Humanities reach new milestones

The 2019 Annual Doctoral Conference, held on October 29 and 30, was the National Institute of Humanities and Social Science (NIHSS)’s biggest and boldest instalment yet. It celebrated close to 79 new PhD graduates, the launch of the NIHSS Doctoral Alumni Forum and the introduction of the NIHSS app.
There were multiple parallel research discussions, panel presentations and a gala dinner attended by the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande.

The fifth instalment of the doctoral conference demonstrates the milestones and improved academic participation of humanities and social science (HSS) scholars that the institute has been able to achieve in just five years.

In 2010 Nzimande commissioned a task force to pen the charter initiative and report on humanities and social sciences. The initiative was commissioned based on the minister’s conviction that HSS ought to play a major role in defining the character, excellence and values of a robust post-apartheid higher education system. The cumulative research and discussions following the charter report on HSS led to the birth of NIHSS as a statutory body of the Ministry of Higher Education in December 2013.

The NIHSS aims to demonstrate the critical role that HSS plays in the economy and new knowledge systems. It not only provides funding for doctoral studies in the humanities and social sciences fields, but also provides a support system and networking opportunities for doctoral candidates; it is a hub for new knowledge creation from an African perspective.

NIHSS graduates: University of Fort Hare’s Dr Nolukhanyo Metula and Rhodes University’s Dr Sinazo Nomsenge

The NIHSS, in partnership with the South African Humanities Deans’ Association (Sahuda) and the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (Codesria), has funded more than 600 PhD fellows through South Africa’s universities, with more than 400 still in the system. The collaborative works of the NIHSS scholars have ensured that the institute becomes an innovative catalyst for knowledge production and the creation of new knowledge acquisition mechanisms. These collaborative efforts create an enabling environment for the realisation of the vision to transform and decolonise higher education curricula.

The NIHSS acknowledges that although much has been achieved in the five years of the institute’s existence, much is still required. Its leadership recognises that if the humanities and social sciences departments are to make a meaningful impact, the institute must realise its goals with urgency, effectiveness and efficiency. This will ensure the prosperous, sustainable and inclusive growth of South Africa and the continent.

Providing meaning

NIHSS chief executive Professor Sarah Mosoetsa opened the conference by highlighting that despite the challenges it has experienced such as the passing of two NIHSS doctoral fellows, there have been exciting moments. She delved into the role and impact of the humanities and social sciences, which serve the critical role of providing structures of meaning, without which society is at risk of being left hollow and purposeless; they also enable meaningful economic contributions.

Mosoetsa reminded the conference delegates of the mandate that the institute was given by Nzimande: to produce doctoral graduates. “Great strides have been made by the institute in response to the minister’s appeal,” she said, “and it is worth noting that the majority of doctoral graduates come from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), the University of South Africa (Unisa) and the University of Pretoria (UP). What is also very pleasing is the rising number of graduates from the University of Fort Hare (UFH), University of Venda (Univen) and University of Limpopo (UL).”

The number of doctoral candidates and the diversity of the research projects that the NIHSS is involved in are of high relevance; the research they are conducting has extensive application for furthering economic and social development on the African continent. She lauded UKZN for encouraging thinking, processing and writing in African languages in academia. In the spirit of celebrating and creating new stories from a South African perspective, Mosoetsa concluded her introductory remarks by calling for the delegates to write: “write a page, every day”.

Professor Sarah Mosoetsa, chief executive of the NIHSS, receives a signed pledge from alumni, with Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Bonginkosi ‘Blade’ Nzimande beside her

Also being celebrated was the launch of the NIHSS mobile application, which is available from the Play store. The mobile application aims to go beyond regional and national conferences and workshops to facilitate collaboration, ideation, networking, information sharing and peer learning. The platform minimises the use of paper by making conference proceeding and documentation available digitally, and the virtual socialising enabled by the app creates better chances of impactful collaboration and problem solving.

Transformation and economic empowerment

The 2019 Doctoral Conference was attended by more than 300 delegates and honoured more than 70 doctoral graduates. There were 53 research discussion sessions, more than 200 doctoral alumni, and over 180 papers and abstract submissions received. The NIHSS story is inspirational, as it is founded upon the principles of transformative excellence. The research done by the beneficiaries of the NIHSS funding initiative spans a wide range of topics, including education, philosophy and training, digital humanities, gender and sexuality, identity and belonging, and a range of other engaging themes that were explored on the second and third days of the conference.

The themes highlighted are the focus of more than 200 projects funded by NIHSS. The projects under the theme of health relate to prevention and treatment, and include research that focuses on examining the preferences for a youth-friendly online HIV risk calculator, which examines how person-to-person information gathering on HIV risk exposure compares to an internet-enabled mechanism.

In the education field, some research explores conditions in the field that contribute to a culture of learning; other research explores the benefits of introducing an academic literacy module in higher education institutions from students’ perspectives.

The theme of rural livelihoods included, among others, research discussions on smallholder farmers and perceptions of capacity building in palm farming initiatives, as well as ecological governance and the sustainability of rural households’ water conservation systems.

NIHSS alumna Dr Sibusiso Mkhwanazi addresses the inaugural NIHSS Alumni Forum launch

NIHSS Doctoral Alumni Forum

In just five years, the institute has helped to produce 200 doctoral graduates, 71% of whom are African and 50% female. This milestone was marked by the launch of the inaugural NIHSS Doctoral Alumni Forum. The forum is intended to support NIHSS doctoral fellows in their professional journeys in academia and the private and public sectors and will serve as a networking platform, providing mentorship and tracking programmes. Its annual conferences will provide opportunities for knowledge sharing and collaboration.

