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7Qs for Academics: Thandiwe Matthews


Today we speak to Thandiwe Matthews, a human rights attorney and doctoral candidate in Law and Development Studies.

This is an ongoing series where we introduce some key researchers and academics getting to understand their work, their developing research interests as well as what keeps them engaged.

Explain the nature of your work and/or how it relates to inequality.

I am a human rights attorney and a doctoral researcher in the interdisciplinary field of Law and Development Studies. My research adopts a socio-legal approach to explore the role of constitutionally protected human rights to address structural inequalities of race, gender, class and age in post-apartheid South Africa, with a specific focus on social protection. Previously, I worked at the South African Human Rights Commission as a senior researcher and senior legal officer monitoring the advancement and protection of human rights in addressing structural inequality. My academic interests lie in analysing the relationship between human rights, governance, the economy and society.

Why do you think inequality remains such an intractable social and economic problem?

Through my work over the past decade, I have learned that interdisciplinary research that accounts for the legal, political, economic and social dimensions of an issue is key to solving complex social problems and tackling the unsustainable levels of poverty, and especially, inequality in South Africa.

Inequality as a social phenomenon is predominantly analysed in the South African (and global) context either through the lens of mapping wealth and income inequality, on the one hand; or challenging horizontal inequalities of identity-based discrimination, on the other hand. It is rare that the intersection of vertical and horizontal inequalities are adequately interrogated to uncover how multiple forms of inequalities are reproduced and reinforced in a manner that perpetuates the exclusion of historically marginalised groups in post-apartheid South Africa.

What continues to keep you engaged in your work or areas of research?

South Africa, as a case study, is fraught with the contradictions experienced in liberal democracies globally. The country has all of the markers required to deepen liberal democracy – well-funded and well-respected institutions of democracy, including an independent judiciary; a free-market economy; and constitutionally protected and justiciable civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights monitored by independently-funded civil society organisations. However, the country remains one of the most economically and socially unequal in the world. This raises the question as to whether liberal democracies, as currently conceptualised, can deliver on its promises to advance the redistributive principles of dignity, equality and social justice for everyone, as guaranteed in domestic, regional and international human rights frameworks.

What is one thing your field is not focusing on that it should?

The human rights space has become very institutionalised and legalistic in its methodology, and removed from an analysis of the impact of human rights on the broader political-economy (and vice-versa). Interdisciplinary research that grounds itself in feminist notions of critical reflexivity remains key in challenging the multifaceted nature of inequality. 

Who are some academics (in your field or otherwise) whose work you follow closely? Why?

I try to remain abreast with the contemporary writings of feminist academics and political-economists in the field of (human rights) law and development, and particularly black and southern feminists. I have been influenced greatly by post-colonial feminism in theory and in practice, especially in contexts where women are not only united through their reproductive labour but have also been leading strategists in shaping the outcome of South Africa’s post-apartheid political dispensation. In addition to academics such as Prof Vivienne Taylor, Prof Shireen Hassim and Kimberlé Crenshaw, my work is also influenced by the diverse women activists whose knowledge of the streets gives expression to knowledge in the books.

What books are you currently reading?

Susan Abulhawa’s ‘Against the Loveless World’ 

Complete the sentence: “The first thing I do each morning once I get up is

..... drink a cup of coffee while checking emails.”