Science, history and the future


On 24 April, Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of announced that a research team of our Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology has embarked on an extensive research project on racism in science.

This followed the discovery of three objects – a human skull, a chart for the classification of hair colour and texture, and a chart for the classification of eye colour – in the remnants of our now defunct Department of Ethnology (“Volkekunde” was established in 1926 and briefly became the Department of Anthropology before it was closed down in 1998).

These objects are normally used in the medical and biological sciences. It is strange to find them in a social-sciences department, where they were presumably used as teaching aids and possibly for research into the classification of humans. Our research project will investigate whether this was indeed the case and how these objects possibly functioned in the transfer of knowledge in service of apartheid thinking and practices.

Three days after our announcement, Freedom Day was celebrated for the 19th time in South Africa. Across the country, the sentiment was expressed that we are free from apartheid. However, the legacy of apartheid is in many respects still with us today. In some places people said it would be more appropriate to mark their “unfreedom” because they still lack access to dignified housing, for instance.

Racial discrimination and racial prejudice still play a large role in the lives of South Africans. The question we as academics should ask is why this is the case. How should our thinking and practices be altered to change to this unacceptable reality in our country?

On 29 April, our Council approved the new Vision 2030 of Stellenbosch University (SU), and in so doing affirmed the institution’s aim to be more inclusive, innovative and future-oriented, with a stronger emphasis on transformation.

History has a central place in all these events and the questions they evoke. While we as University are busy considering our responsibilities as we enter deeper into the 21st century, our history somehow steps forward again.

The paradigms of knowledge development and knowledge transfer that dominated in the past are particularly relevant, as is the way in which they possibly contributed to the classification of South Africans and the discrimination and exclusion that ensued. Painful as it may be to acknowledge these questions as legitimate, we cannot avoid them. As academics we have a duty to be honest with ourselves, our students and the South African society we serve.

The found objects are linked not only to the apartheid ideology, but also to the Nazi history of the 20th century. The name “Prof. Dr Eugen Fischer” is clearly engraved on the shiny oblong case containing the “Haarfarbentafel” (hair colour chart).

Fischer was one of the founders of eugenics – a theory aimed at advancing certain “desirable” human characteristics on scientific grounds and eliminating “undesirable” characteristics. These thoughts were originally developed on the basis of “research” conducted by him in 1908 on the Rehoboth Baster people in the former German colony of South-West Africa (Namibia), and led to concepts such as “racial purity” and “racial hygiene”. Adolf Hitler later further developed these thoughts, and in 1933 appointed Fischer as rector of the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Berlin (in 1949, it changed its name to Humboldt University).


Many people are wondering why we cannot leave history, and specifically this history of racism, behind us once and for all. Should we not rather focus on the challenges of the future? There is a feeling that we cannot move forward if we continue to look in the rear-view mirror. This might be true when we are travelling in a car, but it is definitely not applicable to the transformation of a university or a society. The past will continue to haunt us if we cannot recall it vividly and clearly, and if we do not continuously reinterpret it.

The same applies to our memories of apartheid. Its details are fading fast, and what remain are stereotypes that persist in society. Eventually we find ourselves in the situation in which these stereotypes influence the way that we act in the present, think about ourselves and our fellow human beings, and plan for the future. We therefore have to ask critical questions.

An example is the stereotype that the criteria previously used to distinguish between races and ethnic groups were mere harmless classification indexes. It is not acknowledged these classifications were used to disproportionately saddle some groups with the burdens of society (dangerous work, tough physical labour, high living costs), and to excluded them from society’s benefits (job opportunities, capital, housing, education).

As academics it is our duty to find answers to a few very simple values questions, for example who gains and who loses from stereotypes and classifications like these. How and why are these stereotypes formed, and how are they maintained? What realities and what human ideals and needs are concealed or silenced through these stereotypes? What should we do to make these ideals and needs visible again, to give them a voice?

It is against this background that the discovery of the objects in our University Museum is so important. It emphasizes the problematic nature of the stereotypical thinking about our own intellectual history as something that can be locked away in the archive of our past.

As in the first half of the 20th century when eugenics captured the imagination of scientists and politicians the world over, we still live in a world in which we trust that science can help us improve society. By focusing on the abuse of science in the past for morally questionable and even monstrous political ideals, we can learn much about what it means to practice science – specifically the social sciences – in the 21st century in an ethically responsible manner.

Without this we would be much less relevant to society. We would not even know of the blind spots and gaps in our own fields of knowledge. We would not be able to stand upright and honestly in front of our students. And we would be unable to meet the challenges of the future we have to tackle together with those previously excluded from the resource of knowledge.

In order to move forward as a university and fundamentally transform our teaching, research and community interaction, we have to take our past into consideration. We cannot think that we have already analysed history in full, and that the final word about it has already been spoken. If we do that, we run the risk of slipping into a dangerous forgetfulness. And this is not the way we want to go.