Reflections on change as UP and HSRC celebrate anniversaries with Academy of Science of South Africa

Posted on September 25, 2019

In celebration of the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Faculty of Humanities’ centenary, the Academy of Science of South Africa’s Humanities Lecture was used as a platform to determine the importance of the archive in mapping out history. 

The annual lecture, which was held at UP’s Future Africa Campus, doubled as a celebration of the Human Sciences Research Council’s (HSRC) 50th anniversary and its forerunner, the National Bureau of Educational and Social Research’s (NBESR) 90th anniversary.

In a lecture titled ‘A Praetorian Sensibility’, HSRC chief executive Professor Crain Soudien made use of the various archives available at the HSRC and UP to trace and give insight into the complex  histories of these institutions in order to allow for a proper commemoration of their anniversaries. Two such examples were the Carnegie Commission of Inquiry into the Poor White Problem, a study by the NBESR, and how former UP Professor Geoff Cronje helped advance some of its recommendations, including racial segregation.  

Prof Soudien used the imagery of the Praetorian Guard – a fixture of the imperial era whose origins date back to groups of elite soldiers that protected the generals of the Roman Republic – and the location of the two institutions, Pretoria, to explain the position they held then and where they are currently. 

“Can we look at the city of Pretoria intellectually as a place with a particular orientation – as Oscar Wilde was to say of Oxford, that it was a place of ideas – as we sometimes do for places like Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Potchefstroom; to which we attach the intellectual identities of liberalism, high-brow Afrikanerdom and Christian national education, respectively?

“Is it appropriate, thinking provocatively, to endow intellectual Tshwane/Pretoria with the mantle of the Praetorian – that stance of being on guard for and standing in defence of the political authority of the state?” he wondered. 

HSRC’s Professor Crain Soudien, Assaf Executive Officer Professor Himla Soodyall, UP Vice-Chancellor Professor Tawana Kupe, Professor Vasu Reddy; Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at UP

The Carnegie Commission of Inquiry into the Poor White Problem was a study conducted by NBESR in 1932. This was the first significant moment that science and the academy met political direction. Prof Soudien argued that the first leader of the Bureau, Ernst Malherbe, set the agenda for policymaking in South Africa and the social sciences. 

“The unit of analysis in the Carnegie Commission was ‘race’ and how to account for it – in this case that segment of the population thought of as poor and white. In taking this direction, reflecting the ‘moral panic’ about the ‘degeneration’ of the white working class that was brewing in elite Afrikaner circles, Malherbe was, implicitly, aligning the social sciences in the country with the dominant political direction being crafted in the Afrikaans community,” he said.

Prof Soudien marked Sociology Professor Cronje, a figure described as controversial, as another dominant figure in this story. 

“From 1936, when Cronjé assumed the Chair of Sociology at UP, he was instrumental, as a positivist, in giving content – ‘facts’ – to the thinking that was evolving within the Afrikaans community. He took the detached ‘facts’ of Malherbe and vested them with the soul that his political peers were yearning for. Wilkinson and Strydom (1978: 196), in their key text on the Broederbond, The Super Afrikaners, suggested that “Nothing so stirringly spoken by Diederichs, Meyer and Cronjé could find public utterance before it had been the subject of intense pondering and discussion by this ‘Band of Brothers’ so completely devoted to the cause of alienated Afrikanerdom.”   

Prof Soudien closed the lecture by reflecting on how the dominance of the Praetorians would ultimately be diminished by dissenting voices, particularly of those who were committed to academic rigour. 

“They could not, however, sustain this order going into the turbulent late seventies and eighties. They were forced to engage with the changing balance of forces.

“The question with which we began was whether the social sciences and the humanities here in Pretoria – the institutions and the people – can be described as Praetorian in their character. It clearly, one must acknowledge, was so for a significant period of time. Today, of course, the social sciences and the people mediating them can no longer carry that label,” he said.

UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe said the archives were central in the proper telling of the story of these institutions. 

“The lecture by Professor Crain Soudien takes us back in time. His lecture serves as a reminder that milestones also define and shape us through our shared and entangled histories. The archive is a key point of departure for tonight’s lecture. Milestones aid us to reflect on the past, make sense of the present and ponder the future. For what use is it to reflect on the past if you’re not going to use it to create and imagine better futures?”

Prof Kupe further explained that the hosting of the event at Future Africa was equally symbolic in that it displayed poignantly what the role of the campus is: to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration among African researchers, as was the case with the three institutions responsible for the lecture. 

- Author Masego Panyane

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