Thandiwe Matthews is a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies – Erasmus University of Rotterdam. She is part of the research group Governance, Law and Social Justice. Last year, she took the CERES PhD Training Course and here she tells us a bit about her research and how CERES helped her in the thesis.


Why did you decide to do research?

Pierre Bourdieu (1992:61) remarked that ‘[S]ociology can be an extremely powerful instrument of self-analysis which allows one better to understand what he or she is by giving one an understanding of one’s own conditions of production and of the position one occupies in the social world.’

While the approach I adopt in my research is not purely sociological, but rather socio-legal, both personally and professionally this observation of positionality is compelling to me. I was born in the 1980s in Cape Town, South Africa, at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle, to parents and close family members who were actively involved in the establishment of the United Democratic Front (UDF) social movement. Many of them were incarcerated or faced persecution by the apartheid state. My childhood experiences of apartheid, and the vivid recollection of the euphoria surrounding South Africa’s first democratic elections and successful negotiation of a revered Constitution, inspired me to pursue a career in the field of human rights and social justice. However, over the past decade, I have struggled with defending South Africa’s first democratic Constitution due to a tension between its inherent values and the country’s hard social and economic realities, despite the implementation of laws and policies that aim to give effect to the Constitution. This is compounded by South Africa’s current context of high youth unemployment and poverty, and a predominantly youthful population who have yet to experience the benefits of constitutional democracy as I have.

My work experience at the SA Human Rights Commission and the broader social justice sector has also taught me that the state does not act as a monolith in how policies are developed, and a more nuanced understanding is required of how power manifests within the state that sustains substantive inequality in South Africa.


What is the subject of your research?

My earlier Masters research unpacked the challenges in realising socio-economic rights in contemporary South Africa with a specific focus on the right to water and sanitation and its intrinsic relationship to human dignity (Matthews, 2012). The research explored the topic through a multi-dimensional analytical framework that brought together socio-legal scholarship, theories of citizenship and black consciousness ideologies rooted in South Africa. Through this research,  many factors were identified that inhibited the realisation of socio-economic rights, including structural relations of power and a lack of engagement between state and non-state actors, which subsequently impacted on policy implementation and the claiming of socio-economic rights.

My doctoral research focuses predominantly on the manner in which the executive and legislative branches of the state interpret their domestic obligations, coupled with their international human rights and development commitments, to advance substantive equality through the realisation of constitutionally protected human rights. My research further seeks to contribute toward a growing body of socio-legal studies that consider the multifaceted complexities associated with solving contemporary social problems in South Africa, as it relates to the advancement of substantive equality, by exploring the legal, political, economic and social dimensions of realising the right to social security.


How CERES helped you to develop your research?

The most useful aspect of CERES for me has been bonding with a cohort of PhD peers who have been an essential support structure in my PhD journey. I have had the opportunity to present my research to my peers at various stages of the PhD, and it has been a privilege to receive engaged feedback and witness the development of my peers’ research projects. The PhD process can often-times be quite a lonely one, and having a supportive community of peers makes the journey a more enjoyable one. Importantly, through the CERES network I have learned more about other topics and contexts.


What would you suggest to students that want to become researchers?

Try not to predetermine your research outcomes. While articulating your research objectives at the outset is a useful way to ensure that your research remains focused, I think it’s also important to allow your research to guide you to unexpected conclusions. Also, be aware of your biases and how it may influence your analyses; non-judgmental critical-self reflexivity – at least for me – has been the most enriching part of my research process and has allowed me the space to constantly reflect on my research from nuanced perspectives.



Thandiwe Matthews

Joint PhD Candidate | Governance, Law and Social Justice

International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam

School of Law, University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg)