The annual Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) Awards: Book, Creative Collection and Digital Contribution 2019 ceremony was held on 14 March 2019, at the renowned John Kani Theatre, located in the Market Theatre complex in Newtown, downtown Johannesburg; where leading HSS scholars and academics congregated to honour and celebrate outstanding contributions to the HSS by academics, curators and artists based at participating South African universities, working to advance the HSS. Hosted by the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS), this fourth instalment of the HSS Awards continues to serve as a crucial platform for unearthing new voices and finding South African stories that cast a light on us as a nation, telling of our struggles as we grapple with a myriad of challenges, but also celebrating our resilience.
From an impressive quality and substantive entries comprising more than 60 books (non-fiction and fiction) and 10 creative collections, a total of seven winners took to the stage to claim their prizes. Best Fiction Single Authored Volume was shared by worthy joint-winners, Fred Khumalo’s Dancing the Death Drill (Umuzi) and Alison Lowry’s Shadow Play (Jacana Media); Recognition by David Medalie won Best Fiction in the Edited Volume, Bongani Ngqulunga’s The Man Who Founded the ANC (Penguin Random House) won the Best Non-Fiction Monograph. The Best Non-Fiction Edited Volume prize was claimed by Gail Gerhart, Teresa Barnes, Anthony Bugg-Levine, Thomas Karis, and Nimrod Mkele (eds.) with their outstanding edition From Protest to Challenge Volume 4: Political Profiles, 1882–1990 (Jacana Media). Claiming the Creative Collections category were the following winners: Heidi Grunebaum and Karl Campbell’s Athlone in Mind for Best Exhibition Catalogue; Insurrections III: The Storming by Reza Khota for Best Musical Composition/Arrangement; and Kitso Lelliott’s Abénaa / Alzire / Dandara / Tsholofelo (working title) for Best Visual Art.
“Not only is the 2019 content, on the whole, relevant and captivating; the submissions deliver new texts and narratives that not only showcase South Africa and the diversity of its people but also delve into the complexities of what makes us human,” says NIHSS CEO, Prof Sarah Mosoetsa.
In his keynote opening address, the Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training (DHET), Buti Manamela expressed that “the disciplines of the HSS are pivotal on how society is viewed, and most importantly its transformation. The central role that the humanities and social sciences play, particularly, in learning and, generally, in life cannot be taken lightly. They teach us a range of skills, from cognitive reasoning to seeking solutions to societal problems that are forever challenging us.” He added that “the contribution to research, which was being celebrated through the HSS Awards, was indeed worth the time, effort and any kind of recognition that could be offered, therefore, should never be underestimated.”
Deputy Minister Manamela highlighted “the need to be cognisant of the fact that in this age of technological advancement, the role of humanities is what brings a balanced perspective to society. Thus, offering an opportunity for a multidisciplinary approach to the understanding of societies, where the traditional sciences work hand in hand with the social sciences, for the greater benefit of society and the sustained advancement of the human race.”
Expanding on the awards entries, Prof Mosoetsa explains that “in the Fiction category, authors grappled with issues of identity, interwoven with our history and present realities. Reading the submitted novels, poems and short stories was an absolute pleasure. The work reminded us that we are a society with a rich history in the midst of trying to make sense of new social phenomena. And yes, we do indeed have many compelling stories that should be told and retold.”
“Dancing the Death Drill” is a substantive historical fiction based on the true story of black South African soldiers who were on board the ill-fated warship, the SS Mendi, on their way to France to assist in the allied war effort, when it collided with a mail ship and sank. Khumalo retells this part of our South African history by lifting the veil on Africa’s unsung surviving heroes of the SS Mendi. Apart from describing the war and the tragedy of so many lives lost, the writer examines such universal themes as racial politics and the strong bonds of friendship and love. While Shadow Play is a powerful novel of subterfuge, betrayal, risk and deep bonds of friendship formed during a time of struggle and pain while a new nation, determined to rise, faces seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
“It is certainly not surprising that the Non-Fiction category is yet again showcasing a solid and compelling collection of outputs. The focus on the legacy and commemoration of 40 years since Steve Bantu Biko’s cruel death, is represented in this year’s selection of non-fiction titles. The Black Consciousness Reader (Jacana Media) seeks to shed light on the history, culture, philosophy and meaning of Black Consciousness through various voices, who reveal interesting biographical details about Biko. The Testimony of Steve Biko (Picador Africa) gives an account of the meaning of Black Consciousness and what the expression is meant to represent within a South African context. Biko: Philosophy, Identity and Liberation (HSRC Press) is a well-written account of the history of Black Consciousness that adds much-needed intellectual gravitas to the many volumes of work on Biko and Black Consciousness in South Africa; says Prof Mosoetsa.
The Creative Collection proves yet again that this genre is not only about entertainment; the body of work presented here provides much-needed critical social commentary that gives us new insights into the time and place we find ourselves in. Expressed through a variety of media – music, performance, visual art, to name a few – the critiques are all the more thought-provoking. In Abénaa / Alzire / Dandara / Tsholofelo, artist Kitso Lynn Lelliott presents a classic work in the form of a combination of history, arts and poetry. She uses these art forms to portray the voices of the marginalised and create a space where the past is infused with the present.
Renowned veteran and celebrated story-teller, Dr Gcina Mhlophe - as programme director, kept the ceremony captivated, while the performance of jazz artist and scholar Nomfundo Xaluva struck a special cord with the audience.
Winner of the 2018 Best Performance Kafka's Ape by Phala Phala and Tony Miyambo solo repertoire of Franz Kafka's “A Report To An Academy” adaptation provoked dialogue and deep, careful reflection of our places in society and the society within which we live. The play takes a metaphorical view on South African society, highlighting the complexities of identity in a post-apartheid South Africa and in the human race in general. Red Peter, the ape, embarks on a journey ignited by finding a way out of a cage he was confined to after his capture. It’s a journey in which he contests identity that’s based on outward appearance, providing a narrative that interrogates the intricacies of “otherness”.
The short play constitutes the whole web of existential, political, economic and ideological issues we grapple within the HSS.
Prof Mosoetsa expressed that “the HSS Awards serve as one of several strategic instrument, to stimulate a vibrant, dynamic HSS community that not only gives voice our state of being as South Africa but equally important, applauds outstanding HSS contributors and scholars who take so much time, thought and effort in alerting us to what’s wrong with our society, what’s right with it – and what is possible.”
The 2019 HSS Awards judging panel comprising of 28 acclaimed HSS scholars and contributors yet again exhibited an unwavering commitment and passion for a revitalised and rejuvenated HSS. The many hours spent reviewing and deliberating on the works, which have provoked deep conversations and robust debate – proved that such is the power of writing, performance, creative expression, social interaction, activism, art installation and the dissemination of ideas.
“We extend sincere gratitude to the publishers, our indispensable partners in our quest to find new voices and texts. Without their participation and passion for driving our transformative agenda, the awards would not be possible.”
In closing, Prof Mosoetsa lamented that “there is no doubt that South Africa enjoys intellectual abundance, however it needs to be nurtured. Outputs of the HSS Awards attest to the crucial role that the HSS disciplines have to play in unlocking the country’s potential for greater social cohesion. This is evident in this year’s submissions. More than ever, South Africa needs agile and well-rounded thinkers who can assess and adapt to change, analyse social phenomena, produce new paradigms and consider the past to better prepare for the future.”
“The disciplines of the HSS are pivotal on how society is viewed, and most importantly its transformation. The central role that the humanities and social sciences play, particularly, in learning and, generally, in life cannot be taken lightly.”