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Oppenheimer Fellowship ‘a great honour’, says Prof Gobodo-Madikizela
Author: Development & Alumni Relations
Published: 28/10/2021

​​Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, Research Chair in Studies in Historical Trauma and Transformation at Stellenbosch University (SU), was awarded the 2020 Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award at a ceremony held at the Brenthurst Library in Johannesburg recently. She was selected as the recipient of the Award earlier this year, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic the official award ceremony was pushed back to October 2021.

The annual Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award, with a monetary value of R2 million, is ranked as one of Africa's most prestigious research grants. The award recognises scholarship of the highest calibre across various academic and research disciplines. It is a flagship award by the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust. The Trust, which dates back to 1958, has grown to become a significant funder of education, arts and culture and civil society organisations.

The event was attended by members of the Oppenheimer family, SU's Chancellor Justice Edwin Cameron and Prof Deresh Ramjugernath, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Learning and Teaching, who represented SU on behalf of Prof Wim de Villiers, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of SU.

Gobodo-Madikizela's selection was based on her proposed project “Aesthetics of Trauma, Poetics of Repair", and concerns the re-thinking of trauma in new terms, specifically focusing on historical trauma and its transgenerational repercussions. The project will explore how the arts, rather than forgiveness and reconciliation, might be deployed to pursue a reparative and transformative vision. This work will play an important role in shaping rigorous debates on historical trauma and its transgenerational repercussions. Gobodo-Madikizela holds the South African National Research Chair in Violent Histories and Transgenerational Trauma. 

In her acceptance speech, Gobodo-Madikizela acknowledged her parents' great and powerful influence in her work and she thanked them for their encouragement and prayers. Others she thanked for supporting the work that made the Award possible are the Rector and Vice-Chancellor Prof De Villiers, Prof Eugene Cloete, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies, and Dr Therina Theron, Senior Director of Research and Innovation.

“This Award is an especially great honour given the list of previous awardees, a couple of whom have been friends and close colleagues. I am very grateful to the Memorial Trust, to you Jonathan (Oppenheimer) and to the board of trustees for continuing to support my work, and for recognising its contribution in such a profoundly special and honouring way."

She said of her project that will be supported by the award: “For this work I will return to the archive of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to think through the horrific violence in contemporary South Africa, and to ask why the vision of the future that was imagined at the beginning of our democracy has not succeeded to the degree we expected. The work has a larger commitment to understanding the role of art in envisioning new ways of relating to one another − the catalytic power of the arts to inspire us to inaugurate more just futures."

She added: “In the shadow of the pandemic, when individual and collective mourning fails, the remains of 'the unfinished business' of unacknowledged and still-denied past violations of human rights have been brought into sharper focus. The arts have never been more important than they are today, to offer language of empathy, and to help us translate this language into action. The question is not whether public conversations about the arts are important, but rather how we can forge private-public partnerships and use artists' work as building blocks for a politics of care that may create opportunities for witnessing the Other and open the possibility of social solidarity, now and in the future."

Gobodo-Madikizela's previous accolades include the Harvard Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Fellowship, the Alan Paton Award, the Christopher Award, the Distinguished African Scholar title at Cornell University's Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, and the Eleanor Roosevelt Award.

She was a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Human Rights Violations Committee, and the National Research Foundation has acknowledged her as a rated scholar of high international standing.

Ramjugernath not only praised Gobodo-Madikizela for the important work she is undertaking but also for her tremendous social justice impact.

“At Stellenbosch University we acknowledge that our journey of transformation is incomplete and imperfect, but we remain steadfast in our determination to go forward. That is the only way of creating a community of 'social justice and equal opportunities for all' – as our mission states. And Prof Gobodo-Madikizela is playing a significant role in doing this," he said.

  • Photo: Randall Adams, Fundraising Co-ordinator, Development and Alumni Relations, Sarah Archer, Director of Fundraising, Development and Alumni Relations, Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and Prof Deresh Ramjugernath.