Role of the Humanities in a Time of Displacement

Prof Loretta Feris, Vice-Principal: Academic, University of Pretoria, was the key-note speaker at the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) Humanities Annual Lecture held on 8 November 2023. She addressed the Role of Humanities in a time of Displacement.

The Humanities Lecture is a prestigious event of the Academy and seeks to promote the Humanities in South Africa and to draw attention to the importance of the Humanities amongst learners, university students, scholars, and the broader South African society.

The Role of the Humanities in a Time of Displacement, driven by the separate, yet interconnected forces of history, war, and the climate crisis, has emerged as a pressing global issue, profoundly impacting the lives of millions of individuals and communities.

While the advent of the 21st century has witnessed an increase in the frequency and intensity of armed conflicts and environmental disruptions, over the last two years conflicts in the Middle East, Sudan and the Ukraine and climate change-induced events such as extreme weather, sea-level rise, and resource scarcity have begun to displace populations on a scale previously unseen. South Africa has not gone unscathed, as evidenced by the disastrous floods in 2022 in KwaZulu-Natal and more recently in the Western Cape.

“I have also previously made the argument that people are virtually displaced when the lived experience of their relationship with the environment is disrupted due to profound environmental distress, experiencing solastalgia even though some may not have moved homes at all” said Feris.

This lecture focused on the differential impacts of displacement on vulnerable groups, focusing on issues of human rights, social justice, and the challenges of managing and mitigating the consequences. It highlighted the disproportionate burden borne by marginalised communities, who are often the most severely affected by displacement in these contexts. It argued that the humanities are integral to addressing displacement, providing historical context, humanising the experiences of the displaced, encouraging ethical reflection, and offering a platform for creative expression.

Yet, we now know that disciplinary knowledge is limited in finding solutions for complex challenges and increasingly we work not only in interdisciplinary modes but also transdisciplinary, integrating knowledge that sits outside of the academy, such as community knowledge and indigenous knowledge. It therefore argues that by engaging the humanities in conversation with diverse knowledge systems, we may gain a more profound understanding of displacement and may be better equipped to develop comprehensive and compassionate solutions, ultimately contributing to a more just response to a complex issue, and in so doing, addressing the yet-to be-realised promise of freedom in our country, as well as across the globe.


Prof Loretta Feris is currently the Vice-Principal: Academic, at the University of Pretoria (UP).  Prior to working as a  Law Professor at the UP Law Faculty, she was Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) of Transformation, Student Affairs and Social Responsiveness at the University of Cape Town (UCT). She held numerous leadership roles at UCT, including the Director of the Institute of Marine and Environmental Law as well as Director of Research, both roles were at the Faculty of Law. Prof Feris has 28 years of experience as an established scholar with international standing, with eight years of experience at a senior management level. She has experience in teaching and learning through her participation in multiple academic committees, including the UCT Teaching and Learning, Language and Social Responsiveness Committees. Prof Feris was also Associate Professor of Law and Programme Manager of the International Trade and Investment Law in Africa programme at the University of Pretoria. Prior to that, she was involved in several roles at the Washington College of Law, American University, Washington DC in the United States of America (USA).