In three years, the NIHSS has provided scholarships to over 450 doctoral students

Soon-to-be Dr Siyabonga Yolo Koba accepting the NIHSS certificate from Dr Ndivhuwo Lururli, NIHSS

Soon-to-be Dr Siyabonga Yolo Koba accepting the NIHSS certificate from Dr Ndivhuwo Lururli, NIHSS

The National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS) celebrated the graduation of the first cohort of doctoral graduates, at its third Annual National Doctoral Conference, in collaboration with the South African Humanities Deans Association (Sahuda) and the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (Codesria).

The NIHSS was founded in December 2013 through a special project of the department of higher education and training, under the then minister Bonginkosi “Blade” Nzimande. It was established against the backdrop of a decline in teaching and research in the social sciences and humanities. In its first three years of existence, the NIHSS has provided scholarships to over 450 South African doctoral students. The main objective is to promote, build and dynamise scholarships in the humanities and social sciences and strengthen student-centred culture, while addressing inequities in the current higher education system. The first cohort of 44 doctoral students has just graduated.

Chief executive of the NIHSS Professor Sarah Mosoetsa said the NIHSS strives to not only be a funding body, but an intellectual hub that helps to define and shape the future of the humanities and social sciences. She believes debates on the transformation imperative of the higher education curriculum continue to call for reflection and interrogation of the humanities and social sciences scholarships taught and studied in South African universities, and their meaning in the post-apartheid knowledge production landscape.

“We are heeding the call to redefine what constitutes African humanities and social sciences (HSS) knowledge; to develop an inclusive HSS curriculum that re-centres African intellectual traditions and languages; as well as to rethink and cultivate African epistemologies that ultimately build a HSS scholarship archive that is not only relevant in Africa, but the world,” said Mosoetsa, adding that this vision to build African HSS scholarships will shift knowledge paradigms.

The National Development Plan (NDP) plans to produce by 2030 many highly skilled and qualified individuals to meet the needs of the economy. An increase in the percentage of PhD graduates in the country is one of the ways that the NDP envisions innovative research and development can be achieved. By 2030, the country needs to increase the percentage of the PhD-qualified staff in the higher education sector to 75% from the current 34%, and, according to the NDP, produce “more than 100 doctoral graduates per million [people] per year by 2030 — an increase from 1 420 in 2010 to well over 5 000 a year.”

South Africa needs an increase in number of women and African PhD graduates. The NIHSS is working hard towards achieving these goals. Female and African students are well represented in the first cohort of 44 doctoral graduates.

Dr Kometsi Molelekoa speaks at the gala dinner held in honour of the PhD graduates

Bucking the trend: NIHSS is established amid a global move to devalue the HSS

Head and dean of Applied Human Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Professor Nhlanhla Mkhize highlighted in his keynote address the challenges faced in the journey to establish the NIHSS. During the process of consultation across institutions of higher learning across the country, the idea for an institute of this nature was met with scepticism, because many people could not envisage what the NIHSS would be like.

It happened at a time when the humanities and social sciences faced numerous challenges, chief being their quest for relevance in an increasingly technologically dominated world. The inception of the institute came at a time when it was evident that globally, the humanities and social sciences were no longer a priority for universities, and in some instances, humanities departments were shut down or merged with other departments that were positioned to attract externally funded research.

The impact of this trend on African institutions led to the closure of some African languages departments, which meant that these languages would be lost to society, because where would they be taught if not at African institutions of learning? The irony, said Mkhize, was: “The humanities and social sciences have played a significant role in the social and scientific revolutions that shaped the national state in Europe, as well as the various colonial enterprises that led to the partitioning of the world as we know it today, and one might add, the partitioning of the understanding of who we are.”

The importance of the role that the humanities played in world affairs, the formation of nation states and the creation of identities cannot be overstated. Mkhize believes the time is thus ripe to develop critical scholarship from the south, by southern scholars, which will engage with international scholars in the dialogue to develop truly global knowledge.

“It is only good to retreat into the past in order to define the future and move forward. Persuasive knowledge cannot hide in a corner, hence the significance of Africans’ contribution to global knowledge. And this was the intended idea behind the NIHSS. A language needs to be developed for technical and scientific information and to serve the complex relationship between language and thinking. All this must be informed by sound scholarship,” pointed out Mkhize.

“Africa may be the second largest continent, but its production of knowledge is minuscule, and the NIHSS aims to close the north/south gap with its PhD programme. Our scholars should be proud and must develop a lasting community throughout the continent,” he urged.