The forum is also a call for alumni to swap authentic stories about the NIHSS as ambassadors of the institute. To benefit the NIHSS doctoral graduates, the institute will be making a call for postdoctoral studies funding that will be exclusively available to alumni. It will create a database to improve ease of information sharing and networking opportunities, and present publishing and exhibition opportunities to the doctoral alumni. Mosoetsa said: “One of the goals of the forum is to encourage the honourees to be unafraid to occupy all positions of power by fostering success in HSS through the collaboration of like-minded individuals.”

The NIHSS Doctoral Alumni Forum launch included panellists who shared experiences, challenges and growth opportunities that doctoral alumni may face. These included Dr Sizwe Timothy Phakathi, who is involved with safety and sustainable development at the Minerals Council South Africa; Dr Michele Ruiters, a research specialist at the Development Bank of Southern Africa; and Professor Grace Khunou, an NIHSS mentor for the Gauteng region and a professor in the sociology department at the University of Johannesburg.

Great responsibility

Khunou shared her journey after she attained her PhD, emphasising that “the journey is hardly ever straight”; she related how her passion led her first into the private sector and then back into academia. She said the pursuit of a doctorate may transform the area of research in which it is done, but more importantly, it changes the person pursuing it. She emphasised the need to strike a balance between passion and livelihood; this balance will likely be accompanied by compromise due to the nature of academia and the private and public sectors.

“Your doctorate is just the beginning: you need to learn new lessons, and recognise that when you address a room, people will listen. This is a great responsibility.” She advised the alumni to recognise when their doctoral qualifications are not facilitating the changes and growth that they want to see, and act upon this. Khunou also warned them that they may find themselves being the minority in rooms where counter-transformation decisions are made, and that in these situations they may be forced to be agents of change. Regarding the road to professorship, she advised the alumni to teach, supervise and publish.

Phakathi’s panel remarks concerned how the doctoral alumni can contribute in the private sector, but a balance must be maintained with academia. His advice was to “make choices, and understand what the choices require”. He reiterated the importance of writing for publication purposes: “publish or perish” he advised the honourees of the forum.

Ruiters completed the circle of doctoral participation in the public sector; she pleaded with the attendees to recognise that they need a support system, and to “be fierce”. She told the alumni to prioritise both service and their own livelihoods, but also highlighted that there would be compromises that would have to be made while striving to strike a healthy balance. Her closing statement to those who want to be transformation agents was: “Don’t ask for permission; ask for forgiveness.”

The conference also showcased renowned authors, as part of the “Encounters” session; they shared their respective writing and publishing journeys. The authors included the HSS Awards 2019 non-fiction monograph winner, Dr Bongani Ngqulunga, author of The Man Who Founded the ANC, and Angela Makholwa, who was shortlisted in the fiction category for The Blessed Girl. Dr Bongani Nyoka’s book Voices of Liberation: Archie Mafeje was published by HSRC Press and was supported by the NIHSS.

Gala dinner

The NIHSS doctoral graduates were celebrated during the gala dinner on the evening of October 29, which was attended by Nzimande. The minister was pleased to see that there had been a positive response to his appeal made at the birth of the institute: to produce doctoral graduates. “Nothing excites me like seeing these red [doctoral] gowns,” was one of his opening remarks. He acknowledged the role of the newly launched Doctoral Forum as an important support structure for the alumni, and the impact it will have in facilitating the fruitful exchange of ideas and research.

Nzimande highlighted the importance of institutionalising South Africa’s positive characteristics and practices, which enables the country to do things that it had not been able to do before. “Humanities and the social sciences shape the systems of thought that inform our perception of the world,” he said. “The expansion of funding for postgraduate studies will be facilitated through the National Research Fund (NRF) and the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). This expansion of funding through the NRF and NSFAS will happen because the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Innovation recognises that the NIHSS is not a ‘silver bullet’ to the problems that plague higher education.”

The minister’s address included a plea for the “resuscitation of philosophies of science and ethics, and the strengthening of multi-disciplinary collaboration.” This plea was followed by a question of whether open science is possible in an environment such as South Africa’s, which still has challenges of universal access to information and persistent economic and education disparities.

Given that higher education is the primary driver and producer of new knowledge and skills, Nzimande called for increased application of new knowledge, both locally and globally. To do this, one of the goals of the National Development Plan is to increase the number of PhD-holding academic staff at institutions of higher education and learning to 75% by 2030, from 35% when the goal was set. The minister also presented the question of how HSS will contribute to the fourth industrial revolution, given the impact that technology and innovation has on families and South African society. “The fourth industrial revolution will not be the end of humanities and social sciences,” he promised.

Nzimande concluded his address by stating that there would be partnerships with international universities to improve the global impact of South African research. He also remarked that the “quality and exposure of some of the South African universities and higher education systems lag behind — we cannot allow that”. He said a transformation is required in funding the higher education system; a healthy balance must be struck between foreign and local funding. He encouraged the participation and advancement of black women in academia, and shared his hopes of South Africa creating a culture of political ministers retiring into academia so that they can share their knowledge and knowledge systems.

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