19 May 2020 | Story Charlene Stanley
The five postdoctoral fellows are from left; Dr Sibanengi Ncube; Dr Hyden Munene; Dr Joyline Kufandirori; Dr Joseph Kachim; Dr Victor Gwande

An unprecedented total of five postdoctoral fellows from the University of the Free State’s International Studies Group (ISG) recently heard the good news that they have been selected for the prestigious African Humanities Programme (AHP), presented by the American Council of Learned Societies. The programme is funded by the well-known Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Unique achievement

“This is indeed a remarkable accomplishment – all the more outstanding because we received close to 500 applications for our 45 postdoctoral fellowships this year,” says Prof Fred Hendricks, AHP Associate Director for Southern Africa. It is unique in the history of the AHP to award so many scholars from one relatively small programme and is an accolade to “the concentration of talent developing at the University of the Free State,” according to Prof Hendricks.

“I jumped for joy when I received my acceptance letter and couldn’t contain my excitement,” says a delighted Dr Sibanengi Ncube, one of the five UFS recipients. For him and Drs Joseph Kachim, Joyline Kufandirori, Victor Gwande, and Hyden Munene, this award allows an academic year free of teaching and other duties to either revise their dissertations for publication or for their first major research project after obtaining their PhDs. As fellows, they are also eligible for additional benefits such as residential stays for writing, manuscript development workshops, and publication support.

Dr Ncube, an economic historian with research interests in the histories of commodities, agricultural policies, international commodity trade and rural economies’ interactions with global value networks, plan to use the opportunity to revise his PhD thesis for a book. The provisional title of his envisaged publication is, Beyond the State: Global, Regional and Local Relations in Zimbabwe’s Tobacco Industry since 1947.

“The award does not only bring money for books and media to enhance my work, but it also makes me an American Council of Learned Societies’ African Humanities Program Fellow, in itself a very important addition to my academic CV,” he enthuses.

Producing new knowledge from Africa

According to the American Council of Learned Societies, the goals of their African Humanities Programme are to encourage and enable the production of new knowledge and new directions for research, to strengthen the capacity of early career researchers and faculty at African universities, and to advance the humanities by establishing networks for scholarly communication across Africa and with Africanists worldwide.

“We are immensely proud of our scholars who have been selected to be part of this,” says Prof Ian Phimister, Head of the International Studies Group (ISG) at the UFS. “They can use the scholarship funds to travel to archives across Africa for their research. Some of them already have book contracts in place, which means that they can now move ahead towards publication very quickly.” 

ISG scholars having international impact
To be awarded five of these fellowships in one year, is yet another feather in the cap of the ISG, which has established itself as a key contributor to the academic and research effort in the SADC region and further afield. 

The ISG was formed in 2012, after the need was identified to recruit senior research professors who would not only lead by research example and refereed publication, but also attract and recruit high-calibre postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows to the UFS, driving the research-led transformation of the university as a whole.

After national and international advertisements, followed by a rigorous selection process, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are recruited in the field of Southern and Central African Studies, usually engaging with wider regional and global processes. Comparative world history is also catered for. 

The young scholars come from across the globe – from places such as Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Minnesota, to institutions closer to home, such as the Universities of Zambia, Botswana, Pretoria, and Stellenbosch University. Their study fields encompass a wide variety of disciplines, such as anthropology, development economics, history, politics, and sociology. Just over two-thirds of the PhD students and postdoctoral fellows are black and more than half of them are female.

“This cohort of exceptionally clever young people drawn from throughout South and Southern Africa, as well as from elsewhere, has been hard at work for the past seven years or so.  Twenty of them have already passed through the ISG’s programme, many of them subsequently taking up posts at renowned institutions such as the London School of Economics, the University of Kent, the University of St Andrews, and also here at the UFS. The fact that they are proving themselves to be internationally competitive is particularly gratifying,” says Prof Phimister.

Scholars publish in renowned national and international journals during their tenure at the UFS. The ISG’s completion rate for PhD theses is within three to three and a half years – roughly half of the national average of seven years. 

Academic incubator

“As an economic historian who was introduced to Professor Ian Phimister’s works in both my honours and master’s courses, I needed no persuasion when an opportunity arose for me to work under him in the ISG,” says Dr Ncube, one of the AHP recipients. “Words really fail me when I try to describe the value of my time at the UFS International Studies Group. It is an academic incubator – a home-away-from-home environment characterised by unprecedented collegiality across the board.”

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