Medical humanities at WiSER – interview with Professor Catherine Burns

No-one is saying ‘this research is not worthwhile, or it’s not dignified, or it’s too – Ivory Tower-ish;’ and why? Because we’ve had 15, 20, 30 years of people researching, let’s say, the harder social, political, economic questions related to, say, mining, and we’re making very little headway …

… I didn’t feel this 15 years ago at all. People would have said ‘oh that’s just a waste of money … this is just playing at the edges of the critical need – we have to feed children.’ The choices were: do we feed children? do we inoculate? … do we work out … resources for an AIDS vaccine? Or do you … play around with drama? I don’t think people are making those kinds of distinctions any more.

Professor Catherine Burns, WiSER

Brixton tower by Lisa King

Full interview (8 July 2014)

Victoria Hume (VH) [Could you give] a very brief summary of your role at WiSER?

Catherine Burns (CB)           Right, so WiSER [Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research] is a research entity at Wits [University of the Witwatersrand], and our primary focus is the humanities, construed of in the broadest sense; which in South Africa includes the social sciences, education and economics. And … a new staff member who’s a professor of law. So we have a fairly wide remit – we have people who are literary and cultural studies experts, all the way through to people who do some quantitative work, in sociology, applied law, and economics. So it’s – it’s pretty wide.

We’re actually the largest humanities unit at the moment in South Africa, and I believe on the African continent, although CODESRIA in Dakar, Senegal – which is supported mainly by Francophone resources – would be a close second.

We’ve got a fairly small permanent staff cohort. In fact a lot of what we do is a smoke and mirrors show, because there are only six or seven of us, but we have a large number of postdocs; and then doctoral students from all over. And then people come here for fixed terms, often on sabbatical from their institutions; some of them are from African institutions – people even on sabbatical inside our own university – and then a great number of people from abroad; and they do projects with us.

And we have a number of projects which happen every year – one of them is the Johannesburg Workshop on Theory and Criticism (JWTC) … One of them is called Public Positions, and it’s around law, economics and society … and then the one that just really kicked off last year in September has got five years of funding from the Mellon Foundation … and that is Medical Humanities in Africa.

We have a strong link to UCT [University of Cape Town]; we applied for a Research Foundation Award last year, which we shared with UCT, and we ran the first conference on Medical Humanities in Africa here, last September … called Body Knowledge: medicine and humanities in conversation. And the second one of those is being run at UCT at the end of August this year …

And … we have begun a series of reading groups, research projects, and smaller symposia, including one that happened last week … called Age and the Body. And these are going to be happening over the next five years. We’ve got a number of sub-themes … ageing; transplant and tissue; what counts as evidence in medical knowledge; neuro-plasticity and work on mindfulness; a project that links to a wellness institute (on human and physical development) at Wits; and then a theme on the elderly – octogenarians – and their sexual wisdom, over the 20th century. So an oral history-based and archival project …

We’ve also been approached by a number of entities at Wits, and in the city of Johannesburg, to work on projects that link us to city life and migration: to the fragility of mine-workers’ health, and silicosis in particular – lung pathologies. And these include relationships with the University of Michigan … and Sciences Po University … we only got our major grant at the end of April, so [laughs] we’ve kind of hit the ground running with a lot of projects.

VH       … how would you say that your work intersects with health and healthcare, or wellbeing, perhaps?

 

CB       We’re seeing how that happens; … there’s this big School of Public Health at Wits, and they do some anthropological and sociological work around care; and then there’s the Health Communication [Research] Unit [interview coming soon] that Claire Penn has directed for many years now, which has an extraordinary array of interfaces between … discursive, psychosocial, and some art and drama work, and the caring professions, particularly the allied medical professions – nursing, speech pathology. And we’re trying to see how we will all be working together into the future.

We haven’t set up any boundaries to what we do, but because we’ve received funding that isn’t directly intervention-linked, we’ve got perhaps a little bit more freedom and scope to go off in directions that don’t have to immediately show therapeutic or clinical focus.

