On The Blue Couch with Dr Ruth Murambadoro

This month I caught up with Dr Ruth Murambadoro, a senior lecturer in the Wits School of Governance. Ruth is a political science graduate from the University of Pretoria whose research interests include women, transitional justice, gender justice, peacebuilding and politics of the Global South.
She is currently working on the project, ‘Gender justice and narratives of violence by women in post-colonial Zimbabwe,’ which studies women’s social movements in Zimbabwe and the diaspora to produce new insights on how networks of women provide avenues for healing, justice and peace, outside the auspices of the state.
She is the author of a monograph entitled “Transitional justice in Africa: The case of Zimbabwe” which was published in 2020, and has written extensively on reconciliation and the politics thereof.
In her Blue Couch session we spoke about her journey as a Zimbabwean student in the South African academic landscape and some of the lessons she learnt during her time as a student. She also touched on some of her experiences as an academic supervisor and a researcher whose current work blossomed from her master’s research.
Ruth spoke about how she ended up in South Africa and also why she ended up staying for the length of time that she did.

I stayed partly because you move thinking that you are advancing yourself, but then you find yourself not fitting into the market economy and you have to keep upgrading yourself, hoping that one day you will fit in. That is how I stayed on for my bachelors, my honours, my master’s and my PhD.

I also asked about her experiences with funding as a foreign student.

I was raised by a community of people who contributed to my studies. In my third year I was recruited as a teaching assistant, at which point I became more financially responsible. In my master’s I started lecturing, in my PhD I was also lecturing, so these are some of the opportunities that were available. During my PhD, I became intentional. From a strategic point; one needs to plan the financial aspect of their studies as well as being savvy with money. People make different choices. For me, it was very important that I pay for my accommodation that was decent but not too expensive. I didn’t need a car then, it was a liability. The funding I had was enough for me to plan for my accommodation and for me to plan for my fieldwork, because when I was doing my master’s it was really difficult to do fieldwork; I was not funded. With the PhD, I would not have survived if I didn’t have funding.

On the topic of networking during your studies Ruth mentioned that her networks were an important part of her success as a student.

I was plugged into a community of scholars. Network! I cannot stress this enough. At master’s and PhD level, you need to be networking. You cannot crack the code of your project if you are not part of a network where people are constantly talking about it and asking you about it. You’ll find that the more you talk about your project, the clearer it becomes. By the time I was in my third year of the PhD, being part of these networks helped me develop the lingo. Part of being a postgraduate student means maturing in this way.

She also briefly talked about finding a balance between a research topic based on personal interests and one that is well justified academically.

During my honours studies, there was a postdoc fellow in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria who was looking at mapping reconciliation processes in Africa and I was asked if I would like to join. So, the starting point for me was not necessarily a personal interest in the subject, but rather an interest in understanding the research that was being done. I started from a position of enquiry about knowledge and what it is that this project was all about? And how do you research this question making use of existing debates that help us to understand the phenomena? Joining a project helped me distance myself from unqualified biases of issues that are there. What we call ‘street talk’; where people are just commenting about things, but they don’t understand the intersecting systems and processes that create that phenomena. So, if one can move away from looking at things at face value and making a judgement about them and ask ‘what underlies this phenomena?’ you would be on to something. So it doesn’t matter whether it is something that is personal to you or happening in your workplace, by asking this question you would have found something that is academic and contributes to the body of knowledge.

As well as how she decided on a question for her PhD thesis

Building on my master’s it was almost an easy thing, because I just took on the feedback of examiners to then make a follow-up enquiry. It was almost laid bare to me.

I asked her what she wished she had done differently during her time as a student.

To be honest, I was just so scared of failing and the cost it meant for my parents and my siblings who were sponsoring my education, that I didn’t have a life in college. In some ways, if I had known that life is not that complex, it is as easy as you make it be or as complex as you make it be. Like, for example, at UP we had Tuks FM. I never auditioned for it! It would have been a platform for me to engage and debate. I thought it would detract me from my studies.

She also cautioned undergraduate students, based on her experience as a social sciences student, against narrowing their degrees too early.

Do not look at your degree. I just picked the modules that seemed very relevant to my degree, I didn’t go out as much as possible to pick out electives from other fields. If you narrow down your qualification too soon, you will lose out on other opportunities. Your career is shaped by the exposure you have to the different modules you learn when you are still in college.

On asking about her role as a supervisor, she mentioned that many students do not make the necessary transition in how they approach their studies as undergraduate students to becoming postgraduate students.

There is a shift in every level of study that one embarks on and you actually need to look at it from that point to be able to adjust and adapt your enquiry and approach to tackling your studies. In undergrad, all I needed to do was read and look at what the learning outcomes were. When we were given an assignment, we were answering a question we were never asking the question. When we look at master’s and PhD, to be honest, it’s a huge shift. You cannot be passive. You have to be active, and your active engagement is not one where you are just asking the lecturer or your supervisor questions, you should be engaging more broadly with the literature.

This article presents a paraphrased summary of our chat. The full interview can be watched here.