In Conversation with Prof Andries Bezuidenhout

Read time: 9 mins

Professor Andries Bezuidenhout is an industrial sociologist, an accomplished researcher, and a Development Studies professor in the Faculty of Management & Commerce at the University Fort Hare. In addition to a successful academic career, Prof Bezuidenhout is endowed with many other talents.  He is a published author, poet, rock music artist and newspaper columnist.

He holds a PhD from the University of the Witwatersrand where he worked as a Senior Researcher and Acting Director of the Society, Work and Development Institute. He has also worked at the University of Pretoria and the then Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg).

AWARD-WINNING WORKS:

  • Prof Bezuidenhout has produced several ground-breaking studies on the impact of global production systems on local economies, workers, and communities.   His most recent publication is a volume titled: Labour Beyond Cosatu: Mapping the Rupture in South Africa's Labour Landscape (Wits University Press, 2017, co-edited with Malehoko Tshoaedi).
  • In 2009, one of his books (co-authored with Edward Webster and Rob Lambert), titled: Grounding Globalization: Labour in the Age of Insecurity  (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), won the Distinguished Scholarly Book Prize, awarded by the American Sociological Association’s Labour and Labour Movements section.
  • He has published two poetry books: Retoer (Protea, 2008) and Veelvuldige gebruike vir huishoudelike toestelle (2014, Protea).
  • He has also penned a collection of newspaper columns titled: Toeris in Hillbrow (Human & Rousseau, 2010).
  • As an Artist, Prof Bezuidenhout has released five CDs, two solo and three with his now-disbanded rock band - the Brixton Moord & Roof Orkes.

During a radio interview in 2017, Prof Bezuidenhout referred to himself as a ‘Jack of all trades and a master of none”.  In our books, he has mastered a lot and that is the reason why This Week@FortHare requested an opportunity to probe beneath the surface.

Who is Prof Bezuidenhout?

I joined the University of Fort Hare in 2018 to teach development studies at the Alice Campus. I also live in Alice and don’t regret having moved from the city in order to live in a more rural context.

Previously I worked at Gauteng-based universities such as the University of the Witwatersrand, University of Pretoria and what was then the Rand Afrikaans University (now known as the University of Johannesburg).

I like Alice’s sense of history.  Many of the institutions and their buildings here are much older than anything you will find in Gauteng. These include Lovedale College, Healdtown a bit further afield, Victoria Hospital and the University of Fort Hare campus itself.

Alice is such a beautiful place to live and work in.

Family Roots

My father’s side of the family originally came from here. My grandparents were from King William’s Town and my grandmother was an English teacher at the technical school in Adelaide. So in a way I returned to where my own family’s roots had been. Then there’s the privilege of being able to work in a place that has been associated with so many iconic figures. These include AC Jordan and Phyllis Ntantala, also Chris Hani and Robert Sobukwe from different liberation movement traditions and much earlier, the whole Jabavu dynasty.

Please share some information about your research interests, including past and current projects:

 

FINDING INNOVATIVE WAYS TO RESPOND TO UNEMPLOYMENT CHALLENGES

I have worked as a full-time researcher for most of my life, so I don’t think I should take up space with listing all of them. Let me rather focus on the broader questions that frame my research.

  • I trained as an industrial sociologist, but my interests are in the intersecting space between development studies, geography and labour studies.
  • I am interested in issues such as the impact of global production systems on local economies, workers and communities.
  • One of my interests is to understand how mining towns and mining communities in particular, deal with social change and the decline of the industry. In a way, mining communities are microcosms of the country as a whole - a country that has seen some improvements, but that has also experienced a range of social shocks - including the rise in unemployment.

If the labour market is changing at such a rapid pace – and here I’m referring to a large proportion of workers who are no longer permanently employed, the massive increase in youth unemployment, the rise of new jobs in what is now called the ‘gig economy’ – how do we respond to this as a society?

What do we do if having a job is now the exception to the rule and the majority of young people are dependent on welfare, money from family members, or hustling?

All these changes have longer term consequences for the stability of our society and also for the future of democracy. We have to find innovative ways of responding to this. I would say a preoccupation with finding solutions to these challenges would be a way to frame my research interests.

What do you think are your most significant research accomplishments?

A COMMUNITY OF CRITICAL SCHOLARS AND ACTIVISTS INTERESTED IN THE LINK BETWEEN THE ECONOMY, SOCIEY and DEVELOPMENT

In the area I work in, it is really difficult to become a specialist in one area, like many of our colleagues located in the global North. As a community of South African social scientists we are small, compared to say the US, China, India, or Europe. I am not sure we always appreciate the significance of this context. We reward specialisation, but can we afford specialisation in such a small community of scholars with so many issues to be researched?