So if I was to put us on a spectrum, with public health having to constantly justify what they are doing around caring and around therapeutic work in the humanities that will improve patient experience and wellness immediately in South Africa (so they’ve got a very direct, frontline healthcare focus), with Health Communications maybe somewhere in the middle, we’re perhaps out in leftfield – with some strong connections, but with the possibility of a person, for example, doing a project on poetics, or a project on transgender … or a legal project that doesn’t have an automatic ethical application in the health field. So it’s a spectrum.

VH       Having said all that … what proportion of your work is related to healthcare, let’s say, in a very broad sense – not in a kind of immediate, interventional sense? …

CB       I would say all of it, in this project. All of it. Because although … a lot of people are working on health in a paradigm that medicine wouldn’t regard as its own clinical practice – so, for example, the way that migrants in the city set up healing centres; or the way that people think about trauma, and history – we think of it as all having a health-related focus.

And the reason that we’ve chosen ‘medicine’ in the title Medical Humanities – rather than Health Humanities – is because, of all institutional spaces of healing in South Africa, medicine and medical practice, medical education, medical schools, medical jurisprudence is unbelievably powerful. It has a statutory power that far exceeds even the power of, say, organised accountants, or organised engineers, or the organised legal profession. And every single civil servant in South Africa –which includes every teacher and nurse, and street-sweeper working for a municipality; as well as the highest paid people such as our President – they all have access to medical aids, that are all controlled in a statutory way.

In addition to that of course we have a vast, plural system of religious-based and traditional-based healing and health-seeking behaviour. And that’s only very, very gradually, imperfectly and in a very complex way, entering into a statutory space. And we’re also in the middle of a massive new experiment – the first really since the Second World War, in organising South African health and clinical practices in a more equitable way [National Health Insurance]. And that’s a project that we are very concerned with and interested in; so that’s a long answer to your question.

In other words, all aspects of this medical humanities project.

VH       I think you’ve already answered this question, which was about … how focussed you are on health outcomes; … you’ve explained about being on a spectrum where public health are much more concerned with immediate outcomes, but – do you feel nonetheless that some of the work you do has an impact on communities’ wellbeing, or health?

CB       We’re hoping it will … For example, let me just take one of them, which is the question of the large number of people in the city of Johannesburg who come from all over the subcontinent – and who also come from all over South Africa – who are struggling with their sexual identity.

… [T]his also includes a large number of people identified by themselves and by clinicians as transgender, as intersex. And Johannesburg has some of the only clinical facilities on the continent for – assisting people in this journey; but there’s a large art community, there’s a large performative, drama, music community, a large religious group of people, and a large group of legal support and activist people that are organised in and around Wits. And we’re trying to give intellectual, social, cultural, critical resources … sharing with that community.

And there’s a large amount of trauma and suffering that that community faces, especially people who come here from other parts of the subcontinent. So … there is the … increasing criminalisation of people who live gay and lesbian lives, but also people who live trans lives of any sort.

So for example, a whole new influx of migrants from Cameroon, Nigeria, Uganda, and so on, are finding support and succour in this region.

And so this – our project – is growing a particular area of focus; and one of the agendas of that is to ameliorate social suffering, stigma and trauma, and to support clinical, psychological, religious, traditional community groups around that. And a large area of that work is opening up conversations between pathologising of trans identities at birth – in the medical community and medical education and nursing – through conversations with art, with poetry, with different forms of psychological intervention.

So that’s one example.

