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Political Theory to grow in SA

- Kemantha Govender

Professor Lawrence Hamilton has been recently awarded a SARChI chair.

Hamilton will use his South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) chair in Political Theory to increase the prominence of the discipline in South Africa and to pursue a transformation agenda.

Hamilton, recently awarded the National Research Foundation/British Academy Research Chair in Political Theory, said political theory is a marginalised and poorly supported area of political studies in South Africa but the plan is to change that as soon as possible.

One of the reasons this discipline remains underdeveloped can be linked to apartheid. Hamilton explained that the then government did not want theorists discussing value-laden concepts such as justice, democracy, freedom and racial and economic equality and part of his job is to undo that.

Transformation agenda 

The Chair will also aim to grow the number of graduate students researching in political theory.

“Most of my students are African, Indian and Coloured and this is really important for the transformation of universities and also political studies departments. Having more PhD students from these groups can go a long way in making political theory more prominent and relevant,” Hamilton said.

“I will be offering quite a few scholarships at Honours, Masters and Doctoral levels and I am also starting an exchange programme with Wits University, University of Cambridge, London School of Economics, the School of Oriental and African Studies and Queen Mary University of London,” Hamilton said.


Hamilton added that this is quite an unusual SARChI chair in that it is funded by the NRF and the British Academy and will require him to spend six months at Wits and the other six months at Cambridge.

“In the application process, because of my links to Cambridge, I organised to be there for six months. At both Wits and Cambridge I will supervise postgraduate students and conduct research,” he said.

Initially the exchange will be between Cambridge and Wits. In research terms, the goal is for Hamilton, his students and colleagues to offer novel political theory perspectives and arguments from the global South.

Hamilton will no longer teach undergraduate classes as the first five-year term as Chair begins immediately. The Chair is eligible for renewal twice.

Hamilton started at Wits in mid-2014 and is currently supervising nine Masters and PhD students at the University. He is the author of several books including The Political Philosophy of Needs; Puzzles in contemporary political philosophy: An introduction to South African students; Intellectual Traditions in South Africa: Ideas, Institutions and Individuals, Are South Africans Free? and Freedom is Power: Liberty Through Political Representation.

Application process 

The two month application process comprised of institutional input and Hamilton’s portion of the application contained his rationale for the Chair, research outputs and output in terms of human capital, exactly what he will be doing for the first five years and the budget for this duration.

He was trained in the UK where his discipline is more prominent. His research interests include various topics in contemporary political theory, such as states, power, representation, freedom, needs, rights, markets and political judgement, as informed by real world politics, particularly in the global South, the history of political thought, and South African politics, political economy and intellectual history.

“The way I do political theory is to contextualise it. Most of my books develop political theory out of a specific context and that context is obviously South Africa,” he said.

He has received more than 10 awards for research excellence, including the TOFAC Award (2014), the University of Johannesburg’s Research Excellence Award (2013-2014), the South African National Research Foundation (NRF) Presidents Award (2007-11), a Mandela Cambridge Bursary (1998-2001) and the Gladstone Memorial Prize (1996); and he is now rated B1 by the NRF (2012-17).

Some of the human capital developments associated with this Chair will go to the University of Western Cape (UWC). For example, the Chair will fund one of his PhD students to teach a graduate course at the UWC.