Two Wits professors awarded Science for Society Gold Medals

Two Wits professors awarded Science for Society Gold Medals

The Academy of Science of South Africa has awarded its highest honour, Science for Society Gold Medals, to Wits Professors Karen Hofman and Achille Mbembe.


ASSAf annually awards ASSAf Science for Society Gold Medals in recognition of outstanding achievements by individuals. Up to two Gold Medals are awarded per annum for outstanding achievement in scientific thinking for the benefit of society.

The Gold Medals were awarded to Professor Karen Hofman and to Professor Achille Mbembe at ASSAf’s annual awards ceremony held in Pretoria on Thursday, 19 October 2022.


The postcolony and necropolitics

Achille Mbembe is a Professor in the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER) in the Faculty of Humanities at Wits University, which he joined in 2001.

Mbembe’s work has played a role in shaping the scholarly agenda of the Humanities in late modernity. Over 25 years, he has consistently published works of international stature and reputation.

Professor Achille Mbembe

The Cameroon-born scholar earned his PhD in History at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1989 and a D.E.A. in Political Science at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (Paris).

Between 1980 and 1996, he was preoccupied with late colonial politics, decolonization and emerging nationalism. His research was instrumental in shifting debates on the place of power in Africa's postcolonial period.

At a conceptual level, the terms ‘postcolony’ and ‘necropolitics’ have become associated with Mbembe's work. These are now key terms in the vocabulary of the global Humanities. Of notable importance is his published work, Necropolitics, in which he theorizes about the origins of the contemporary world while highlighting the increase in militarization, inequality, and the revival of racism and fascist forces.  

Being human in Africa

Mbembe continues to produce globally leading scholarship. His seventh book, A Critique of Black Reason – published in 2017 and which sold over 12 000 copies – is an attempt at revisiting the relationship between capitalism and racism. In 2020 he published Deglobalization to argue that digital computation is engendering a new common world and new configurations of reality and power.

Over and above the multiple translations of his work, Mbembe is the most cited African scholar of his time. His interdisciplinary approach, combining History, Philosophy and Political Studies, has tackled key contemporary - from an early critical reflection on why the social revolutions in Africa predicted under conventional Marxist theory never arrived,  through revisiting the politics of life and death in his writings on ‘necropolitics’, to recent preoccupations with whether we can take seriously Africa and the diaspora's planetary predicament - and the possibility that the fate of Earth may be playing out on this continent - Mbembe stands out as one of the key thinkers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Commenting on the award, Mbembe says, “Without the unconditional support I was given at WiSER by its successive Directors and by my colleagues, none of what I have been able to achieve would have been possible. WiSER is today internationally recognised as one of the most successful initiatives ever created by any major global Southern university in the field of the Humanities and social sciences. With strong and unflinching University support, my hope is that it will remain a huge asset especially for younger generations of scholars in the years to come. I also thank the Faculty of the Humanities and its successive Deans, as well as Wits University Press, my South African academic publisher.”

Professor Garth Stevens, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, who nominated Mbembe, says, “Professor Achille Mbembe is really one of the most remarkable recipients of this award, given his phenomenal scholarship in the area of critical Humanities. It is even more fitting that this medal was bestowed on him on African soil and in the year that Wits has turned 100. We’re extremely proud to be associated with this level of scholarship. This attests to reserves of intellectual, academic and scholarly talent at Wits University, making it not only one of the premier sites for Humanities scholars, but for scholars more broadly across the African continent and across the world.”

Professor Lynn Morris, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research & Innovation at Wits, who attended the ceremony, says, “We are thrilled that two of our most highly regarded and respected academics have won this year’s Gold Medals from ASSAf. These awards highlight not only the calibre of the scholars at Wits but also their commitment to ensuring that their research resonates and has impact beyond the academy. We congratulate Professor Karen Hofman and Professor Achille Mbembe on this noteworthy achievement and celebrate their success. I would also like to thank Professor Garth Stevens and Professor Imraan Valodia for their nominations.”

This article was published on the Wits University website.

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