Another is the work that we’re doing around the Chiawelo Community Centre, which is an outgrowth of Chris Hani Baragwanath, the biggest hospital in the region. They have a number of very important community health centres which have clinical facilities: day hospitals, pharmacies, psycho-social support, maternal and reproductive health, abortion facilities, contraceptive services, wellness clinics for men … one of the largest of these is Chiawelo, on the far western side of Soweto, which borders the traditionally Indian area of Lenasia. And at this centre (which is trying to create a best practice form of community-oriented primary healthcare, along social medicine lines), there is a strong emphasis on the elderly, and on ageing … in that group, we are focussing on a number of projects, one of which is an oral history of people’s sexual lives; as a resource that the elderly are trying to contribute towards with their own life histories. A resource, not only for historical research on how sexuality is transformed in South Africa over the 20th century, but also a very specific resource that they’re hoping that young people will be able to use, as a kind of living archive.

And we believe that that does contribute to people’s sense of self-worth and wellbeing.

VH       I think that’s a really interesting example … I’ve been doing some work with a theatre-based project in Durban [DramAide], and a lot of their work is around sexuality, and there’s clearly a … generational gap that’s exacerbating all sorts of issues to do with knowledge and contraception, and the way that people perceive sexuality.

CB:      And relationships. So – we can see this all over the country. I mean there’ve been … honestly thousands and thousands of studies … of youth sexuality. But there’s almost a complete lacuna about the sexuality of people from 70 to 100. So we’re really trying to address that.

And then a third theme that emerged over the conference, that Tina Sideris (a clinical psychologist) and June Fabian (a nephrologist) are leading, is based at the Donald Gordon Hospital. It’s a very interesting medical centre, because it’s a state and private institution, with facilities that wouldn’t be out of place in London, but which also serves the uninsured poor of South Africa, including a lot of people who live in informal settlements who don’t even have regular electricity and water supplies. And what they’re doing is they are embarking on a – a large transplant and dialysis project, which ultimately – and they have a number of goals – would allow dialysis of people living in informal settlements, and not in middle-class housing. And would offer living-donor kidney and partial liver transplants; and this is because of the huge burden particularly of kidney disease … growing … in South Africa, particularly amongst HIV positive people …

And that project, obviously, has psychosocial, economic, ethical, religious, and of course constitutional, legal, as well as – very, very high-end acute, as well as chronic – medical services implicated in it. ICU care, high-level surgical care, and so on and so forth.

VH       And the work that they’re doing with WiSER around that is what, specifically?

CB       We’ve set up a big archive project, where we’re archiving nearly 60 years of data on patients.

VH       Because there’s a big lack of data on this, isn’t there?

CB       There’s – nobody here’s published on this … South African surgeons – let’s just take nephrologists and transplant surgeons – have published hardly anything on their work. So their work is not known outside this country, really. And it’s an extraordinary gap. So we need to help them create an archive of material so they can publish retrospective[ly] as well as prospectively with more confidence …

And then there’s a huge amount of work to do on the sociology, anthropology and history – of transplants, and of donor groups, and of recipients. And there’s a lot of psycho-social work that can happen that would really bring in public health, anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, ethics.

… [W]e have just put in a huge project at the Wits Human Ethics Committee … to follow a cohort of people who are receiving kidney transplants now over the next ten years. And this will look at all aspects of their psycho-social journey, as well as their physical and clinical journey. … mainly children and young adults, from now until perhaps they’re in their late 20s, early 30s …

VH       So … there’s quite a strong relationship between all of the work you do and research. [Could you talk about] … how you gather evidence, and where you present it?

CB       That’s what we’re just beginning. So this symposium we’re hoping to get a special edition of a journal out of, around transplant themes, ageing, tissues. Which would be extremely cross-disciplinary. We’re hoping to get two books out over the next three or four years. One that will focus on age, and sexuality; and one that will focus on trans issues. It’s possible at the end of the cycle that maybe one will come out specifically on transplant …

