Maverick Citizen

SCIENTIFIC LITERATURE ACCOLADES

Academy of Science Awards: The Inner Life and the Outer World

Academy of Science Awards: The Inner Life and the Outer World
Dariusz Dziewanski's award-winning study, Gang Entry and Exit in Cape Town. (Photo: Supplied)

The winners and Honourable Mentions of this years’ Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) scholarly book awards, set up to award and celebrate excellence in humanist scholarship, demonstrate the vitality of humanist scholarship in South Africa. Each of them exemplifies the ways in which the critical humanities work to challenge received ideas so as to improve our understanding of, and action in, the world.

Walking around the Vineyard Hotel venue, looking for people I know, I recognise some distinguished faces from the academic world. There is George Ellis, genius mathematician and winner of the Templeton Prize, while over here Mamphela Ramphele, former VC at UCT, is chatting with Jonathan Jansen, the current President of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf). Sitting close by is Wieland Gevers, whose vision, persistence and dogged determination saw to the founding of the Academy of Science – against all the odds – in 2001.

All are gathered here to celebrate the Academy of Science Awards for the best books of humanist scholarship written in South Africa.  

Higher education policy around the world tends to be sharply in favour of the “STEM” disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, with this bias leaking down to high school level. Yet, as one frustrated school principal put it in a final address to Matric students last year, “I wish the students would recognise the value of humanities disciplines, and not be afraid to follow what interests them.”  

Recognising this bias, the Academy set up the Award to celebrate and encourage excellence in humanist scholarship through recognition of the scholarly book, whose durable impact outlasts the more immediate recognition granted by the peer-reviewed article form (the privileged form of publication for STEM disciplines and government subsidy).  

Winning books 

I notice a group of people crowded around one of the balcony tables, looking a bit uncomfortable: no one is talking to them, and they don’t seem to know anybody.  

I go up to say hello.  

“We really all should be wearing name tags, so we can see who we are”, I say. “I’m on the Awards’ Committee.”  

“We are the gangsters,” comes the reply. “You know, the gangsters in the winning book.”

Well, so these are at least two of the former gangsters (with their wives) from the 24 gang interviewed by Dariusz Dziewanski (UCT, Law) for his award-winning study, Gang Entry and Exit in Cape Town.  

This really is a remarkable book, the product of several years of immersive work in the deadly townships of Cape Town, located just 20 minutes but a world away from the bubble of privilege and pleasure which is the Vineyard Hotel. It is a book which combines rigorous academic and theoretical analysis (how in Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, “field of forces” are always also “fields of struggle”) with a deeply humane and empathetic understanding of the inner life of Others. This combination challenges the usual frame of our understandings, both academic and social. In this frame, gang members are seen above all through the crimes they commit, acts of extreme violence and disturbing forms of disassociation, as people you would not want to let come at all close to you. 

The study’s key reminder is that “gang members are neither aggressive automatons, nor mere objects of perpetration and victimisation”.  Its understanding of how some manage to leave the life of crime and the financial rewards and even the fearful respect that it provides offers a firm correction to abstract theories of social reproduction which insist on privileging structural determination over the possibility of personal transformation.  

They (the Cape Town gangsters) are “the subjects of their own stories” and as such have the agency to make changes in their lives. Only when powered with an understanding of the inner life of agency is it possible to develop the kind of social policies necessary to address the deeply rooted problems of gangsterism.  

The award for this book was made in the category of Emerging Researcher, that is, for those just starting their academic careers. Alongside it, as cowinner in this category, came B Camminga’s (Wits, African Centre for Migration) equally excellent work dealing with another set of complex identities, Transgender Refugees and the Imagined South Africa.  

This careful and groundbreaking study also showed the strengths of an approach that combines rigorous academic analysis with all the resources of empathy and humane understanding. It examines both the conceptual journey of the term “transgender” from the Global North to the Global South, but also the literal journeys – both legal and experiential – of a number of transgender asylum seekers in South Africa.  

In so doing, it provides a rich analysis of the tensions between abstract constitutional provision and the reality of everyday life and prejudice.  While South Africa’s constitutional provisions with regard to refugees are progressive, the daily reality of everyday politics remains one in which violence is all too often the price to be paid for conspicuous difference.  

Honourable mentions

This year, the ASSAf awards committee developed the new rubric of Honourable Mention. This was to recognise three scholarly works which came within close but visible distance to the full prize winners.  

