The humanities have long been vital to the creative and critical energies of societies in the throes of profound change. HUMA - the Institute for the Humanities in Africa - is a global initiative at UCT, with a Pan-African framework intended to create a space of dynamic interdisciplinary community for scholars and students in the humanities at large. Fostering top-end academic research, HUMA seeks also to draw on that work to nurture critical public debate, promoting UCT's vision of itself as a civic university contributing to the making of democratic citizenship.

Located in the Faculty of Humanities, HUMA takes a broad view of the humanities, encompassing other fields such as the social sciences, environmental sciences, health sciences, engineering, computer sciences and others.

HUMA's intellectual agenda is driven by one overarching but inclusive research theme, which informs and structures three primary objectives:

  • to conduct and promote research that is historically grounded and theoretically engaged, with an eye to the 'big' theoretical and ethical questions that anchor African issues in wider fields of experience and analysis. The combination of intellectual focus and breadth provided by HUMA's research themes is intended to open up spaces for dialogue, collaboration and argument across disparate theoretical, epistemological and methodological traditions, and in ways that help examine the project of interdisciplinary work.
  • to nurture the expertise and enthusiasm of graduate students interested in an academic career, through a combination of intensive and supportive doctoral supervision, and a broader programme of seminars, symposia and workshops that help develop the intellectual versatility and confidence which an academic career requires.
  • to bring scholars and graduate students into conversation with interested publics, around issues of shared and topical concern. HUMA hopes to promote what public intellectuals in the humanities do best, which is to de-familiarise and unsettle established ways of seeing, think creatively about pressing social and political questions, and keep the imagination of alternative futures alive.

This mission is embedded in a particular understanding of our location in Africa. Africa is a landmass with a deep and complex history of connection and disconnection amongst its many inhabitants; being African means being party to formative relationships of connection and disconnection that shape the ways we think and act. Our scholarship and debate, then, is positioned in Africa, even if the focus of our deliberations is global.

HUMA has been funded by grants from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Ford Foundation and Anglo-Gold Ashanti.

Research themes

HUMA's research themes are deliberately broad and expansive. They are intended to function in two ways simultaneously: on one hand, to constitute a collective intellectual project, which gives coherence and cohesion to the intellectual life of the Institute, and on the other, to create space therein for individual researchers to make their own way into the issues. An architectural metaphor perhaps captures this best: if the Institute is imagined as a building, the research themes give it size and shape, at the same time as creating many rooms which individual researchers can inhabit in their own way.

Each theme encompasses three modes of analysis: theoretical and conceptual; empirical; and ethical. While separable in some respects, these are also closely interconnected, and the research themes create opportunities to explore these linkages too.

The research themes are envisaged as vehicles of interdisciplinary research and engagement - with the intention of discussing and debating what interdisciplinarity might entail.

On being human

If modern histories of racism and colonialism exposed the contradictions at the core of Enlightenment affirmations of a shared human nature, late modern identity politics - associated with violent, sometimes genocidal, assertions of irreducible difference - have also blighted efforts to establish peaceful and mutually respectful modes of living.

This theme aims to contribute to resurgent scholarly interest in questions of what we humans share, even if in recognition of profound differences - as the basis for grappling with the contours of 'a good life'.

To this end, the theme is structured around three key concepts and their obverses: 'human', 'humane' and 'humanist; and obversely 'non-human', 'inhumane' and 'anti-humanist'.

  • Human/non-human: The human/non-human frontier is a critical, even foundational, question for most disciplines, in constituting their object of knowledge and appropriate modes of inquiry. This means too, that debates about interdisciplinarity should include efforts to revisit disciplinary genealogies of the human and their points of convergence. Of particular interest here are the prospects for reformulating and revisiting the old 'nature-nurture' debate in the light of the new genetics and its challenge to socially constructivist epistemologies that have dominated the humanities in recent years.
Particular modes of defining and distinguishing the human have been equally formative of varying regimes of law, culture and power, across space and time. This research theme aims to explore the epistemological, as well as historically contextual and comparative, dimensions and implications of the ways the human has been defined and distinguished from what it is not - be it animal, material or spectral.
Such questions have global resonance, both in respect of varying national and transnational histories as well as in the emergence of regimes of international law and regulation.
In the South African case, the concept of a shared humanity is at the very core of South Africa's democratic constitutionalism: written into the constitution, the cornerstone of the doctrine of human rights, and the ethical driver of the project of 'national reconciliation'. It is, however, a surprisingly ill-defined concept - as was the idea of the 'reconciliation' to which the country aspired. This research theme brings legal, philosophical and socio-historical scholars into conversation, about different versions of our humanity, 'reconciliation', the much-vaunted notion of 'ubuntu', and the juridico-legal, ethical and political consequences thereof. Such questions are of local and global interest, and engaging them allows for a comparative reflection on Africa's experience of democratisation and its imprint in more global experiments in humanistic 'reconciliation'.
  • Humane/inhumane This conceptual couplet draws attention to historically and geographically varying patterns of violence, cruelty, exploitation etc., and their limits - with a particular interest in Africa more widely, India, Latin America and post-Soviet Russia. We are as interested in the different experiences of the inhumane as in the conditions which produce and sustain the humane, such as care, empathy, love, as well as the pursuit of dignity and virtue. This includes empirical studies of the relationships, institutions and networks associated with the humane/inhumane -- including the effects of gender relations, family forms and modes of domesticity, religiosity and modes of faith, communal organisations, support groups etc.
  • Humanist/Anti-humanist These concepts signal one of the major sites of ethical debate in the contemporary world - with a long history of intellectual and political engagement on the kind of society we want to inhabit. We are interested in a genealogy of humanist thinking and its critiques, with a particular interest in the resonances of these issues in South Africa and the continent at large. Also of interest are concepts of human rights, as well as projects of humanitarianism and the ideological and political interventions associated with them.