Re­search Pro­fes­sor Charles van Onse­len on his HSRC Medal for So­cial Sciences and Hu­man­i­ties

Public Sector Manager - - Contents - Writer: Ce­cilia de Vos Bel­graver

Re­search Pro­fes­sor Charles van Onse­len is an in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned re­searcher, his­to­rian, pro­lific writer and the re­cip­i­ent of many pres­ti­gious awards. And now he has one more award to add to the very long list.

The Hu­man Sciences Re­search Coun­cil (HSRC) pre­sented its Medal for So­cial Sciences and Hu­man­i­ties to the his­to­rian re­cently.

The award honours him for pro­duc­ing the most out­stand­ing con­tri­bu­tion in the field of the so­cial sciences and hu­man­i­ties.

Ac­cept­ing the award, Rhodes and Ox­ford Univer­si­tye­d­u­cated Van Onse­len said it was “a sin­gu­lar dis­tinc­tion to have one's work recog­nised by so au­gust a body”, adding that he was greatly hon­oured and touched by the award.

“But … while an award is be­stowed upon an in­di­vid­ual, the re­cip­i­ent can only be as good as the in­tel­lec­tual en­vi­ron­ment in which he or she op­er­ates, and that en­ables them to as­pire to ex­cel­lence,” he added.


Van Onse­len is one of the few Arated schol­ars in the so­cial sciences and hu­man­i­ties in South Africa.

The HSRC's sis­ter or­gan­i­sa­tion, the Na­tional Re­search Foun­da­tion (NRF), rates sci­en­tists through an in­ter­na­tional peer-re­view sys­tem.The NRF ex­plains that A-rated re­searchers' peers recog­nise them as lead­ing in­ter­na­tional schol­ars in their re­spec­tive fields for the high qual­ity and im­pact of re­cent re­search out­puts.

Van Onse­len de­scribes the rat­ing sys­tem as a “cal­i­bra­tion of stand­ing in the schol­arly com­mu­nity”. It con­firms that a re­searcher's work is liked, read and rated.The rat­ing, which is re­viewed ev­ery five years, comes with an an­nual grant so that the re­cip­i­ent can con­tinue do­ing high-level re­search.

“I found his­tory and it found me in the 1960s when African coun­tries were gain­ing in­de­pen­dence and ex­plor­ing what in­de­pen­dence and colo­nial­ism was about. With de­coloni­sa­tion I be­came in­ter­ested in pol­i­tics and his­tory,” he says.

“I de­fine my own top­ics that are im­por­tant in the for­ma­tive pe­riod of South African his­tory, es­pe­cially the pe­riod af­ter 1860 up to World War II and the high point of im­pe­ri­al­ism, post-min­eral dis­cov­ery, state for­ma­tion and in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion.”

He re­gards the HSRC award as a sign that there is an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of how, by study­ing the past, we can de­velop a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of where we cur­rently find our­selves and de­velop ap­pro­pri­ate ways of ad­dress­ing an un­cer­tain fu­ture.

Too few hu­man­i­ties grad­u­ates

As a lec­turer, Van Onse­len wanted to teach his stu­dents that his­tory and think­ing crosses na­tional bor­ders, which are al­ways shift­ing. His­tory and the teach­ing thereof in South Africa is a pretty poor state of af­fairs, says

Van Onse­len.

“Part of the tragedy of mod­ern, deeply dis­turbed south­ern Africa is not that we have too many grad­u­ates in the hu­man­i­ties and so­cial sciences, but that we have too few trained to the req­ui­site lev­els in big busi­ness and the cor­po­rate world, in the civil ser­vice and the mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, in law-en­force­ment agen­cies and the ju­di­ciary, in par­lia­ment and pol­i­tics and in our uni­ver­si­ties.

“The over­whelm­ing bur­den of the ev­ery­day chal­lenges that lead­ers in those stressed in­sti­tu­tions now face on a daily ba­sis have at least as much – of­ten far more – to do with a need for an in­tel­li­gent read­ing of in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive hu­man be­hav­iour as they play out in so­ci­ety and a con­tested po­lit­i­cal econ­omy than they have to do with the usual, of­ten mind­less, mantras that are rou­tinely re­cited about the need for more Maths, Sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy.”

He adds that while the cor­po­rate world might be filled with char­tered ac­coun­tants and MBAs – all un­doubt­edly de­sir­able and nec­es­sary –much of their time is taken up by ques­tions and an­swers about in­equal­ity, busi­ness ethics, labour re­la­tions and so­cial jus­tice.

The sheer scale of the plight of the hu­man

“In his work he has breathed life into the dry bones of his­tory”

con­di­tion is daunt­ing and set­ting things right in­volves “har­ness­ing Sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy in new and imag­i­na­tive ways, but the core prob­lems of­ten lie more squarely in the fields of ed­u­ca­tion or the hu­man­i­ties and the so­cial sciences.

“If we are to im­prove the stand­ing of the hu­man­i­ties and the so­cial sciences in this coun­try we sim­ply can no longer af­ford to tol­er­ate a largely ar­chaic and dys­func­tional sys­tem of pri­mary school ed­u­ca­tion.”

He added that the bedrock of good read­ing and fine writ­ing is of spe­cial im­por­tance to those de­voted to grow­ing the hu­man­i­ties and the so­cial sciences.

“If we do not im­prove the ed­u­ca­tion of chil­dren in pri­mary school and then fol­low it through into ado­les­cence – in the high schools – and be­yond that, into young adult­hood, at the uni­ver­si­ties, we will con­tinue to lag be­hind our coun­ter­parts in the sci­en­tific world,” says Van Onse­len.

With him no longer teach­ing, Van Onse­len's time is de­voted to re­search and writ­ing now. His lat­est book, ti­tled “The Cap­i­tal­ist Cow­boy: John Hays Ham­mond, the Amer­i­can West and the Jame­son Raid” pub­lished by Jonathan Ball and Co hit the book­shelves re­cently. He says he is now in­ter­ested in the link be­tween Mozam­bique and South Africa.

In the ci­ta­tion Pro­fes­sor Vasu Reddy de­liv­ered be­fore Van Onse­len was pre­sented with his medal, Reddy said: “His work dis­plays an on­go­ing in­quiry into in­ves­ti­gat­ing and in­ter­pret­ing the past. He digs, he searches, he dis­cov­ers, he ques­tions and he seeks to un­der­stand ‘truths' of that past whether through char­ac­ters, ideas, is­sues, and events.

“As a his­to­rian of south­ern African and transna­tional his­tory, Pro­fes­sor van Onse­len stands in a league of his own.”

He added that Van Onse­len's work is shaped by and founded upon an im­pec­ca­ble sci­en­tific base that gen­er­ates im­por­tant schol­arly and pub­lic in­ter­est in the top­ics and is­sues that he writes about.

Van Onse­len “bril­liantly musters sec­ondary sources and his own spec­u­la­tions with of­ten limited pri­mary doc­u­ments, rep­re­sented by his ground-break­ing and pi­o­neer­ing work,” said Reddy. “He is a scholar who writes as he breathes. In his work he has breathed life into the dry bones of his­tory.” An in­ter­na­tional drama se­ries based on two of Van Onse­len's ac­claimed books are at an ad­vanced plan­ning state. Rights have been se­cured for “Show­down at the Red Lion: The Life and Times of Jack McLough­lin” and “Masked Raiders: Ir­ish Ban­ditry in South­ern Africa”.

Pro­fes­sor Charles van Onse­len was awarded the Hu­man Sciences Re­search Coun­cil's Medal for So­cial Sciences and Hu­man­i­ties.

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