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