College of Human Sciences

Receiving ASSAf membership is exhilarating, affirming and satisfying

Prof Madipoane Masenya (Ngwan’a Mphahlele)

The Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) has honoured Unisa’s Prof Madipoane Masenya (Ngwan’a Mphahlele) as a member, recognising her as one of the country’s most outstanding and celebrated scholars.

She is a Professor of Old Testament Studies (Hebrew Bible) in the Department of Biblical and Ancient Studies at Unisa, and also serves as acting Executive Director in the Office of Unisa’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor.

When asked about her research journey and ASSAf membership, this is what Prof Madipoane Masenya (Ngwan’a Mphahlele) had to say:

What is your research focus and what drove you to it?

My area of specialisation is Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) Wisdom Literature with particular reference to the Book of Proverbs. My choice to enrol for my master’s degree with Unisa, taxing as it was (as it entailed language requirements and a study programme) was a blessing in disguise. During the initial stages of my research, I was introduced to the possibilities of bringing Old Testament studies to bear on my African context. I was introduced to such an approach by the late Prof JJ Burden, who was at some point the Dean of the Faculty of Theology at Unisa. 

Such an approach to Old Testament scholarship then opened the way for my introduction to contextual theologies and biblical hermeneutics with a liberationist stance, especially gender-identified/conscious liberationist biblical hermeneutics, drawing mainly from the works of the following scholars: Black liberation theologians and Biblical scholars, feminist and womanist scholars, and the works of theologians from the Circle of African Women Theologians.

In my doctoral research, the focus was specifically on gender as a hermeneutical lens to engage with texts. So subsequently, my research focus has been first and foremost on African Women’s Biblical Hermeneutics. In a nutshell, this entails a liberationist reading of the Old Testament text deliberately through the hermeneutical lens of African women’s experiences. I developed a bosadi (womanhood-redefined) approach.

How does your research aim to impact society?

The works of Black theologians and, in particular, an Old Testament scholar and liberationist scholar like Prof Itumeleng Mosala, has conscientised me in two respects. First, that the biblical text was used by Whites to oppress Black folks in South Africa. Second, that it was also used by the same scholars to foreground God as being on the side of the oppressed masses (read Black people), as the God not of oppression/or who endorses slavery and oppression, but as God on the side of the oppressed Blacks.

These works (also conscientised by the works of feminist, womanist and gender-conscious African women biblical scholars), gave me a cue that I could use the same biblical text to challenge patriarchy/kyriarchy for the liberation of women, especially African-South African women. As I refuse to be an academic pie in the sky, my research has thus focused on pertinent issues that impact not only the female folk, but many a marginalised Other.

I am thus foregrounding pertinent themes such as Africanness, patriarchy, gender, masculinities, poverty, HIV and AIDS, and ecology among others. It must be made clear that my scholarship has mainly been practised against the grain of what could be designated "hard core" Old Testament/ Hebrew Bible scholarship which has historically and even up to now, remained American and Eurocentric in perspective and orientation. As could be expected, one has experienced subsequent marginalisation both by the academy and the church.

ASSAf membership is viewed by many as the finest accolade an academic can receive during one’s research career. How does that make you feel?

There is a cost that comes with a scholarship that goes against the grain of mainstream/malestream Euro-centric biblical scholarship, as well as androcentric biblical scholarship and ecclesiastical discourses from the (African) patriarchal church. Receiving accolades in such a context would be difficult. I have also come to taste the harsh reality of a prophetess who is not honoured in her home space.

It is thus so exhilarating, affirming and satisfying to receive this finest accolade that many academics can only aspire to. I feel so honoured and humbled at the same time. I am indebted to God for having enabled me to navigate the challenging terrain amidst the opposition (and the affirmations), my supportive husband, Dr Malesela Masenya, who was never challenged by being coupled with an independent woman, my family and all the colleagues, friends and supporters who have supported me through the years. In a nutshell, motho ke motho ka batho, and in a way, this is a communal accolade.

What does your ASSAf membership mean to you, your research and Unisa?

With its emphasis on evidence-based studies regarding topics of national importance, as an ASSAf member I have the privilege of having significant opportunities that would enable me to apply my research findings to influence national policy and practice.

My membership in the Academy will not only encourage me to continue investing in research, even in the administrative space which I inhibit at the moment, but will hopefully enable my research to have even more impact. The latter will hopefully subsequently impact positively on Unisa’s branding as it can contribute somewhat to the university’s rankings, especially within the South African context. The more researchers for a specific institution are admitted into the Academy, the more enhanced the research profile of the institution.

It is my hope that this accolade, to which Unisa’s support has contributed greatly (such as attendance of academic conferences and the provision of page fees, among others), enables one to further put Unisa on the map both at home (in South Africa and the continent), as well as abroad.

What recommendations would you give to a researcher who aspires to be an ASSAf member?

As an aspiring researcher, one would recommend the following:

First and foremost, research and innovation are a component of the three pillars of the academic project, the latter forming part of the core business of any university. As an academic, the deep thirst for research, for knowledge and discovery, should typify who one is. Thus, such a thirst, I would argue, should form part of one’s genes.

Second, and related to the preceding fact, one must be passionate about one’s research. Such a passion should not be tampered with by obstacles which are sure to stare one in the face.  Such a passion will not be motivated first and foremost by research incentives, but by one’s passion and one’s commitment to doing impactful research. In that way, one would be ploughing back into one’s communities.

Third, one should develop a thick as a well as soft skin to criticisms from one’s peers, whether from the peer-reviewers of research-outputs-in-the-making (articles/ book chapters/ conference proceedings, etc), or from the reading of academic papers, among others. The academy can be cold and even ruthless at times; that is part of the game, though. Through such a game, one gets nurtured and grows into a mature, established scholar.

Fourth, one should not shy away from discovering new ideas and once discovered, one should have the courage to put them out there for public scrutiny and consumption.  As can be expected with any change, there will be pushbacks.  The latter should not deter one to shoulder on, and in the process, many may be assisted by one’s findings.

Especially for upcoming young African women researchers, unlike some of us who never had a role model who was one of our kind both in terms of race and gender, I think you should deem yourselves not only as fortunate but also as having a burden that you would not have any excuse to give to your successors for not having achieved even better than some of us (read: the present researcher).

I hope you can grab the opportunity to “make hay while the sun shines” for so says the African proverb: la go hlabela o le orele, ka moso le hlabela ba bangwe.

* Interview by Mpho Moloele, PR and Communications, Department of Research, Innovation and Commercialisation

Publish date: 2022/09/20

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