We’re all starting to try to go to conferences [laughs]. I went to the huge one in Aberdeen last year – which was a world conference on medical humanities, and presented on the field as it’s emerging here. About 15 people are publishing papers from our conference last year; the Cape Town conference is also geared towards giving people a platform to present ideas, to share, and to publish. And we’re trying to get as many postdocs as we can into this project, so that they can publish monographs, and … research work. And then of course we’re tackling really complex ethical issues … around how to do research on people who are undergoing clinical and other interventions, across disciplines. It’s much easier, as you know, to get ethical clearance if you … have got people already in a drug trial, or a clinical trial – but when you try to do cross-disciplinary work, there is huge caution, and a sense of much greater – breaks that get put on. So for example if a person is undergoing kidney transplant surgery, they obviously get asked a lot of questions, in the normal course of clinical events, about the psycho-social support they have in their family. But what about if you want to ask people about dreams; about their sexuality; about their fear of – of the changing profile of their personality? That is a much more complex field, and that’s the one that we’re entering in. So we are exploring the boundaries of what has been considered ethical research in South Africa as well.

VH       [How do] you feel this sits with conventional medicine, and do you feel that you have a sufficient ‘in’ with the medical community? … leaving aside Tina and June, and that specific project, how do you feel you – sit in terms of the conventional medical world?

CB       We sit awkwardly; and that’s a huge struggle. We tackled it perhaps the wrong way around 18 months ago … I went straight to the then Dean, of Health Sciences, and tried to work through all the Heads of Schools, and the Senior Deans of research, and we were really stonewalled.

Then we stepped back, and we started [to work with] the people who were struggling in their own fields; particularly psychiatrists, people working with a lot of therapeutic interventions, and people working – interestingly enough – in HIV, and blood transfusion work, who’d already opened up, more, to the social sciences and humanities (because of the whole drama of the story of HIV in this country). And there we’ve had much more success; and now we find we’re going up the pipeline again, with their help, but it’s still stop-and-start. Let me give you just an anecdote as an answer rather than an analytical response:

We worked with an artist called Gabrielle le Roux, and a photographer called [Zanele] Muholi, on an exhibition that Wits Art Museum ran earlier this year … [Muholi’s work] was a series of portraits of people living as lesbians in South Africa that did everything it could to not pathologise this community. So to describe in an arc the fullness of their lives as mothers, and as workers, and as sexual persons, and as free persons; but also their vulnerability … it included a series of – of portraits of people who subsequently were killed, by people in their communities, because they were out lesbians … so … a very traumatic series of criminal acts …

… le Roux … worked with a number of people who live as trans people, in South Africa, and in Turkey. South Africa apparently legally support[s] and protect[s] their identities as out trans people, [while] in Turkey [they are] very much in the interstices of law. And yet in Turkey, in the community that some of these people live in, they are able to be out in a way that people in South Africa are not.

Now these portraits were all done after enormous amounts of time with the subjects of the portraits, and with co-operation between portrait-giver and portrait-taker … [they] often took weeks … and after the portrait-maker, Gabrielle, had spent a lot of time with the subject, the subjects also inscribed their own words and text onto the portrait, so very, very intimate …

… [W]e brought as many people as we could from Health Sciences, particularly the medical school and the nursing school … There was a profound reaction. And they wanted to have the portraits … displayed inside of the Health Sciences building, right near to the Adler Museum of Medical History … [and to] use them as part of pedagogic interventions. And we began a series of discussions between Alison Bentley (… a Professor of Medicine [with] international expertise around sleep) [who was] really, really interested in challenging the boundaries of heteronormative sexuality and the pathologising of trans people inside of the medical school in particular.

And … eventually it broke down for two reasons: first of all, most of her faculty of medicine were not at all ready to open themselves up to this; so they were very rejecting. And the rejection fuelled the anxiety, as you can understand, of the artist and of the people in the portraits [about being] pathologised and placed in a space in which they’d be seen as a ‘freak show’. So that’s an ongoing discussion which we will be returning to early next year. And it’s indicative of these much bigger struggles.

VH       So … do you see the arts … as part of a sort of panoply of tools that you have at your disposal in addressing health issues … because you’re looking at things from sociological perspectives, through the arts, through lots of different other ways – is it just one of many approaches that you take?

