The CEO Notes

In celebration of the HSRC's rebirth and rejuvenation

The HSRC building in the middle of the old Pretoria is 25 years old this month and has become a landmark of good maintenance in a fairly dilapidated area.

My first impression of the HSRC building in 2000 was that it looked like a prison with its narrow dark corridors and unprepossessing location in front of the police station, with homeless people sleeping under the overhang of the building. I was thinking, ‘What on earth is this pink and green building doing here next to other high rise buildings?’

Buildings, like organisations, have histories and it’s not only about the exterior, but the interior – what happens inside that building. In 2000 the building carried some of the legacies of the previous decades, and was symbolic of what was happening with old pre-democratic institutions.

Enter Dr Mark Orkin, former CEO, who was determined to reimagine the HSRC. He renovated the building by creating open spaces for interaction, adding glass doors for light and air, and fencing to keep it clean.  It now boasts a gym and an upmarket cafeteria.

We are reaching 25 years with a transformed HSRC building that houses some of the best social scientists in the country, with a hub of social science research activity extending to more than 190 countries. The HSRC building has been transformed into a research hub that serves not only the nation, but the continent and is also a global player.

Starting in 2000, the HSRC has been turned around to provide a sound organisational basis for ‘social science that makes a difference’, by:

  • re-organising the research components and expanding their coverage, by means of multidisciplinary (New Priority Areas (NPAs) focused on national development challenges;
  • recruiting top-level research managers to improve research quality, staff representivity, and  the capacity to increase income from contracts and grants; and
  • undertaking retrenchments primarily of researchers in early 2000, and restructuring the administration in mid-2001 to improve organisational competitiveness and efficiency.

The benefits have been appreciable. Research-based earnings have risen from R6 million to R16 million, helping, with savings, to turn an accumulated deficit into an appreciable surplus. Staff incentives and study bursaries could be restored, further researcher recruitment undertaken, and infrastructure installed, contributing to future sustainability.

When the new CEO took over in 2006, we built on this strategy and can report today that the HSRC has focused much of its work on national priorities to contribute to social development of South Africa on health, education, job creation, HIV/AIDS, democracy, service delivery and economic development. The organisation has trained research interns and post-docs, the majority from previously disadvantaged communities, adding research capacity in the country and equipping them with the skills to be employed in research organisations, government or universities.

We started curating our data sets to allow others to analyse them and produce new information. On the international front, we have agreements with research, university, funding agencies and governments in many countries.

In 2015 we will host the World Social Science Forum.  The CEO was elected to lead the International Social Science Council during its period of reform and many members of the HSRC serve on international organisations at a global and regional level. We now host the UNAIDS Collaborative Center on HIV/AIDS prevention and policy and  in recognition of our success, the government has increased the allocation from R62 million in 2001 to R206 million in 2012, an increase of R144 million, and  our research income from external sources has increased from R22 million in 2001, to R143 million in 2011/12.

Dr Olive Shisana