‘Flagship’ to advance critical thought in humanities

The study of how people process and document the human experience in order to understand and record the world is set for growth with a new ‘flagship’ programme in humanities at the University of the Western Cape. The ‘flagship’ is a new institutional form aimed at responding to gaps in the framework of higher education in South Africa.

Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor launched the ‘Flagship on Critical Thought in African Humanities’ on 2 September.

The ‘flagship’ is the third key programme, run by the National Research Foundation or NRF, aimed at broadening and deepening South African research capacity. The two other initiatives are centres of excellence and research chairs.

The new programme will be hosted by the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape, which has emerged as a meeting point for researchers in the humanities and social sciences throughout Southern Africa.

The university – an historically disadvantaged institution built under apartheid for mixed race South Africans – has rapidly evolved during the past decade from a teaching into a research institution with strengths in areas such as genetics and fuel cell development, Pandor said. It produces the largest number of black and female postgraduate science students in the country.

The flagship programme

The flagship will open its doors for scholars and students from Southern African universities and national and international research bodies in a collaborative initiative to forge a school of humanities scholars committed to building a new intellectual culture.

It has been founded on three research thematics: aesthetic education, the becoming technical of the human, and migrating violence, and will be multidisciplinary, encompassing fields such as art, history, language, literature, music, philosophy and religion.

The initiative will convene a public lecture series and will establish a Factory of the Arts in the former District Six area of Cape Town: mixed race families who once lived there were forcibly removed during the apartheid years.

The proposal to establish a 'Flagship on Critical Thought in African Humanities’ was encouraged by a national debate on the future of the humanities in South Africa, fuelled by the Department of Higher Education and Training’s “Charter for the Humanities and Social Sciences” and a 2011 Academy of Science of South Africa’s consensus report on the humanities.

Pandor said the flagship programme sought to recognise potential for growth into centres of excellence in selected niche areas of research and teaching.

“If the flagship lives up to the expectations set out in its founding documents, it will radically alter the focus and thrust of the humanities in South Africa and Africa,” Pandor said, adding that the initiative offered a promising opportunity to renew and reaffirm the humanities.

“Our country, and many countries on the African continent – and I dare say the entire world – are grappling with the difficult challenges of transformation, of promoting equality and developing laws suited to a global community.

“Governments and communities find themselves faced by new socio-political demands and concerns. It is the humanities that can and should provide the interdisciplinary focus that will support the search for new approaches and unique responsive policy frameworks,” she said.

Valuing the imagination

Pandor said South African research on identity and transformation had rich material to form the foundation for the early work of the flagship, which offered collaboration opportunities to scientists in a range of fields not sufficiently explored collaboratively – such as customary law and democracy, history and culture, human origins, and race and identity.

“I think that imagination should be more valued and nurtured at universities than it is. Our public education system suggests that there is a ranking that places maths, sciences and languages at the top of the curriculum and places the arts, music and dance at the bottom.

“In doing so we place imagination at the bottom.”

Professor Premesh Lalu, head of the Flagship on Critical Thought in African Humanities, said that the programme was a platform for scholarly exchange, artistic creation and public inquiry into African political subjectivity, art and society, technology and the human.

Lalu said the initiative would forge the next generation of humanities scholars, committed to the demands of building a post-apartheid South Africa.

Dr Linda Mtwisha, the NRF’s acting executive director for institutional engagement and partnership development, said South Africa had a diverse higher education landscape, with a few universities that were highly productive.

The flagship initiative was a customised intervention aimed at recognising, nurturing and advancing the research strengths of all universities towards being highly productive.

Pandor added: “We have established universities with a strong institutional research base and they receive support from existing research support mechanisms. Universities that are developing their research capabilities have only begun to receive attention from funders.”