In the Emerging Research category, Rick de Villiers (UFS, English) received an Honourable Mention for his study, Eliot and Becket: Low Modernism: Humility and Humiliation. This was judged an exemplary work for the singular clarity of its argument, and the effective marshalling of its considerable primary and secondary resources. Its organising focus was highly original: ideas of the relations between two terms that usually pass without much notice or attention in today’s self-aggrandising and narcissistic world: humility and humiliation.  

With its focus on states of abjection, shame and suffering, the book brings to the light of our attention some of the difficult feelings which we often prefer to consign to the margins of our attention, and perhaps particularly so in a deeply wounded country such as South Africa.  

Two Honourable Mentions were also awarded to Established Researchers.  

In Convivial Worlds: writing relation from Africa, Tina Steiner (English, Stellenbosch) also confronts some of today’s key issues around identity and violence. Focusing on the renewed attention given to the concept of conviviality in social and political theory, it examines the ways in which everyday practices of recognition and mutual respect, of humour and of disalienation are represented in and across a range of contemporary Eastern and Southern African writing.  

The book argues that attention to these practices in their narrative forms has much to contribute to the now necessary understanding of the everyday labour “required to produce peace”.  Conviviality refers to the subtle but essential practices of living together across the differences and diversities produced in and by highly unequal societies. 

As this powerful study shows, conviviality is perhaps the necessary political concept and social practice of our time as borders and border walls proliferate, with these ranging from the literal (Trump’s Great Wall of America), across the legislative (the cruel anti-immigration policies of Brexit Britain as well as our own recent call to end the Zimbabwean Exemption Permit) and across to the everyday (the walls of gated communities).  

With Fragments from the History of Loss, Louise Green (English, Stellenbosch) shows what it really means to understand and make use of a complex body of theory. The theory here is that of the Frankfurt School writer of the postwar period, a German Jew writing from exile in California, USA, Theodor Adorno.  

What particularly drew the Committee’s attention to the work was its conspicuous success in the task of inhabiting Adorno’s famously aphoristic and lapidary style as a way of thinking things through. The arguments and indeed, the very sentences of this book, do not merely summarise and apply Adorno’s arguments, but rather create and perform a space for critical thinking, sentence by sentence.  

In challenging us to face (rather than turn away from) the threat of imminent ecological disaster, the book examines the history of conspicuous consumption in, and the exploitation of, Africa and surfaces some of the myths and fantasies that have brought us into our catastrophic present. Its central argument is that it is the social relation between people (and not just “the relation to nature”) which must be addressed if we are to thrive or even, perhaps, survive.

Established researcher category

The same ecological crisis stands at the centre of this year’s prize in the Established Researcher category, Lesley Green (Ecology, UCT, Environmental Humanities) for her rich and provocative work, Rock-Water-Life: ecology and humanities for a decolonial Africa.  

This book offers a vital range of local case studies powered by the conceptual resources of global and progressive scholarship. Each of these reveals precisely how the interwoven realities of inequality, racism and colonialism enable environmental destruction in South Africa. It shows how environmental research and governance can help to address the country’s history of racial oppression and environmental exploitation. 

Individual chapters deal with varied topics such as the history of contested water access in Cape Town; struggles over fracking in the Karoo; the call for the decolonisation of science; land restitution versus the politics of soil; contests over baboon management; and even the politics of sewage.  

But the book as a whole is pulled together by the explanatory power of its central standpoint – one that is perhaps particularly appropriate for the winner of this particular award.  

Its mode of thinking seeks to establish the possibility of a space for critical reflection between the immediate politics of lived experience (which can all too often reject the hard-won findings of scientific inquiry) and the politics of an over-confident and belligerent scientism (which passes over local insight and knowledge).   

All too often, argues Green, what we see at the policy level is a rhetorical resort to “scientific findings” which all too often amounts to little more than a “science for hire” approach, one which caters to the wishes of a ruling elite. Against what she calls “science capture”, Green urges forms of critical inquiry which neither ignores historical context and the understanding offered by local voices nor “turns a blind eye to the use of science to perpetuate injustice”.  

In their different ways, all of these prize-winning books demonstrate the vitality of humanist scholarship in South Africa. Each of them exemplifies the ways in which the critical humanities work to challenge received ideas so as to improve our understanding of, and action in, the world. DM/MC/ ML

John Higgins is Senior Research Scholar, Centre for Higher Education Development, UCT

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