Graduating Ph.D. candidate examines how we can right the wrongs of the past
Graduating from USC Dornsife with a Ph.D. in political science and international relations, Kelebogile Zvobgo studies how countries cope with political violence. (Photo: Courtesy of Kelebogile Zvobgo.)

Graduating Ph.D. candidate examines how we can right the wrongs of the past

Kelebogile Zvobgo studies political violence and how truth commissions, trials and other transitional justice initiatives can help countries understand and address the mistakes they’ve made. [3¾ min read]
Meredith McGroarty

As a preacher in what was then Rhodesia, Kelebogile Zvobgo’s grandfather, Jonas Zvobgo, used his platform to mobilize his congregants against British colonial rule. Later, her uncle, Eddison Zvobgo, became a leader in the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF), a revolutionary group active during Zimbabwe’s independence struggle that became the country’s ruling party when it earned independence in 1980. He then served in Zimbabwe’s first cabinet but was pushed out of government by President Robert Mugabe in 2000.

Kelebogile Zvobgo, now a Ph.D. candidate at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, was herself born in Zimbabwe, but she moved to the United States with her family as a child and grew up in Claremont, California, where she attended Pomona College as an undergraduate.

“One of the most vivid memories from childhood that I have is visiting my uncle, who had been in a car accident, in the hospital,” Zvobgo says. She adds that Mugabe and his closest associates were infamous for arranging “car accidents and poisonings for people who stepped out of line from what was expected …. The adults were hush-hush, but I was very curious about what had happened and why, and I think all researchers need that curiosity about the ‘what’ and ‘why.’”

Searching for ways to avoid political violence

With such a family background, it might seem natural that Zvobgo’s curiosity turned to politics and justice during her college years. Now, as she prepares to graduate with a Ph.D. in political science and international relations, she reflects on how she hopes to tackle the issue of political violence in today’s world.

“My dissertation focuses on transitional justice, which is essentially how countries deal with historical and contemporary political violence, whether through truth commissions, trials, reparations, institutional reforms, memorialization projects or other initiatives,” Zvobgo says.

She is using the dissertation research to write a book titled Governing Truth: NGOs and the Politics of Transitional Justice, which will examine why some countries adopt mechanisms like truth commissions while others do not, and why some transitional justice projects have a greater impact than others.

Zvobgo points out that there have been truth and reconciliation commissions in the U.S., and there are currently two more proposals for them in Congress. One would address what she calls the “arc of discrimination and violence” in the country since its founding, and the other looks more specifically at Indian Residential Schools, boarding schools where Native American children were sent in order to be assimilated into the dominant white culture.

Heading east with her Ph.D.

In addition to being a Provost’s Fellow in the Social Sciences at USC and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, Zvobgo is the founder and director of the International Justice Lab. The lab, located at Virginia university William & Mary, brings together faculty and students from across the country to conduct research on human rights, transitional justice and international law. In the fall, she will gain a new title at William & Mary: assistant professor of government.

Zvobgo feels that truth commissions provide an ideal first step toward justice because they investigate and present evidence of political violence. Pulling together expert, victim and even perpetrator testimonies, forensic research and other documentation is key to establishing what happened, which in turn is essential for working out how to proceed in making things right.

“You can’t talk about reparations without knowing why you’re giving them. You can’t have institutional reforms if you don’t know what institutions need to be reformed,” she says. “I think in the United States we don’t have a full understanding of our history, which makes it hard to understand each other. And it makes it hard to reach solutions and address those problems if we don’t even understand them, don’t recognize them or don’t accept them.”

Honored graduate honors mentors

Zvobgo is one of six winners of a 2021 USC Ph.D. Achievement Award, the university’s highest honor conferred on a graduating Ph.D. student. The award is given based on the student’s record of success, job offers that stem from outstanding doctoral work, major awards earned and other indications of excellence relevant to the student’s field of study.

As commencement approaches, she notes that she will miss her USC “academic family,” including her adviser, John A. McCone Chair in International Relations and Professor of International Relations and Law Wayne Sandholtz, and committee members Benjamin Graham, associate professor of international relations, Abby Wood of the USC Gould School of Law, and Bryn Rosenfeld, formerly assistant professor of political science at USC Dornsife and now at Cornell University.