Reggae music inspired Rhodes University graduate to advocate for people living with disabilities through his PhD research

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Rhodes University graduate, Dr Desire Chiwandire has realised his dream of completing a PhD.
Rhodes University graduate, Dr Desire Chiwandire has realised his dream of completing a PhD.

By Luvo Mnyobe, Masters in Journalism and Media Studies student


 When Dr Desire Chiwandire first joined Rhodes University in 2009, he had a dream of one day completing his PhD at the university and in 2021 his dream was realised.  

Zimbabwean-born Chiwandire initially came to Rhodes University to study Bachelor of Arts in Politics and International Relations and Legal Theory, but he admitted that it was the Politics and International Relations that eventually stole his heart. He said his path was owing to the relationships he built with some staff members in Politics and International Relations.

“My close relationship with my supervisor and the academic staff is something I have come to appreciate about Rhodes University because you benefit from such relationships. The fact that the university is small and intimate also assists a great deal,” said Chiwandire. 

Dr Chiwandire said his journey was inspired by reggae music through its social justice messaging that is embedded in the genre. He said that the music opened his eyes to injustices all over the world. 

“Growing up, I didn’t read a lot, but I got a lot of information about politics, apartheid, and social justice in reggae music that is where I got my passion about politics. When I got to Rhodes University, I knew I was to study politics,” said Dr Chiwandire. 

Dr Chiwandire’s research work for his PhD and his Masters’ draws inspiration from his experience with the world and his quest for social justice for all. For his Masters’ degree, which was awarded with distinction, he focused on women’s reproductive rights and for his Doctoral thesis titled “Social inclusion and students with disabilities in South African Higher Education. An ubuntu approach”. In this thesis, he studies the extent to which South African universities create a socially inclusive academic environment for students with disabilities. In the study, he interviewed ten South African universities across four provinces. 

“When most universities think of supporting students with disabilities, they turn to provide students with academic support which includes reasonable accommodation, the extra time, and making lecture venues more accessible,” said Dr Chiwandire.

But he argues that this approach neglects an integral part of students’ social experience on campus. 

“I noticed that there was a gap in research about the social inclusion of students with disability at universities. I questioned whether universities were able to support students with disabilities through extra-curricular activities such as sporting and social clubs,” he explained.

He adds that some universities still see students’ disabilities as an inability to participate in academic activities. 

“Some lecturers don’t understand disability and hold negative views on disabilities which leads to them struggling to support students with disabilities, “said Dr Chiwandire. 

For this doctoral study, he said his initial inclination was to use Nancy Frasers’ theory of social justice. He ultimately added his decision to use Ubuntu as a theoretical approach to this study was part of a deliberate attempt to include African perspectives in the field of disability studies which has largely been studied through a Western perspective. 

In his application of Ubuntu's theory, he said he was met with reluctance from some academics in disability studies with many in the field preferring him to a human rights perspective which he said is limited to policy changes and not the social perspectives.

He said applying an ubuntu perspective in disability inclusion at universities would foster a more hospitable environment for students living with disabilities just like in many African homes.

Dr Chiwandire is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Nelson Mandela University where he is doing research on disabilities and transformation at the Centre for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation. 

His long-term goal is to usher in more students into the field of disability studies. He is grateful for the Rhodes University Politics and International Department which gave him an opportunity to design and lecture a course on decolonisation and disabilities for undergraduate students. 

“I would love the opportunity to supervise and collaborate with other researchers and students because when I lecture students on disabilities, I see that many students are eager to learn more about the field but do not have the opportunity to,” he concluded.