Dr Kethu Cakata 

Doctoral graduates speak from the heart

The work of the doctoral graduates attests to the vision of the NIHSS as outlined by Mosoetsa and Mkhize. Dr Zethu Cakata’s thesis, “In Search of the Absent Voice: The Status of Indigenous Languages in Post-apartheid South Africa” shows how the status of indigenous languages has not been elevated, although the elevation and preservation of these languages was part of the post-apartheid agenda. Using the work of Steve Biko, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Frantz Fanon, Cakata, who completed her PhD through the University of South Africa, explored the perceptions that informed post-apartheid language policies, young South Africans and parents/guardians towards indigenous languages. The study results “suggest a need for a stronger civil society which would assist in the dismantling of categorising languages as superior and inferior. Furthermore, the results point to a need for a more humanising approach which treats indigenous languages with respect.”

Dr Kometsi Molelekoa’s thesis, completed at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, titled “Mental Health Literacy: Conceptions and Attitudes Toward Mental Disorders and Beliefs about Treatment Among Residents of Sisonke District in KwaZulu-Natal” examines the issue of awareness of and perceptions towards mental disorders. Many people are living with chronic or severe mental illnesses and are unaware that they have diagnosable disorders and that treatment may be available. This leads to delays in treatment and a perpetuation of negative attitudes towards mental illness.

“The results of this study highlighted the strong preference among respondents for professional help-seeking, particularly from social workers and medical practitioners, for the treatment of depression and alcohol dependency. However, traditional healing was seen as more helpful for treating schizophrenia. Regarding attitudes towards mental illness, the key findings in this study indicate that negative attitudes towards people with mental illness are widely maintained. The results of this study highlight the importance of awareness campaigns that take into consideration and respect the cultural differences of the people, and collaboration between traditional and medical practitioners.”

These are examples of the calibre and relevance of studies enabled through support and funding from the NIHSS.

Mosoetsa acknowledged the key role that Nzimande had played in the formation and success of the institute, while urging the graduates to “stand tall”.

The annual National Doctoral Conference hosted by the NIHSS was held on November 1-2 2017. The conference book showcased the abstracts of graduates and PhD fellows. It can be accessed at

A collective African voice is key to knowledge production

There is a great need for a collective African voice according to Dr Godwin Murunga, executive secretary of Codesria.

In his keynote address on the first day of the NIHSS annual national doctoral conference he spoke of the fragmentation of African knowledge production along racial and national lines: “Researchers in Maputo might not know what South Africans or the Portuguese are doing. Knowledge production is broken into little hubs, and we are not working across campuses.”

Another challenge is that knowledge production speaks more to the global north instead of between universities in South Africa or the rest of Africa. “Curricula is produced with the idea that it must be published in America or Europe. There are good conversations between Europe and North America, but not [between] us.”

This creates dangerous limitations and serious challenges for the global south. Murunga said: “There is an extremely unhealthy division of labour. Instead of productive networking, our colleagues in the north do the netting while we Africans do the work, while offering the best empirical data.”

Although African studies cannot succeed without Africans, mobility is huge issue for academics. Academic freedom remains a serious challenge.

Funding is another challenge, partly because it has tended to come from non-African external sources, which made it difficult to create programmes not influenced accordingly.

Emphasising the importance of the humanities, Murunga said: “A good medical doctor must understand some history. It is why the humanities and social sciences must be channeled effectively, and [why] it is important for South Africa to develop a truly pan-African research environment.”

However, when reasserting the humanity of Africans, the entry point should extend across geographical borders, gender and class.

“We must develop our own theoretical ways of drawing on our experiences, strengthen partnerships and hope for reciprocity. Too much knowledge is being lost,” said Murunga.

Mosoetsa assured the plenary that while the higher education system had changed and would continue to do so, the scholarship programme is secure.

“The realignment of geopolitics brings exciting times. Although the institute is only three years old, we are partnering with others way beyond our age. As we grapple with the notion of transformation, we grow academically and produce catalytic project leaders.”

The graduates are from 12 of 21 participating universities. Academic scholarship director Dr Nthabiseng Motsemme announced: “Barely three years since our formal institution [was founded], most have graduated in record time, most are black and they include a strong contingent of women. Importantly, there are still more to come in December!”

The institute collaborates annually with Sahuda to extend scholarships to full-time PhD students based at public universities.

Of the 44 graduates in the first cohort, 10 are from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, six from the University of Limpopo, five from Unisa, and four each from the universities of Venda and Fort Hare. The universities of North-West, Stellenbosch and Western Cape each produced three new doctors. Rhodes, Wits, Free State and Pretoria produced a graduate each.

The struggle is real! Pornography consumption in South Africa

Siyabonga Yolo Koba, who will soon be a doctor, shared that for him “the struggle has always been real. From the moment I entered university there were concerns about culture, scholarships, academic language, city people, money, assignments, deadlines, rent, all manner of things. Family news: your father is sick, your sister is missing”.

He had mistakenly assumed that the struggles would cease at PhD level and they weren’t eased by his chosen topic: Pornography Consumption in South Africa. “No one even wants to get near you.”

Koba, who will receive a doctorate from Wits University in December, shared how rewarding his journey had been and thanked the NIHSS for making his financial load bearable during the most trying times in his studies. “I know that I am a survivor, and my network continues to grow.”