Way forward for the humanities

Most of the recommendations of the charter for the future of the humanities and the social sciences have been accepted. As Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande said in his formal response recently to the document submitted by the task team he appointed in 2010, a new era is upon us — excellence and creativity in these fields will be ­supported.

For the task team, this is much more positive than was expected. It has been a long road — our team, its local and international reference groups, our academic community and students worked hard to gather ideas and information, sift through them and help to shape the outcomes.

All 23 institutions of higher learning were involved, all the relevant government, corporate, trade union and community sector institutions were engaged with and the priorities of the professional associations in our fields were established. 

The crafting of the report happened under diabolical deadlines. Then there was its publication and the mandatory three months for public comment. We received volumes of comment that ran into more than 1 000 A4 pages, from the nuanced criticisms of the Academy of Science of South Africa, the Human Sciences Research Council and of most university deans to the recalcitrant abuse of members of the community.

By the end of 2011 we had worked through the summary of the public comment and the line-by-line implications.

Finally, the task team, the department and the minister had to wade carefully through the shrillness of the Afrophobe and the grandstanding of the Afrocharlatan.

Through this the press was not helpful at all — it seems its new ethic is to ignore the work and do a Berlusconi on the workers: throw anything at them, from criticism to innuendo, but do not give them a voice. Ironically, it was helpful that they left the work alone.

The consequence of all this is a framework for the humanities and social sciences that breaks with the past. By the end of the year the new initiatives will be promulgated under the Higher Education Act, projects will be given life and the work Dr Sarah Mosoetsa and I started will be completed.

A series of key catalytic projects will be launched involving networks of scholars at different universities; once-off interventions to alter the existing drift (and in some cases collapse) in the system will be planned this year and addressed in 2013; the life-long and vocational recommendations will be absorbed in amendments to the Act and hubs and centres of excellence in the relevant fields (“virtual schools” in the parlance of the report) will be initiated in each province.

Finally, the National Institute for the Humanities and the Social Sciences will be promulgated. Its role will be to animate, strengthen and look after the integrity of the fields.

Points of reflection
The final conference on the charter, hosted by the Centre for Education Policy Development from March 28 to 30 this year at Birchwood on the East Rand, came up with many new ideas on how to get things to go forwards and how the department of science and technology, the National Research Foundation, the sciences and the humanities could work together. Key here were eight points of reflection:

1. What should the nature of our “globalisation” be? Here, inputs from the president of the Indian Social Science Research Council, Professor Sukhadeo Thorat, and the secretaries general of the PanAfrican and Latin American associations of the humanities and the social sciences (Codesria and Clasco) allowed for reflection on what research and networks could be like here and on the continent.

2. A focus group chaired by Professor Fred Hendricks, dean of humanities at Rhodes University, explored the important issue of Africa-wide co-operation and the rotation of academics, scholars and students and how this co-operation could be sustained.

3. Led by Dr Shamil Jeppe (University of Cape Town) and Dr Jabulani Sithole (University of KwaZulu-Natal), there was a meeting of minds by historians regarding pre-1652 historiography. They will broaden their networks to involve anthropologists, linguists, geneticists and anthropologists on key Southern African and Africa-wide issues.

4. A thorough discussion on the interface between the natural, social and interpretative sciences and fields was chaired by Professor Pitika Ntuli and dealt with the necessity of transdisciplinary work and the need to bring the themes of ecological and social forms of integrity into our scholarship.

5. Conceptualising the arts and the creative fields and considering their undoubted dynamism in the country could not be divorced from the study of the human and of freedom, or from the necessity not only to reflect on the past, but also to interrogate the meanings of the past.
This was the recommendation that emerged from the session on arts, culture, language and African heritage convened by Dr Yonah Seleti and Dr Siona O’Connell.

6. Professor Sam Moyo led a discussion on liberation movements in the post-World War II period and the challenges facing postcolonial states. This highlighted the changing roles, responsibilities, expectations, relationships and tensions of the humanities and the social sciences and their practitioners in such contexts.