CB       I think there’s contestation over that, because for some people in our group, art is a therapeutic tool; it’s a sort of methodology for reaching – an end; a goal. Other people – on another extreme – will regard the arts, and this would include poetry, writing, literature, music, physical and dramatic arts, theatre, film-making, sound work – as practices of healing in themselves; as practices of self-making. And they are extremely cautious about what they see as a reductionist view of art as therapy …

We heard a lot of those voices on the second day of [Age and the Body] … Ashley Masterson … the deputy editor of Medical Humanities, the [BMJ] journal … made a very important intervention around metaphor: metaphor as a place of human critical thought … of metaphorical discourse, and analytic, as central to the human intellectual project. And [of] the spheres of human academic work called ‘the arts’ as being, at their highest point, primarily about the work of metaphor.

In that space, a person who is a speech pathologist employing certain artistic or embodied art techniques is perfectly entitled to call what they do ‘art therapy’. But … that is not higher or lower an intervention than a person who is writing the experience of throat cancer; or a person embodying a completely different, fantastical world that they imagine, set thousands of years into the future, around – human cloning. And that all of [this] spectrum is what the arts are about.

People who [are] in that approach to the arts: cultural theorists, people working in drama and the body (for example Benita de Robillard, with her work on trying to think about the ‘crip body’, and unpacking what she calls heteronormativity, and doing a lot of work on heuristics and on hermeneutic analysis of discourse) – they don’t feel that they’re offering any less to this intellectual project. But there are people … that feel that being much more involved with the suffering body of the small person, or of the vulnerable elderly person, in an interdisciplinary group that would include a clinical psychologist, a nephrologist, a body massage artist, and a person using visual art therapy with a small child – that that is what we should spend our resources in a developing country on.

And we allowed that debate to … be fully fleshed out … it even became very acrimonious – because we have to get those voices out. And spent a lot of time allowing people to put their issues on the table and then to develop sort of more respectful speech again.

That arc of opinion is not going to disappear. But we have to find ways to manage that … So we’re – staggering on. And the whole spectrum is – evident. And there are – definite tensions, which we’ll have to manage productively, and which we can’t erase, because they exist, as they are, in social theory.

VH       Funding. You did talk a bit about your – about the grants that you’d achieved; this huge grant from the Mellon, which is fantastic … but … funding is always a tricky thing for people working in this area, because it often falls between two stools … occasionally the arts – if you like the established art world – doesn’t regard this work as being serious because it’s not purely art; and the medical world has issues for exactly the same reason. So – funding can get tricky sometimes. Do you feel your organisation is sustainable, does it feel stable at the moment, does it feel like something you can see still being here in ten years, and thriving?

CB       I think it’s stable, and will thrive – because the university’s current leadership have identified that Wits has got a number of strengths, particularly say for example in applied clinical fields; but it’s really lacking in developing research and higher critical thinking in those fields. And … external people – people in France, people in the UK, people in the United States, international funders and our own National Research Foundation (NRF) … – have identified some of these vulnerabilities.

Some [projects] seem very pragmatic, and political, at the outset; say for example, the health of miners … the vulnerability of miners’ bodies, their social vulnerabilities; and the … question of: if South Africa can’t get this better organised, so that there is more of an even playing field, what kind of hope is there for DRC Congo, for Cameroon, for Gabon, for Guinea-Bissau and so on?

