology of Global Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism (2015). She is Past President and Honorary Life Member of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR) and was Vice President of the International Council on Philosophy and Human Sciences (CIPSH). Hackett also serves on the Board of Directors of the African Consortium on Law and Religion Studies (ACLARS). In 2019, Professor Hackett received an Honorary Chieftaincy title, Yeye Meye (Mother Who Knows Our Ways) from the Elerinmo of Erinmoland, HRM Oba (Dr) Michael Odunayo Ajayi, Osun State, Nigeria.
Professor Adriaan van Klinken
Adriaan van Klinken currently resides in Leeds, UK but is originally from the Netherlands, where he studied Theology and Religious Studies at Utrecht University and completed his Masters in 2006, and PhD in 2011. During his Masters, he spent three months as a visiting student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and ended up writing his thesis there, so his connection to South Africa began at an early stage of his academic journey, and has developed through many return visits later. After completing his PhD, he moved to the United Kingdom, where he was first a postdoctoral research fellow at SOAS University of London, and in 2013 was appointed at the University of Leeds. At Leeds, his career began as a Lecturer in African Christianity, later becoming Associate Professor in Religion and African Studies, and since 2020 full professor. He also serves as director of the Leeds University Centre for African Studies, and of the Centre for Religion and Public Life.
Professor Mika Vähäkangas
Mika Vähäkangas was born in Finland. He holds a doctoral degree in Theology and Masters degrees in both Theology and African Studies, from Helsinki University, Finland. He was also a student at Pontificial Gregorian University, Rome, and Makumira, Tanzania, where he later served as a lecturer in systematic theology. He has also taught Systematic Theology and Mission Studies at Helsinki University and he is currently Professor in Mission Studies and Ecumenics at Lund University (Sweden) since 2009.
Vähäkangas served the International Association for Mission Studies as vice president between 2008-2012 and as president from 2012-2016. He is an adviser to the World Council of Churches (WCC) Commission for World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) and consultant to the Lutheran World Federation.
In terms of research, he began by studying the relationship between Ujamaa (Tanzanian socialism) and Lutheran theology for his MTh and continued with a ThD analysing Tanzanian-born Catholic professor Charles Nyamiti’s way of connecting Catholic scholastic traditions with African cultures. These were textual studies. While teaching in Tanzania, he was gradually attracted by empirical studies and today he attempts to balance between textual analyses, empirical research and constructive theology. He has started applying what he has learned in Africa on European religious realities.
Research and Journal Assistants
Rhine Phillip Tsobotsi Koloti
Clayton G Alexander
David Augustine Dorapalli
The Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice is thankful to its donors and partners for their ongoing support in enabling the work of the Centre.