7. Professor Ihron Rensburg and Professor Paulus Zulu led an exploration of the political economy context in which universities and the human and social sciences within them operate. This arrived at recommendations for research focuses that would promote the development of alternative developmental paths.

8. The need to increase access and ensure inclusive participation in post-violent conflict reconstruction efforts in Africa and elsewhere was aired in a session led by Dr Dilek Latif and Dr Alain Tschudin.

Mission accomplished
It seems that the mission has been accomplished. I will stay on for a while to help the process forward, with the other fixers that the higher education and training department tasked — Cyril Ramaphosa, on the funding formula, Rensburg on residences and conditions of study, and Ntuli on indigenous languages — and to help to translate these ideas into action.

I hope that by December our work will have been vindicated and the alarm bells initiated by the academy of science and by our work will have been answered.  

Some cutting-edge questions surfaced that will haunt the next tentative steps: The tables have been turned away from the government, but will the university system come to the party? It is one thing to create a positive climate for the humanities and the social sciences and to try to animate whatever has lungs, brains and hearts, but it is quite another, in a climate marked by negativity, to get universities and the academic community to respond.

After two decades of market fundamentalism, university councils and executives will find it hard to value again what they had devalued. As for academics, they have been asking for such revaluation but, as many confided, they are quite happy with their seeming servility.

A further concern has been with the weight of the past — most participants at Birchwood felt that it remained an overwhelming constraint. There can never be an easy fusion between the humanities and humanism. Far from it: anything in this land’s recent history, from the creation of the reserves to the civilised labour policy of 1926, had the fields we hold dear as its intimate accomplices.

The apartheid era perfected their use and trivialisation, from its systems of classification to its interrogation techniques, from the study of the effects of solitary confinement to its support of the development of “Bantu cultures”. There has been no Truth and Reconciliation Commission focus on the role of the sciences and our fields in propping up racial discrimination and its real and symbolic violence. There are still some among the current generation who can remember the 1970s and 1980s and are disturbed by the fact that last year’s perpetrators parade now as rational fixers and critics.

During his talk at the March conference, Nzimande admonished our report for downplaying the positive contribution many academics in the field had to make at great risk during apartheid’s twilight years.

Humanism must not be lost
As some participants hastened to add, what also must not be lost is the humanism that allowed, at least in some universities, an academic leadership to steer through some difficult issues of the freedom of scholarship and the protection of those who spoke truth to power: the Gandhi, Paton and Luthuli ethos of democratic tolerance must be revisited.

So, granted, there were moments of excellence in the past, despite apartheid. As we all agree, the human and social sciences are low-consensus fields: unlike in business studies where the bottom line of profit appears to be an accepted law of nature, there is always contest and noise. This allows the fields a critical dynamism but, as was pointed out, they also form an incubus of ideology: there is a fine line between many fields and political, religious and cultural chauvinisms.

In one of the lighter moments, an emeritus professor said that this country had more educational specialists per square inch than it had competent teachers. Whereas we should tolerate the chirping of the former, we need to work hard to produce many more of the latter.

Another recurring theme was about the economic limits of our aspirations. Participants were deeply concerned about the constraints and possibilities the world economy ­creates for our teaching and scholarship. Furthermore, we should take seriously the depth of technological, social and environmental challenges our students have to face.

There was consensus, though, that we have to be proactive and transform the conditions that allow for the production of knowledge in the first place, otherwise we will remain driftwood in tides beyond our control.

The slogan that we needed to learn from other societies was ever present and the biases of the task team were obvious: we wanted to learn from postcolonial contexts, of which the United States was a pioneering first — without institutions such as the Smithsonian, could there be a flourishing of the humanities there? Further south: without the Anthropological Museum of Mexico City, could there have been any Mayan historical reconstructions? Without a research institute of or on philosophy in the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences, could there have been any indigenous knowledge development? Without the Nehru Memorial Museum could there . . . ?

Active knowledge centres
The lesson for humanities success is obvious: unless we transform our heritage sites into active knowledge centres and become less obsessed about tourism’s buck, there will be little progress.