But when … we tunnel into that space … we allow ourselves to, and nobody’s stopping us from asking a huge variety of questions, from pathological stuff around how human tissues are kept; how people get compensation … to the keeping of archives, records; constitutional law; to people’s experience of mining; to the people who are the partners and the children of miners’ experiences of masculinity, and of the life of mineral extraction; to their place in South Africa’s political economy; to their world around tradition and the invented tradition, and modernity; to ideas about value, and how people imagine themselves on the continent of Africa as actors in their families; to … what sustains them in their lives: their world of music, their world of prayer, their world of ritual, their healing practices. So this whole spectrum is being allowed in each one of these research projects; and no-one is saying this research is not worthwhile, or it’s not dignified, or it’s too – Ivory Tower-ish; and why? Because we’ve had 15, 20, 30 years of people researching, let’s say, the harder social, political, economic questions related to, say, mining, and we’re making very little headway. The Farlam Commission – which is being held into the Marikana massacre in 2012 – will hear days and days of commission evidence on the dreams, and the … prophecies of the traditional healers that miners went to, and the medicine that they placed all over their bodies, which is why they faced the police in a certain way. And the commission has no expertise, and no way of dealing with this evidence; which is deeply felt by the miners, and is very, very much part of the story. And most recently in the last couple of weeks, the police – who are being examined as well for their motives and their methods of policing – have brought forward their sense of collapsing autonomy, their sense of a crisis of faith in their profession. And they’re – they are using the language that anthropologists are better-placed to analyse than criminal, forensic, juridical people.

So … we’re at a moment in South Africa’s history where HIV scientists are pleading with people who work in literature, in media studies, in cultural theory, to come much more to the table even than anthropologists and sociologists, to try and understand human sexuality. And where people working on miners’ health and on trade union issues in the mining industry and the rights of workers are asking for more insights, and for more research, and for more sharing, around what it is to be a human being; and how it is that we age, and how we make decisions around our vulnerability and safety. So think this, the zeitgeist, that we’re in in South Africa at the moment – when we’ve achieved some of the goals of political struggle, and we’ve achieved some of the benchmarks of, say, citizens of the west; but where we’re evidently so caught up in so much trauma and so much social suffering – is forcing itself onto the research agenda, even of people in the clinical, engineering and economic sciences. So I think for those reasons, the issues seem urgent to our university leaders, and to the national … decision-makers in our research foundations, right to the centre of government.

Maybe I’m sounding too optimistic, but I didn’t feel this 15 years ago at all. People would have said oh that’s just a waste of money … this is just playing at the edges of the critical need – we have to feed children. The choices were: do we feed children? do we inoculate? … do we work out … resources for an AIDS vaccine? Or do you sort of play around with drama. I don’t think people are making those kinds of distinctions any more.

VH       … So, relating to what you were just saying – in terms of policy … Do you feel that government is listening to you? Do you feel that … you have a local influence? Do you feel that the work that you do is reaching the right ears?

CB       Not yet, I think it’s going to take longer. And we’re going to be working mainly through clinical intermediaries, which is good, and bad … [T]hose that are open to what we’re doing, inside of clinical medicine, which of course is already a minority group, are activists. And they have the ear [of], and are constantly speaking to municipal, provincial and national health people. So we do feel that we’re having some impact with them. But … we’ve got to – I think – stand behind them, and support them. Because there are already structures, there are statutory bodies … that they work through.

Maybe we’ll regret this decision in years to come, but I can’t really see how else we can reach the ear of government. In another way, we’re also aiming our arrows … at the top; because we have, here at WiSER, been holding a number of these public policy interventions … [led by] Jonathan Klaaren … around the National Health Insurance scheme, and also the National Development Plan. Which is supposed to entangle more social approaches to healing and to complex issues in South Africa than hitherto would have been allowed …

So we’ve got a number of people working on very pragmatic policy issues, say for example around social grants; and around gender and violence; and around trauma and rape – in which we’re trying to place a lot of our humanities-type critical thinking. And we are starting to have a couple of people – not the … cabinet ministers – but people who advise Directors General in departments – that have been coming to some of our sessions, and are interested in what we’re doing.