So, to get back to the question, I consider my most significant accomplishment the fact that I am part of a community of critical scholars and activists who are interested in the link between the economy, society and development.

WORKING WITH A DYNAMIC AND DIVERSE GROUP OF ESTABLISHED AND UPCOMING SCHOLARS

  • My most recent book is a volume I co-edited with Malehoko Tshoaedi titled: Labour beyond COSATU: Mapping the Rupture in South Africa’s Labour Landscape.

In this book we attempt to understand the implications of the split in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) for democracy and society, looking at it from a range of different angles.

Malehoko and I edited the volume, but the contributors are all part of a dynamic and diverse group of established and upcoming scholars. I feel at home in this community and I am proud to be part of it.

  • I also contributed to the education of some of the younger black scholars who are part of this community. If as a community we succeed in breaking the racial division of labour in knowledge production, then we will have achieved a really important goal. This does not happen spontaneously, because there are entrenched ways of thinking and behaving that have to be challenged.

How do you ensure your research is well communicated, digested and acted on?

 ARTICLES AND BOOKS

Our first responsibility is to publish well researched and well-considered articles and books. I think we have devalued books, because people tend to chase subsidies for journal articles. Books take a longer time to write, but they provide you with the scope for comprehensive and rigorous analysis.

Books are about slow science and contemplation. Also, books end up in book shops and you get the opportunity to speak to a broader public of informed readers. Many of the unions and union federations sent representatives when we launched our Labour beyond COSATU book. COSATU was really upset about the title, but once they understood our argument they were less antagonistic. We tried to be even-handed in our treatment of the different labour groupings. But they came to the book launch because as a scholarly community we have a longstanding relationship with them and there is a level of mutual respect.

COMMISSIONED WORK

Taking on commissioned work for clients is another way. I have done work for trade unions, companies, government departments and international development organisations. Many of these projects also culminated in academic articles and books, so I don’t personally see a tension between applied and pure research. Funded projects provide you with very real problems people want solutions for, a budget, access to research sites, and opportunities for training a next generation of scholars in the field.

MEDIA

Then as academics we have a responsibility to write more popular pieces and to comment in the media, but I’ve also learnt to not comment when I have not done research on a certain topic. Years ago I made a complete fool of myself on national radio when I commented on a set of public sector wage negotiations and did not have the inside story.  I will never make that mistake again. Some journalists look for quotes that will support what they want to write about and some of our colleagues are so willing to comment on everything and anything, just for the sake of building a public profile. We always run the risk of being over-exposed and losing our credibility as experts. It is a fine balance between maintaining your integrity as independent scholar and having a public voice.

 

What has been the greatest impact of your work?

Grounding Globalization: Labour in the Age of Insecurity: The most ambitious research project I was part of culminated in a book with the title Grounding Globalization: Labour in the Age of Insecurity (I wrote this with Edward Webster and the now late Rob Lambert, published in 2008). Despite its shortcomings, I am still very proud of this book. We were interested in how workers in factories responded to the insecurity caused by threats from companies to move production to other countries where wages were lower and unions less militant.

As part of the research for the book I had to do fieldwork and conduct interviews with workers in factories in South Africa, South Korea and Australia – an enriching experience. We found that in some cases workers attempted to make contact with comrades in other parts of the world in order to jointly campaign against attempts to play workers off against each other. If companies can globalize, workers can too.

But, we also found worrying signs of working-class nationalism, where workers had become xenophobic and had started to blame foreign workers and migrants for their very real feelings of insecurity. The publication of the book coincided with the economic crisis of 2008 and caused quite a stir in that context. It won an award from the American Sociological Association and was the subject of two special editions of journals. Because the issue of working-class nationalism has become such an issue (with the election of Donald Trump, as well as Brexit), the book continues to attract international attention.

Writing the book was hard work, but proverbially speaking - we were also in the right place at the right time.

What advice would you give to Young Researchers out there?

Do not suffer alone. Become part of an intellectual community. If you are stuck with your paper, ask a like-minded colleague to write with you. When I was a young scholar I really struggled to write and publish. A more experienced scholar offered to write with me, also because we shared a number of research interests.

Paradoxically, in writing with him I was able to develop my own voice. That is how I got into the game.  I was part of a community of committed and generous people. Granted, some scholars flourish when they work on their own, but my preference is to work with others. It is less lonely and helps me to avoid procrastinating and stick to deadlines.