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6 July 2021
UWC Scholars in an International Research Training Group for Transformative Religion

A team of scholars from the University of the Western Cape (UWC) will form part of a new “ambitious, high-flying and prestigious” international research training group which will investigate the impact of religion in processes of social transformation on a global scale.

Professor Ignatius Swart
Professors Ignatius Swart, John Klaasen, Heike Becker and Dr Jung Ran Annachiara Forte are principal investigators in the German-South African International Research Training Group (IRTG), which involves three South African Universities – UWC, Stellenbosch University and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) – as well as Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin in Germany. 

As of January 2022, the group will take up its work under the theme, "Transformative Religion: Religion as situated knowledge in processes of social transformation"

Funded jointly by the South African National Research Foundation (NRF) and the German Research Foundation (DFG) with a gross total of roughly €4.9 million (about R82 million), the trans-disciplinarily project investigates the impact of religion in processes of social transformation and the impact of these transformations on religion in contemporary global societies with and within an inter-continental perspective. It seeks to further academic research and public debates on the complex relationship between religion and society.

This project, according to a joint statement by the participating institutions, is the second IRTG in the history of German-South African academic co-operation, is currently the only German IRTG in cooperation with an African country, and the first one to focus on issues of religion. For the next five years, the IRTG will present the opportunity for extended transdisciplinary research, training up to 54 doctoral candidates under the guidance of more than 20 interdisciplinary principal and associate researchers from a variety of academic disciplines.

Dr Jung Ran Annachiara Forte

Against the backdrop of discursive differences in perceiving and positioning religion in the field of knowledge between the global North and the global South, and with a distinctive decolonial approach, this IRTG aims at developing a critical epistemology through which the situatedness of religious knowledge production and reception in processes of social transformation can be researched. 

“In case studies from contexts in the global South and North, the IRTG seeks to investigate religion as specifically situated knowledge functioning as a resource for and as a site of social transformation,” the statement explains.

As principal investigators, the UWC team will respectively be involved in one of the four research areas of the IRTG: “National Identity” (Becker), “Development” (Swart), “Migration” (Forte) and “Healing” (Klaasen).

Prof Swart believes this initiative is a big deal for the University. 

“The IRTG will make a significant contribution to further establish the focus on religion and theology at UWC as a field of excellence from an inter- and trans-disciplinary perspective and approach. As such, it will make a significant contribution towards enhancing the international standing of UWC in terms of the aforementioned focus, and not least of its Department of Religion and Theology and Department of Anthropology. Specifically for Anthropology as an established discipline at UWC, the project provides a brilliant opportunity to develop the social and cultural anthropology of religion in South Africa within the framework of a transcontinental and a wider South African collaboration,” says Prof Swart.

Professor John Klaasen

Prof Swart added that the IRTG will make a substantial contribution to UWC’s ongoing drive towards internationalisation, towards an in-depth and focused specialisation within the thematic field of religion and social transformation, and towards drawing a selected number of high-quality doctoral students to UWC.


According to Prof Swart, the initiative to develop an IRTG emerged from a longstanding cooperation between the Faculty of Theology at Humboldt University and their respective counterparts at the Faculty of Theology (Stellenbosch University), School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics (UKZN) and the Department of Religion and Theology (UWC). The collaboration involved annual summer school events in Berlin and at the three South African partnership institutions since 2008 as well as the development of a master’s programme in Religion and Culture.


Professor Heike Becker

Against this backdrop, Prof Becker, Dr Forte (both from the discipline of anthropology at UWC) and Prof Swart were all approached to become part of the IRTG initiative during its development in 2017/2018. 

“The rationale was to assemble a team from UWC that would strengthen the inter- and transdisciplinary inclination of the IRTG project,” Prof Swart says. “Prof Becker’s previous collaboration with leading anthropologists of religion, such as Birgit Meyer from the Netherlands, and my long standing collaboration with researchers in the field of religion and development at Humboldt University, were important motivational factors to join the initiative.”

The IRTG’s first application in 2018 was unsuccessful and Prof Swart says a lot of work went into sharpening the focus of the second application under the same overarching topical focus on “Transformative Religion – Religion as Situated Knowledge in Processes of Social Transformation”. 

“This entailed that the focus areas were reduced from 6 to the current 4, and a lot of attention was also given towards sharpening the inter- and trans-disciplinary aspects of the project,” says Prof Swart.

Prof Klaasen was invited to join the initiative at the beginning of the new (second) application process (2019/20) because of his interest in healing and pastoral care, which is one of the four research areas of the project. He replaced Prof Ernst Conradie, who was no longer available for the second application undertaking.