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08 January 2021 | Story Charlene Stanley | Photo Charlene Stanley
Dr Matteo Grilli with his first book in front of the North Block on the Bloemfontein Campus.
Dr Matteo Grilli from the International Studies Group (ISG) became the second ISG scholar in just four years to receive a coveted P-rating from the NRF.

A P-rating (Prestigious Awards) by the National Research Foundation (NRF) is the holy grail for all young researchers at all South African universities and across all disciplines. It is a valuable tool for benchmarking local researchers against the best in the world. But it is hard to come by. Only one or two researchers are normally granted this sought-after standing each year. 

Dr Matteo Grilli, a young Italian historian from the International Studies Group (ISG), says he was “pleasantly surprised” when he recently got the nod from the NRF, attributing his P-rating to the “excellent training and support” that he received from the UFS, and specifically the ISG and its head, Prof Ian Phimister.  

Unique achievement for ISG
What makes this achievement even more significant, is that the ISG produced another P-rated scholar a mere four years ago (Dr Daniel Spence in 2016).

“For Prof Phimister to produce two P-rated researchers in such a short time is really an unbelievable achievement. I am not aware of any other department at any South African university that could achieve this,” says Dr Glen Taylor, Senior Director: Research Development. 

P-rating requirements
The NRF’s P category honours young researchers (normally younger than 35 years) who have held a doctorate or equivalent qualification for less than five years. Researchers in this group are recognised by all or the vast majority of reviewers as having demonstrated the potential to become future international leaders in their field based on exceptional research performance and output from their doctoral and/or early postdoctoral research careers.

UFS becoming a mecca for African studies
Dr Grilli produced his first book, Nkrumaism and African Nationalism: Ghana's Pan-African Foreign Policy in the Age of Decolonisation around two years ago, after being accepted as a postdoc scholar by the ISG in 2015.

This unique research centre was established towards the end of 2012, with the aim of attracting and recruiting high-calibre postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows from all over the world to the UFS. 

“Working at the ISG has undoubtedly been the best experience of my life and made me the solid scholar I am today. At the ISG, I found the best working environment you could possibly have in an academic setting, even compared to the Northern Hemisphere,” Dr Grilli says.

He believes the centre’s strength lies in the “exceptional exchange” that researchers have with their peers, allowing them to not only master their research subject but also to learn from other members’ research and methodologies.

“In my view, the ISG is concretely contributing to bringing the centre of African studies back to the African continent,” he enthuses.

Passion for Southern African politics
Dr Grilli specialises in the political history of Ghana and Southern Africa, focusing on transnational histories of African liberation movements, the history of Pan-Africanism, the Cold War and decolonisation in Africa, and the history of European migrations in sub-Saharan Africa (particularly Italian communities in Ghana and the Congo DRC). 

He is currently working on a book project about the history of Pan-Africanism, Socialism, and Nationalism in Southern Africa, particularly in Lesotho, eSwatini, and Botswana.

Asked what advice he had for young researchers, he echoes the counsel he received from Prof Phimister at the start of his tenure at the ISG: 

“Always aim high. Don’t be intimidated by the fact that there is a lot of competition in the academia, nor that you might be disadvantaged because you work in the Global South. If you work hard, your research will speak for itself and you will be able to publish solid works even in the most prestigious journals of the Northern Hemisphere.”

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