Finally, what animated many participants was the debate about a philosophical priority: the “African university”, strongly argued for by the Mapungubwe Institute participants and intellectuals such as Ntuli, versus the “university in Africa”, strongly argued by social scientist Mahmood Mamdani and historian Premesh Lalu. Such a debate will undoubtedly continue.

So expect action rather than talk, creative projects rather than meetings and some serious but humble resources. In short, we ought to get together and use the better climate, establish networks and hubs of excellence, align the work of the higher education and training and science and technology departments, and make our institutions robust humanities and social science centres. As should be obvious, the best any society can nurture is its productive and creative powers. In this we ought to be more than bit players.

Ari Sitas is professor of ­sociology at the University Cape Town and a poet and dramatist. He directed the ­ministerial task team that ­developed a charter for the future of the humanities and the social ­sciences.

For the full charter see www.dhet.gov.za

For Mail & Guardian articles published since June last
year on the crisis in the humanities and social sciences, go to

A diversity of visions embraced

This is an edited extract from the charter for the future of the humanities and the social sciences.

There is a limit to what an academy, a national centre for life-long education and educational opportunities, an African renaissance programme and a menu of “catalytic projects” can do in the context of the auto-nomy and integrity of university councils and senates.

There is a limit, too, to what the custodians of a reward system, such as the department of science and technology and the National Research Foundation, can do, short of punitive or exclusionary measures.

So it is with any attempt to reward excellence, however defined, even when excellence is linked to transformation, black advancement, social responsibility and good pedagogies. Whatever the criteria, there will be institutions that are not “excellent”.

As the humanities task team was informed in one international encounter it had: “In the European model — you punish them — you cut their funding, thereby creating pressure to perform. Clearly, in the South African context the conclusion might be exactly the opposite — it might be that these are precisely the institutions that require priority support.

“But in order to identify that and to give benchmarks by which to measure the benefits derived from the priority support, the absolute criteria of excellence will be very useful, and as a methodological tool, and also as a pedagogical tool, to give a common language within which to think about, at national level, what our higher education and research institution should be.”

It is the consensus of the task team that our higher education and research system needs a differentiation not on the basis of resource inequality, but based on a differentiation of visions, of focuses and priorities.

We need to be flexible enough to allow for pluralism and diversity, be generous enough to allow competition between priorities and visions and still be able to co-operate. The key point is simply a diversity of visions that should be expressed within any well-functioning system.

It is correct, therefore, that in trying to address the humanities and social sciences, it is inevitable that one must deal with the concept of the university as such.

Take one dilemma. There are a number of institutions that have taken their more rural context seriously (invariably these were the hitherto disadvantaged Bantustan-based universities of the apartheid past) and have attempted to interact with land reform and agrarian programmes.

It is also a serious social fact that industrialisation in South Africa did not entail deruralisation, and that the majority of South Africa’s black urban working class continues to support homesteads in the countryside.

But there are variations in what is meant by taking the rural context more seriously: there are those for whom, in the words of community leaders, “it is not a partnership, it is simply ‘extracting’ from us” as against those who are in a reciprocal, “working with” relationship.

How does one reward and differentiate, even if social responsibility and interaction are viewed in a more favourable (reward) light?

Granted, if one were to try to address the extreme inequality between universities, and the reality that they do operate in different worlds, how does one reward diverse integrities?

The urban-rural dimension of the new dispensation is one such dilemma; another relates to the vexed issue of the curriculum. In 19 of the 23 universities, members of academic staff and students criticised the curriculum.

To illustrate the dilemmas faced in this regard, one participant had the following to say: “We also have to look at our research agendas and our curriculum. We can’t transform the demographics of the staff and then have a curriculum that’s hanging over from the 1960s or 1970s or 1980s that is not dynamic.

“There are things we have to retain in South Africa because the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the apartheid struggle, produced interesting knowledge and insights. [Some people] know very well what I’m talking about, but also in the new context, how do we leverage that past excellence into a new form of excellence in the diversified environment? And also how do we look at our research agendas and our curriculum?”

Such a criticism does not remain within the university system, but extends to whatever elements of the humanities and social science curriculum exist in the primary and secondary education system.

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