ASSAf’s Membership embraces the full disciplinary spectrum and includes many Members from the broad Humanities and Social Science (HSS) disciplines. ASSAf is committed to ensuring that the HSS disciplines are a focus of attention.

Activities in the Humanities domain can trace their origin to the ASSAf consensus study report on the state of Humanities.

Humanities Conference 

In June 2014, a Humanities conference entitled “On Being Controversial – The Humanities Reach Out” was hosted by ASSAf. Minister Naledi Pandor, in her opening address, called on Humanities scholars to help achieve the goals of the National Development Plan. She acknowledged that while it is critical that we become globally competitive in science, technology and innovation, it is equally important that we achieve a country that is more equal, more just and more humane.

Prof Craig Calhoun, Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science gave the keynote address.

Commentary on the National Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS) 

Shortly after the ASSAf consensus study panel published its report on the state of Humanities in South Africa, a similar report, commonly known as the Charter group report was published. One of the recommendations of this report commissioned by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) was the establishment of an Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS). In 2013, ASSAf submitted a formal commentary to the DHET on the draft regulations to establish the NIHSS.

Humanities Standing Committee

A direct outcome of the consensus study report was the establishment within ASSAf of a Standing Committee on Humanities in 2011. The purpose of this committee is to ensure that the Humanities disciplines remain an important focus of Academy activities and to oversee and guide Academy activities in the Humanities.

The members of the committee are:

  • Prof Mpfariseni Budeli, University of South Africa
  • Prof Michael Chapman, University of KwaZulu-Natal
  • Prof Norman Duncan, University of Pretoria
  • Prof John Higgins, University of Cape Town
  • Prof Cheryl Potgieter, University of KwaZulu-Natal
  • Prof Deborah Posel, University of Cape Town
  • Prof Daya Reddy, University of Cape Town
  • Prof Brenda Schmahmann, University of Johannesburg
  • Prof Crain Soudien, HSRC
  • Prof Shireen Hassim, University of the Witwatersrand

The State of the Humanities 

A consensus study report entitled “The Future of the Humanities in South Africa: Status, Prospects and Strategies” was published in 2010. The report declared the Humanities to be in a state of crisis which is reflected in declining student numbers, falling graduation rates, and decreasing government funding.

Urgent and decisive action from government to arrest the afflicted state of the Humanities in South Africa was called for. The post-apartheid government focus on developing skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics has benefited these disciplines to the detriment and exclusion of the Humanities disciplines.

The report recommended, among others, the review and refining of government funding allocations to the Humanities, with funds earmarked for areas such as African Languages, Philosophy, History and the Creative and Performing Arts. It also called for the establishment of prestigious Research Chairs and Centres of Excellence in the Humanities, a recommendation that has subsequently been implemented.

The report can be credited with having focused much greater attention on the Humanities and channels of communication have been opened up with the National Research Foundation on funding matters.

The study was co-chaired by Professors Peter Vale and Jonathan Jansen and also included:

  • Prof Deborah Posel, University of Cape Town
  • Prof Keyan Tomaselli, University of KwaZulu-Natal
  • Prof Sakhela Buhlungu, University of Johannesburg;
  • Prof John Higgins, University of Cape Town
  • Prof Catherine Odora-Hoppers, University of South Africa
  • Prof Shamil Jeppie, University of Cape Town
  • Prof Gerrit Olivier, University of Witwatersrand
  • Prof Rory Ryan, University of Johannesburg
  • Prof Pearl Sithole, University of KwaZulu-Natal
  • Prof Andre van der Walt, Stellenbosch University
  • Prof Zine Magubane, Boston College           

Collaborative ASSAf-Canadian Royal Society Workshop on Humanities 

In November 2010, ASSAf and the Canadian Royal Society hosted a workshop in Cape Town entitled “Canadian-South African Dialogue on the Humanities”. The purpose of the workshop was to strengthen ties between the two organisations and to learn from the experience of (and within) the Humanities in the respective countries over the past two decades.

