Humanities ready to weigh anchor

Minister Blade Nzimande is set on steering the humanities field in a new direction. (Madelene Cronjé, MG)

Minister Blade Nzimande is set on steering the humanities field in a new direction. (Madelene Cronjé, MG)

We started this long march near the end of 2010, when Blade Nzimande, the minister of higher education and training, appointed us — Ari Sitas and Sarah Mosoetsa, as director and deputy director respectively — to gauge the perceived crisis of the humanities and the social sciences in the country and envision a way forward. 

It has yielded a rich harvest — the charter for the humanities (mg.co.za/ HumanitiesCharter) and the ministerial special project to implement its key recommendations are now a reality. 

At the moment, there are five areas that have kept the task team beavering away while continuing with our full-time academic jobs (among the team’s four members, only one works full-time on the project). 

• First, there is the de jure creation of the National Institute for the Humanities and the Social Sciences. This will function as the co-ordinating hub for all activities we describe below. The amendment to the Higher Education Act of this year has created the necessary legislative environment for its establishment. Working with legal and other expert teams has allowed us to refine its activities from a torrent of ideas into a more coherent system of activities. 

Despite what we learnt from the Chinese — if you sing beautifully, your clothes get cleaner, as the epigram goes — it takes a lot of “infra-work” to get the clothes produced and the songbirds deployed. A “concept note” has been drafted, making sure that most of the charter’s recommendations can be part and parcel of the new institute’s mandate; the regulations that will be published for public comment in the Government Gazette are complete; the consultations with the Council on Higher Education are to start this month; and we are refining the “business case” so the treasury can consider its registration as a public entity. 

The institute’s budget has been completed. If approved, it will be a small entity with about 20 people and it will be inaugurated at the beginning of 2014. It will have a governance board, an academic committee and an international advisory committee. Soon there will be an interim governance board to oversee the establishment of the de jure structure once the above has been approved. 

• Second, we have consolidated nine of the 10 mooted “catalytic projects” the charter recommended, and we are excited by the appearance of an 11th project. There will be a further call for catalytic projects for 2014 sometime later in the year. (See “Networks for scholarly excellence” )

• Third, we are working together with the humanities and social sciences deans to establish six doctoral schools to receive 150 PhDs in 2014. It is envisaged that by 2016 there will be 450 such students in the system. 

The consensus is that there will be six such schools, with Unisa — owing to its character as a distinct institution of distance learning — making up a seventh. The schools will be created in co-operation with institutions in each province. A meeting on March 27 confirmed this and has established a series of host institutions — for instance, Professor Duncan Brown and his arts faculty at the University of the Western Cape will be the host of a collaboration that will include the University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. 

It is expected that the call for applications for scholarships, plus the adverts for the appointment of two emeritus professors per school, who will play a mentoring role through them, will be made public by the end of August. Their purpose is primarily to create communities of scholarship and co-operation. Although this is likely to strain the system in most provinces, it is still well behind the nominal targets set by the National Planning Commission. 

• Fourth, the work on our “African Pathways” programme has begun. The vision of establishing an Erasmus-like pan-African system of senior student mobility enjoys tremendous support. The project has appointed professors Nhlanhla Mkhize (University of KwaZulu-Natal) and Puleng LenkaBula (Unisa) to work closely with the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, the European Union and the South African Humanities Deans Association, and arrive at a feasible design by the end of the year. 

The challenges will be many but such an endeavour is central to our role in the African Union and to enable us to be able to co-operate decisively with partnerships in Latin America and Asia as well. 

In tandem with these we have had a series of working breakfasts with employers’ organisations, nongovernmental organisations and civil society networks to create a conducive atmosphere for Africa-wide and South African student internships. If this occurs fast enough, then by 2015 100 master’s and 50 PhD students will be part of the system, necessitating changes in the doctoral schools described above. 

• Fifth, our work on enhancing the quality of humanities and social sciences scholarship and education continues. Meetings with the department of science and technology, the National Research Foundation and the Academy of Science of South Africa have yielded positive outcomes. Professor Yonah Seleti of the science and technology department serves on our steering committee.

The concerns of the performance fields and of the applied social sciences are being addressed. We are working hard towards the recognition of books and creative endeavours by the higher education system. We have completed a feasibility study on international programmes at our universities and have budgeted for awards of excellence in a number of fields.

Finally, our interaction with the department of higher education and training will address the quality of education in the humanities and social sciences at first-year level. There are also many micro-activities that need no mention at this stage. 

Our deadline is to hand over the relay baton to a new institute by the end of 2013. We will do so. 

Ari Sitas is professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town and Dr Sarah Mosoetsa lectures in sociology at Wits University. This is an edited and updated version of their recent report to the steering committee of the ministerial special project on the humanities and the social sciences 

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