UP’s Faculty of Humanities – 100 not out!

Posted on May 31, 2019

The University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Humanities is celebrating its centenary throughout 2019 – but the Faculty paid a special tribute to its history on 27 May, in commemoration of the day that it was first established in 1919.

The day’s celebrations included Professor Karen Harris’s inaugural lecture as head of the Faculty’s Department of Historical and Heritage Studies. From a small body of staff and students, the Faculty of Humanities is now one of the largest of its kind in South Africa, and forms part of international networks of academics, researchers and students with a wide range of disciplines and projects.

Prof Harris holds a unique position at the University of Pretoria. Not only is she a member of UP’s academic staff, but she is also Director of the University of Pretoria Archives. These dual aspects were woven into her speech, which focused on historical turns, how history blurs memory, and how archives could obscure the truth. Prof Harris considered the discipline of history and its various turns in the face of new trends, ideologies and contexts, the archive, the place of her department, and then turned to a selection of episodes from the Faculty’s archive to illustrate her point.

According to Prof Harris, “History is and has always been considered a contested space. Its practitioners in academia have continually had to reposition and reaffirm its status and relevance in the face of new trends, ideologies and contexts. In the latter part of the twentieth century the foundations of the modernist historical fraternity were shaken by the onslaught of postmodernism. With the dawn of the next century, Humanities as a whole appeared to be in crisis mode as it faced the assaults of a new millennium obsessed with functionalism and corporatism, with history having to justify its relevance. A decade and half on, the South African tertiary sector is having to respond to the #FeesMustFall call for curriculum transformation in terms of decolonialisation and Africanisation. While this repositioning is not new, it has and is prompting reflection, renewal and radical revision. We must consider how history, as well as the archive – which are at the very nexus of these debates – have responded.”

Prof Harris joined the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies in 1999 as a senior lecturer in history and was entrusted to also lecture and develop tourism as an academic discipline as part of the then newly introduced degree in Heritage and Cultural Tourism. She is an accredited tourist guide. For her distinction in the field of Heritage and Cultural Tourism and Tour Guiding, Prof Harris was invited to be the keynote speaker at the 18th World Federation of Tourist Guides Association Convention held in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Reflecting on her years at UP, Prof Harris said, “I would not have stayed the distance had it not been for a large portion of this audience comprising of students, and in particular postgraduate students, who I am very proud to call mine.”

Prof Vasu Reddy, Prof Karen Harris and Prof Tawana Kupe

At the lecture, Professor Vasu Reddy, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, presented a commemorative centenary book to UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe, to mark the centenary milestone. The book is based on primary research conducted by the UP Archives staff and submissions from the Faculty’s various academic departments, and was authored by Dr Bronwyn Strydom, an alumnus of the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies. It is a kaleidoscope of selected vignettes that brings together broader themes and trends which were part of the Faculty’s origin, growth and development over its first 100 years.  

Prof Reddy said, “The history of the Faculty of Humanities is the story of a dynamic and responsive entity, often acting as a mirror on the contemporary social, cultural and political world in which it has been situated. 2019 represents further new beginnings as we look back on our points of pride and also of difficulty; the accomplishments and the challenges, the people that have made them, and the ideas that have shaped and are shaping this Faculty. With humble beginnings in a very different context the Faculty of Humanities has evolved and remains evolving. We are being shaped by a diverse community of scholars, teachers, researchers, students, practitioners, artists and support staff. I believe our developing identity is a strength. It enables us to reflect on the past, but also directs us to the future in aspirational ways.”

In his introduction of Prof Harris, Prof Kupe highlighted Prof Harris’s contribution to tourism at a tertiary level in South Africa, and commended her for “Being responsible for the founding of the award-winning UP Campus Tours as a practical component for the postgraduate honours degree.”

Prof Kupe noted that her doctorate, which focused on the history of the Chinese in South Africa, makes Prof Harris an authority on the subject. “She has written numerous chapters and articles on the subject of the overseas Chinese in South Africa, both in a local and international context, and has presented over 50 papers on the topic. She is the Chairperson of the Historical Association of South Africa (HASA) and an Executive Board Member of the International Society for the Study of Chinese Overseas (ISSCO). She also holds editorial positions on both local and international academic journals.”


- Author Shakira Hoosain

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