Statement on Xenophobia 

In 2008, ASSAf published a statement on xenophobia, condemning the xenophobic attacks on African foreign nationals that took place in various parts of South Africa in May 2008. These attacks were viewed as a gross violation of human rights.

It was noted that there is a developing consensus internationally that the goals of human liberty, freedom and protection of human rights need to be strongly fostered.

Attention was drawn to ASSAf’s partnerships with other African science academies and it was reiterated that ASSAf would continue to work tirelessly to build stronger ties with our counterparts in other parts of Africa, while promoting platforms where the different sectors of society could contribute to the dialogue on ideas of an inclusive social compact that would avoid such unfortunate incidents in the future.

The Academy called on all local communities in South Africa to respect fellow human beings, irrespective of the country from which they may originate.

ASSAf Annual Humanities Lecture and ASSAf Humanities Book Award


On 20 April 2021, Prof Jonathan Jansen, President of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), presented Prof Charles van Onselen with the 2021 ASSAf Humanities Book Award for his book titled The Night Trains: Moving Mozambican Miners to and from South Africa, circa 1902-1955. Click here to view the virtual event.

For more than 50 years, privately operated trains travelled by night between Ressano Garcia, on the Mozambique border, and Booysens station, Johannesburg.  Their ‘cargo’: human beings, Mozambican migrant workers in their thousands.  The Night Trains examines the largely neglected social and political economy of these workers, bringing into focus the human suffering involved in the economic partnership between the mining houses and the railways.  This was a partnership in which the brutal logic of industrial capitalism is fully exposed, working to maximise profit at the expense of the health, well-being and the very lives of its immigrant workers.

 The Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) awards this prize bi-annually to a scholarly publication that made a noteworthy contribution to developing a new understanding and insight of a topic in the Humanities, Social Sciences or the Performing Arts. This year ASSAf received 35 nominations with the publication dates limited to 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Van Onselen is a Research Professor in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Pretoria (UP). He holds a B.Sc. and University Education Diploma (UED) from Rhodes University, a B.A. Hons. (Wits), a D.Phil. from Oxford University and a D.Lit. (Honoris Causa) from Rhodes University.  

The Awards Committee found the book to be as an outstanding example of humanist scholarship:  engaged, humane and displaying all the qualities of sharpness, insight and balance that embodies the work of critical and engaged academic thinking at its best. The Night Trains is a harrowing and powerful text. It is written with passion, and with a deep understanding of the country, and the Southern African region’s difficult, contentious, and complex past.


ASSAf held the inaugural ASSAf Annual Humanities Lecture and ASSAf Humanities Book Award on 9 March 2017.

The purpose of this prestigious event is to promote the Humanities in the country and to draw attention to the importance of the Humanities amongst school learners, university students, scholars, and the broad South African society.

More about the Lecture:
The title of the lecture was Has Rhodes Fallen? Decolonising the Humanities in Africa and Constructing Intellectual Sovereignty by Prof Kwesi Kwaa Prah. Prof Prah is an African sociologist and anthropologist. He is the Director of the Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS) in   Cape Town. He has worked in a number of universities in Africa, Europe and Asia researching and teaching Sociology and Anthropology. He is the  author of many books, including ‘Beyond the Colour Line’ (1997).

More about the Book Award:
The ASSAf Humanities Standing Committee presented its first Humanities Book Award. The Award is presented to writer/s of a scholarly, well-written work of non-fiction, published up to three years prior to its nomination. The book should be noteworthy in its contribution to developing new understanding and insight of a topic in the Humanities.

The award was presented to Professor Keith Breckenridge for his book titled Biometric State: The Global Politics of Identification and Surveillance in South Africa, 1850 to the Present. The book shows how the South African obsession with Francis Galton’s universal fingerprint identity registration served as a 20th century incubator for the current systems of biometric citizenship being developed throughout the South.