Public Positions on History and Politics

Struck by the ways in which solutions to the problems of social justice in South Africa have unrealistically short time frames, Political Studies, History Workshop and WiSER at the University of the Witwatersrand, with support from the Raith Foundation, have initiated a series of public events and a research network on South African policy problems.

Almost all of the serious problems of injustice have deep institutional and cultural roots; they are often -- migrancy in mining or the gendered division of land rights -- structural. South Africans have excellent research on many of these issues, which often explains how they emerged over long periods of time and documents the kinds of compromises and mistakes that produced our current problems. Yet there are real dangers -- in rural local government, in mining, in education, in micro-finance -- of repeating mistakes that we have made in the past. There is also much to be learnt from careful comparisons between our own history and, for example, the histories of India or Brazil. A History and Policy Platform (modelled on, and affiliated with, the UK organisation at would allow us to bring the insights of our accumulated scholarship to bear on the pressing crises of social justice in a format that is accessible to non-specialists and available as a resource in perpetuity. This project will help to make the very broad and insightful academic research based in the universities – on, amongst others, government capacity, citizens life strategies, languages of rights – accessible to those designing policies for better social justice.

This project will consist of three parts:

1) A series of public events on one of the issues listed below scheduled for the last Monday of every month at 5pm. At the event a panel of interesting commentators will engage with a short paper produced by an expert in the field. Each event will be carefully advertised in the media, and directed at the NGOs and other organisations working in the field. The proceedings will be recorded, broadcast live on the Internet and recorded on-line.

2) Each paper, following the model developed by History and Policy, will review the historical determinants of the selected problem facing South Africans as individuals and as a society; it will also briefly explain how the problem has been addressed in the past and with what results. Additionally, the paper will summarise how the same issue is being addressed in other societies, especially our peers in terms of per capita GDP and history. And it will identify and highlight the structures and systems which can (and cannot) be addressed. Each paper will provide an extensive bibliography.

3) The papers will be stored, and made easily accessible, on a web site developed and hosted by WISER. Using the existing WISER resources, the web site will also work as a platform for publicizing the accumulating research.

We encourage those interested in this project, and these events, to sign up for email notifications at

The series will be launched by the Vice Chancellor, Professor Adam Habib, in the Seminar Room at WISER on March 24 at 5pm.

Other topics in the Public Positions series will include:

  • Police against the People

  • The crisis of democratic representation in local government

  • Property, communal land, and traditional leadership

  • Politics and poetics of Infrastructure

  • Public and Private Health Systems and the quality of care

  • Curating the City and Urban Citizenship

  • The matric as metric

  • The assault on the female body

  • No register, no rights? property ownership in South Africa

  • Race, media and the rupturing of the public sphere

  • The politics of social grants

  • The Value of Public Interest Law and Advocacy

  • Curriculum Crisis: Do our schools equip learners to learn?

  • The Resource Curse and the limits of the Social

  • Redress and racial categories

  • Work, Abjection and Idleness