Editor's note

This year, the HSRC is commemorating its 50th anniversary and the 90th anniversary of its predecessor, the National Bureau of Educational and Social Research.

This edition of the HSRC Review provides a glimpse of the work these institutions have done over the years, some of it before South Africa’s 1994 transition to democracy and some thereafter. Our researchers are also working on a comprehensive scholarly book on the history of the organisation as well as an online timeline.

Many aspects of this history are painful, and the HSRC has had many discussions about how to approach writing about it. Some argued for a strongly critical approach. There was, after all, research conducted that supported racial differentiation, for example IQ testing to compare black and white children. Much of the earlier research was in support of the apartheid government. While recognising what was morally wrong, the HSRC is reflecting on its entire history in an attempt to understand what transpired during those years, and how the work of the institutions influenced social science research and policy in the country.

In the first article, Prof. Crain Soudien, the current HSRC CEO, writes about the Carnegie Commission’s report, entitled The Poor White Problem in South Africa, which was released in 1932. Researchers travelled across South Africa, from 1929 to 1930, to gather information about poor whites, mostly landless Afrikaners from rural parts. Soudien looks at the story of the commission and how it helped to set the discourse for social sciences by prioritising race as a way to approach poverty.

The overarching theme of the history work touches on the complex relationship between the HSRC (and its predecessors) and the state. One recurring question was how to conduct independent research and have the courage to share uncomfortable findings that might not support a government stance, especially when the government is your funder. This question remains relevant today.

A case in point is the report on a state-funded investigation into intergroup relations in South Africa that the HSRC released in 1985. It concluded that ‘the political ordering of intergroup relations according to the original apartheid model had reached an impasse’. Dr Hendrik (Bok) Marais, former deputy president of the HSRC and director of this investigation, writes about the ensuing events and how the release of the findings affected relations between the HSRC and the National Party government.

Conflict between the government of the day and the HSRC was not exclusive to the apartheid era. In an HSRC Review interview, Dr Olive Shisana, previous HSRC CEO, speaks about her time at the organisation at the height of HIV and Aids denialism in South Africa. In 2002, she led a seminal HSRC study on HIV that showed a prevalence rate of 11,4% in the country. The study was funded by the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Shisana had been contradicted by former president Thabo Mbeki and the late health minister, Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who supported the belief of HIV dissidents that HIV did not cause Aids. Shisana stood her ground, despite vicious attacks by the dissidents and a strained relationship with the minister and the president.

In this edition of the HSRC Review, we also feature articles on past and recent work in education, health, and skills development and by the now-defunct Institute for Research into Language and the Arts. We also conducted interviews with past employees of the HSRC, including Prof. Adam Habib, a former executive director of the HSRC’s Democracy and Governance programme (2004-2007), and Dr Yvonne Muthien, who joined the HSRC in 1997 and helped to establish the Democracy and Governance research programme as a public policy research unit. Dr Thabane Vincent Maphai, who joined the HSRC in 1996 as the executive director of social dynamics, also shares his thoughts on the transformation of the HSRC in the 1990s.

These articles are by no means comprehensive, and we welcome further input from our past employees and academics. If you believe that you have information or archival material that might support our ongoing work on the scholarly history book, mentioned above, please contact Dr Gerard Hagg, email ghagg@hsrc.ac.za or
tel. +27 12 302 2626.