ASSAf annually awards ASSAf Science-for-Society Gold Medals for outstanding achievement in scientific thinking to the benefit of society. This year the awards were presented to two eminent scientists, Prof Karin Hofman and Prof Achille Mbembe, at its Annual Awards Ceremony held on 19 October 2022.
Prof Karen Hofman is Research Professor and founding Director of the SAMRC Centre for Health Economics and Decision Science/ PRICELESS SA at the University of the Witwatersrand. Because she has applied scientific thinking in the service of society we are, as a population, healthier. The bread eaten by South Africans today has significantly less salt in it that it did 10 years ago. This is the consequence of mandatory regulations based on PRICELESS/SA research that showed how many lives could be saved from averting strokes and the cost savings of doing so. It is one of the most cost-effective interventions for population health. Similarly, we now have choices when we order sugar sweetened beverages which include low to no sugar options and smaller volume cans. This industry response was prompted by mandatory legislation first introduced by parliament in 2016 and passed in 2018. Liquid sugar is a major contributor to obesity, starting in childhood and extending across the lifespan with obesity-related disease numbers now having overtaken HIV/AIDS in SA. This demonstrates how intersectoral action is essential to improve population health. Her work on universal health coverage has strategically focused on priority setting is a key driver to implement a sustainable NHI by doing research to inform the shape of health benefit packages and decisions to improve both health systems and population health outcomes. She role models the essence of this award by conducting transdisciplinary research: she identifies policy relevant issues, engages with the various relevant publics before, during and after the research endeavor and commits time and has the expertise to disseminate the research evidence through various channels both academic and, importantly, with the media as well as direct public engagement. This demonstrates a rare combination of skills that Prof Hofman has mastered which is why this Gold Medal is appropriately awarded to her.
Over the last twenty-five years, Prof Achille Mbembe has consistently published works of international stature and reputation. His work has played a role in shaping the scholarly agenda of the Humanities in late modernity. Achille Mbembe, born in Cameroon, obtained his PhD in History at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1989 and a D.E.A. in Political Science at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (Paris). He is the recipient of an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Paris VIII (France) and Universite Catholique de Louvain (Belgium). He has also held the Albert the Great Chair at the University of Koln (2019) and was an Honorary Professor at the Jakob Fugger-Zentrum, University of Augsburg (Germany). He has been awarded numerous awards, including the 2015 Geswichter Scholl-Preis, the 2018 Gerda Henkel Award, and the 2018 Ernst Bloch Award.
Between 1980 and 1996, he was preoccupied with late colonial politics, decolonization and emerging nationalism. Mbembe’s work was instrumental in shifting debates on the place of power in Africa’s postcolonial period. At a conceptual level the terms “postcolony” and also “necropolitics” have become associated with Achille Mbembe’s work. These are now key-terms in the vocabulary of the global Humanities. Of notable importance is his published work, Necropolitics, in which Mbembe theorizes about the origins of the contemporary world while highlighting the increase in militarization, inequality, and the revival of racism and fascist forces. He continues to produce globally leading scholarship. He published A Critique of Black Reason (2017) which is his seventh book. It has now sold over 12,000 copies. This work is an attempt at revisiting the relationship between capitalism and racism, building to a large extent on the deep intellectual history that has long been concerned with this relationship. Over and above the multiple translations of his work, Mbembe has been cited thousands of times and it is no exaggeration to say that he is the most cited African scholar of his time and, it is indeed an unusual week if he is not asked to present a major public talk in South Africa or internationally. Mbembe’s interdisciplinary approach combining History, Philosophy and Political Studies has tackled key questions of our time. From an early critical reflection on why the social revolutions in Africa that would be poignantly predicted under conventional Marxist theory never arrived, through revisiting the politics of life and death in his writings on ‘necropolitics’, and in his most recent preoccupations with whether we can take seriously the planetary predicament of the African continent and the diaspora, and the very possibility that the fate of earth may be playing out on this continent itself, Mbembe stands out as one of the key thinkers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Mbembe further published Deglobalization in 2020, which takes this further to argue that digital computation is engendering a new common world and new configurations of reality and power. But this ubiquitous, instantaneous world is confronted by the old world of bodies and distances. Technology is mobilized in order to create an omnipresent border that sequesters those with rights from those without them. His new areas of interest, including Africa’s place in the contemporary geopolitical terrain, recalibrating global relations with Africa, and the question of democracy in our contemporary world, once again attest to an unrelenting demand for inter-disciplinary approaches to the fundamental questions of being human in Africa and beyond.