The Public Positions part of what WiSER … [has] social theory informing an intervention in a crisis issue. We’ve held three of these in the last two years … [A session on] the courts, and the judiciary [was attended by] several Supreme Court judges. The heads of the legal firms. And people running articled clerkships. As well as a lot of legal NGOs, like Section 27 and the Treatment Action Campaign, and the Legal Resources Centre. So we are trying to do that. But that is going to take a long time …

VH       We’ve talked a lot about sitting within the mainstream of health practice and how you relate to that. How do you feel your position is in relation to the mainstream of arts practice? Perhaps the more conventional gallery world, and VANSA, people like that…

CB       We’re getting there. We’re very closely associated with the Wits Art Museum. A lot of people from the [Wits] School of Arts are coming to our events. Last year I think the most successful part of our conference was our engagement with the life work of Colin Richards – a very famous South African art professor – and now, because of our intervention, seen also as a medical illustrator and medical anatomist. And a book will be coming out later on – with Penny Siopis, his widow, who’s a very well-regarded artist in her own right, and … Sarah Nutall, who is the Director of this institute … on the way that they discovered Colin Richards’s archive of medical illustration. Which links back to Steve Biko’s death; because he [Richards] was a young, technical medical illustrator working in the morgue in South Africa when he was called by Philip Tobias and lawyers working on behalf of the Biko family, to carefully illustrate all of the injuries on Steve Biko’s dead body. Which became part of the most important medical ethics case in South African history. (And that actually is what propelled him to study fine art, and eventually to become an art professor.)

… We’ve had another very interesting engagement [with] … a big exhibition … on the life of migrants and on their physical vulnerability, their health journey, their own traditional health practices …

And then next year we want to return to the questions of he bone, of skulls, of forensics – when we hold our big conference on Philip Tobias. And that will be a very interesting exploration – we’ll be working with people in fine art.

And we’re just beginning our journey with people in drama and theatre … Obvious lacunae that we need to work with more are film, people in voice, people in music; we’re getting there …

VH       I noticed at your seminar the other day that it was probably about five men and about 30 women. Would you say that was typical?

CB       It’s unbelievably focused on women … far more women are drawn to this field; we’re not exactly sure why, but it’s true across – in philosophy, it’s mainly the women philosophers, the women historians, the women sociologists, the women anthropologists, the women ethicists. There are a few exceptions, but it’s extraordinarily obvious.

And the second thing is that a lot of people of South African African descent are putting a lot of their time and energy – often they’re first or second generation, but usually first generation university graduates – into more traditional, more accepted, more immediately … vocational fields … ones where there can be a more obvious career path, and where they can also generate resources for themselves and their families. So getting into the more esoteric interdisciplinary fields takes a lot of confidence for young academics …

We’ve got three people of African descent very centred in our project: … Thabisani Ndlovu, who was born and raised in Zimbabwe, who is a PhD in English Literature, and who has gone into the human rights field as a sort of critical analyst, into gender work, on masculinity; and now into the Diversity Centre here at Wits … He is very, very unusual … The cohort of people around him are not drawn to these topics, and are … regarding him with some – caution. Then there’s another woman … also … of Zimbabwean descent … Kesia Batisai – who wrote a really beautiful thesis … Shona-speaking women in Zimbabwe [and South Africa] and … their idea of ageing and facing death …

And … Julian Mthombeni … she [has] a masters in pathology; she’s got laboratory credentials; she’s got diplomas. But her PhD is in public health, and what she’s really interested in is [the] rights that miners have … to compensation for physical illness … But there is huge reluctance about, and many, many psycho-social problems around, accessing those rights. So she’s moved more and more to looking at critical problems of anthropology, of self-identity. And I think it’s because of her very strong background in science, the fact that she’s a high earner … and she’s got a strong university position, that’s allowing her to have [that] space.

So we’re hoping to really really build on that into the future. But it’s a – it’s a long journey. And it’s going to be tough; we’re – I’m not underestimating how difficult it is. We’ve put out adverts for people applying for postdocs and docs, and the majority of people, who are working in this field, who are of African descent, come from other African countries. Congo, Zimbabwe, and francophone-speaking countries. We are really battling to generate interest, so I’m now starting a new project of drawing honours students – fourth year students – … in and giv[ing] them a sense of confidence in this field.

Advertisements