Cut off from the real world
There is clearly a need for us to think differently about our mission as university-based scholars in terms of the ongoing problems and struggles in our communities. We must not only revive our own intellectual activity as academics in the humanities, but also make a sustained contribution to the public good.
It is well known that the humanities and social science disciplines played a central role in rewriting South African history and in recasting approaches to the study of our complex and ever-changing social and aesthetic worlds, especially in the period leading up to the demise of apartheid. There were often intimate connections between some university-based scholars and the broad anti-apartheid movement, which fostered a sense of relevance and vitality.
From the 1960s to the late 1980s, some humanities disciplines were animated by the severe challenges of apartheid oppression and its students were excited by this engaged scholarship.
Whether you were in fine art, journalism, English, drama, history, anthropology or any other humanities discipline, these decades were preoccupied with understanding apartheid in its many dimensions and in seeking ways to move beyond it. Scholarship that tended to ignore apartheid risked irrelevance.
The changes in our society since 1994 as well as a wide variety of global changes have had a significant impact on the role of university-based academics. Mounting pressure to meet performance targets has decisively shifted the terrain away from an engaged scholarship in dialogue with societal struggles and problems towards an instrumentalist professional agenda.
Sterility and separation
As a damaging result, there are no longer any cutting-edge debates emerging from our disciplines — that is, none are tied to the ongoing challenges of our society. A certain sterility has overtaken the humanities, coinciding with a generalised separation of the university from broader society.
Although there is some unevenness between various disciplines in the humanities, it is safe to say that we have not navigated the post-apartheid terrain with quite the same confidence as we, or at any rate some, challenged apartheid.
Democracy in South Africa has not led to a thriving buzz within the humanities at universities. Instead, it has become preoccupied with narrow concerns almost always connected to policy research. A new form of consultancy has emerged, one that benefits from lucrative contracts with the state or with private companies.
Yet, in the past decade or so, there has been a massive upsurge in popular protest in the country, accompanied by an escalation in state repression. In stark contrast to the rebellion against apartheid, university-based humanities scholars, aside from a few notable exceptions, have been conspicuous by their absence from these ongoing struggles.
Instead of providing leading analyses premised on active involvement, academics have in general been reactive to these struggles. Some have ignored them, and some have even considered them an aberration with no place in a democratic society. Our interpretations, seemingly limited by the euphoria surrounding the demise of apartheid, have tended to avoid the discussion of alternatives.
Everyone but universities
Journalists, novelists, artists and other commentators outside universities appear to have captured the space for critical engagement and penetrating, fresh analyses of our contemporary crises and challenges.
It is rare to notice the work of university-based academics being debated in the public sphere. Confined within the boundaries of our campuses, our work has become petrified and not fed by the creative possibilities of an active dialogue with those outside it.
This is not to suggest that all humanities scholars are utterly cut off from the messiness of the real world. There are some outstanding examples of engaged scholarship and artistic expression, but there are simply too few of them to influence national debates.
New paradigms and approaches are required for a critical engagement with present conditions. This is the mission of Uhuru, the new Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University which has been established with funding from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation.
The idea for Uhuru stemmed from a growing awareness of the decline in humanities disciplines in South Africa.
Two reports released last year — one from the department of higher education and training (the "Charter for the Humanities and Social Sciences") and the other from the Academy of Science of South Africa ("Consensus Study on the State of the Humanities") — highlighted this decline.
The uniqueness of Uhuru lies in the direct manner in which it has understood the reasons for the decline and the ways in which it plans to make a contribution to reversing this trend.
It is a bold and ambitious step towards generating knowledge directly connected with the challenges of our society.
Uhuru takes as a starting point that easy answers are entirely inappropriate and a genuinely engaged scholarship has to eschew the simple formulas that are often proffered as solutions to our many crises.
Historiographical debates have to be revived so that the different ways in which we understood the past can also be subjected to critical scrutiny as an essential component of our diagnoses of current problems.
There is a great deal of new theoretical and empirical work emerging on the continent and more broadly in the global South on the relation between universities and the public spheres they inhabit. Uhuru aims to move beyond constructions of South Africa as just another site in an international neoliberal system.
Instead, the uniqueness of our situation provides a ready laboratory for generating new conceptual frameworks that should enable us to take responsibility for theorising our own conditions.
Uhuru aims to be an insurgent node in a developing network of engaged scholarship in Africa and the South, and to contribute to the growth of intellectual communities who may challenge the dominance of metropolitan theorisations.
To realise this mission, Uhuru will do research that asks hard, critical questions about where we are as a society in a global context of inequality.
A variety of approaches is critical to the success of this project and Uhuru's siting in the humanities faculty at Rhodes University will allow for the participation of all disciplines in the new unit's work of reviving, revitalising and renovating the humanities.
Professor Fred Hendricks is dean of humanities at Rhodes University