How yesterday changes today’s society

Given the complexity of years of repression, colonialism, African traditional systems and hierarchies there is no shortage of material or areas that deserve investigation.

It is no surprise then that a number of Research Chairs are dedicated to building a deeper understanding of social change in South Africa. 

Two SARChI Chairs in particular are investigating these changes in the context of the country’s chequered history and how this is affecting social change in communities around the country.

Professor Noor Nieftagodien at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Local Histories and Present Realities Chair is of particular relevance given that he is trying to build an understanding of how changes are being manifested in geographical areas outside the main metropolitan cities.

He explains that his focus has fallen on medium and smaller towns in Gauteng, Free State, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and North West to gauge the extent to which historical influences still have an impact on individuals’ and various communities’ everyday experiences.

He refers to this as “lifting the veil” on the complexities on modern South African realities by looking at the deeper history of the country and communities. He says he is interested in understanding the historical roots of current issues such as the widespread service delivery protests, the local state, shifting identities and local economic transformations.

In a similar vein, he is interested in uncovering the future socio-political impact in an area such as Limpopo, which is undergoing significant changes due to new mining activities on land held by traditional authorities. 

He considers developments of this nature an interesting intersection of traditional authorities, local government and mining capital that can be expected to have significant consequences for the future development of these areas.

Factors that shape change

Allied to this work of building a clearer picture of the everyday experiences of traditionally marginalised communities is the Chair’s work in creating a historical archive of past experiences and influences. 

The extent of the work is quite impressive, having spanned more than 50 communities that have contributed more than a thousand personal histories to his archives.

This research provides different lenses into the experiences of ordinary people that enable better analysis of their realities and how this feeds into current factors shaping communities’ responses to change. 

Nieftagodien says that interviewing people from all social strata, from the youth and traders to domestic workers, is developing a bottom-up view.

This is important not only to build a historical archive, but also as material for present and future researchers to unveil the factors that are shaping social change.

He notes that recording current history is as important as the act of compiling the country’s past history for future generations. Landmark events such as those at Marikana, for example, will undoubtedly be interrogated by historians and social scientists of the future but they will be reliant on thorough insights and recordings on which to base their investigations.

The Research Chair therefore plays an important role in building the skills of the future crop of social scien-tists and researchers who will be doing this interrogation. 

More than 50 postgraduate students have benefited from the Chair to complete their honours, master’s and doctoral studies since the Chair was initiated in 2008 — initially under the leadership of Professor Phil Bonner.

Nieftagodien says the intention is to develop these postgraduates in a holistic manner that prepares them for a highly competitive field that demands excellence by producing publications of the highest quality. 

It also requires that they gain experience and exposure through engaging with international experts and intellectuals, which is achieved through conferences and collaborations that are made possible through the Chair.

This approach of taking a historical view to discern the changes being experienced by communities is also being followed by Professor Gary Minkley of Fort Hare University in the Research Chair in Social Change that has been operating since 2010.

He explains that one of the major thrusts of his work in this period has been to develop an innovative approach to defining social change through “social acts”, which is an approach removed from the traditional view that social change inevitably leads to improvement. 

He says this process leads to unpredictable outcomes as it removes traditional assumptions about the impact of change.

This work has involved fieldwork at a number of urban and rural sites that included more than 350 extensive life history interviews that have been digitally archived and transcribed, among other interviews, archival and performative components.


His unconventional methodology is also charactertised by using media such as music, visual and performance arts to both record and measure the changes happening in communities. This does not discount traditional research through interviews, surveys and archiving activities although it does present new views and insights into societal change.

These are the multiple sites where social meaning is constructed and, literally and figuratively performed. Concepts such as social change and social acts are contingent and elusive. 

The Chair’s various initiatives have therefore sought to search out that which might not be expected, predicted or known about the social, opening up new ways to think about the problems of the post-apartheid era. South African society has come up against the limits of transformation and has had to face the shortcomings of past explanatory models, most particularly the assurance that social change and progress are a given outcome of collective rational and political action. 

The suggestive concept of “social acts”, which conjures up not just action and agent, but also the theatrical, performative and representational, makes possible a thinking that holds several possibilities in play at the same time. These include that the social both governs and orders behaviour, in the form of discipline, routine and a habit, and that it makes possible acts that disrupt, and potentially change, how humans accomplish that ordering of the social. Also included is that social acts produce or result in certain representations of the social and at the same time launch a human subject that acts. Finally, social acts allow us to consider the subject of history as both governed by the social and enacting it — both as object and as subject of history.

Another area of work undertaken under the Research Chair is to look into the development of communities and their social networks. This research investigates questions of community and engagement, mourning and death, orphans and children, local government constructions and contestations of the social, changing forms of marriage, local understandings of social change, issues of sexuality as well as labour and work.

The Research Chair has primarily focused its investigations in the Eastern Cape. A significant component is the continuing influence of former homelands such as Ciskei and Transkei. One of the disturbing revelations has been that these areas have become even more marginalised and neglected after democracy than they were in the period of their supposed independence.

The Chair re-imagines the Eastern Cape not as a marginal space (intellectually, culturally, geographically) but as a significant site of intellectual and cultural production, and of social and political engagement. Minkley says the Chair has played an important role in developing a research culture at the University of Fort Hare, which, as one of the smaller institutions, has not always been possible. The Chair was the first to be awarded to the university.

To accomplish this, the Chair has initiated a new political strategy of criticism in which critical theory is not simply an academic exercise, but instead produces the grounds upon which new approaches to the urgent needs of society, the human subject and governance in post-apartheid South Africa can emerge. 

In concrete, “applied” terms what this means is that the Chair — by connecting a critical theoretical approach to assumptions about society and social change; by reconsidering research methods and models through which we understand society and social change — is committed to producing the conditions in which the community, researchers and scholars can begin to meet the challenges of post-apartheid South Africa, while also attending to the losses, disappointments and challenges that have accompanied the work so far.

Despite historical challenges, the Chair has enrolled and graduated 11 master’s students and 13 doctoral students, while seven postdoctoral students have participated in the work of the Chair.

A number of local and international collaborations have been established by Minkley, most notably with the Centre for Humanities Research at University of the Western Cape and the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change at the University of Minnesota.

This is an area that will be expanded in the future to include the collaborations involving research and postgraduate student work at Syracuse University in the United States and the University of Newcastle in Australia.

He says that he will be building on the concept of community engagement and development as strong components of his research orientation.

The aim is to further explore the ways that “the common”, as opposed to community, is developed across a range of social, developmental, visual, and public sites and practices. Through this it is hoped that debates around engaging the everyday, community, subjectivity and development can be invigorated in new ways.

While social sciences may not enjoy the high profile of the fundamental sciences, there is no doubting the importance of the insights that these two Chairs provide to the country’s social and psychological wellbeing.

It is often only in looking back that the significance of this work is truly valued, which underscores the need for the present-day focus on this research.

This article has been paid for by the National Research Foundation and its contents signed off by the Department of Science and Technology and the NRF.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Guest Author

Sassa disses disability grant applicants

Towards the end of level four of the lockdown, Sassa offices reopened for applications for old age pensions and childcare and foster care grants, but not for disability grants

Gauteng health MEC Bandile Masuku’s first rule: Don’t panic

As Gauteng braces for its Covid-19 peak, the province’s MEC for health, Bandile Masuku, is putting his training to the test as he leads efforts to tackle the impending public health crisis

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday