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Two Wits professors awarded Science for Society Gold Medals

- Wits University

The Academy of Science of South Africa has awarded its highest honour, Science for Society Gold Medals, to Wits Professors Karen Hofman and Achille Mbembe.

ASSAf annually awards ASSAf Science for Society Gold Medals in recognition of outstanding achievements by individuals. Up to two Gold Medals are awarded per annum for outstanding achievement in scientific thinking for the benefit of society.

The Gold Medals were awarded to Professor Karen Hofman and to Professor Achille Mbembe at ASSAf’s annual awards ceremony held in Pretoria on Thursday, 19 October 2022.

Prof Karen Hofman and Prof Achille Mbembe are 2022 ASSAf Science for Society Gold Medallists

The health of SA is the wealth of SA

Karen Hofman is a Research Professor and Founding Director of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC)/Wits Centre for Health Economics and Decision Science (PRICELESS SA) in the School of Public Health, Faculty of Health Sciences.

The Centre was established in 2009 as the Priority Cost Effective Lessons for Systems Strengthening (PRICELESS).

A Wits Medical School graduate, Hofman has since 2009 led policy research to evaluate interventions inside the health system and in other sectors that provide the biggest return on investment for health.

Prof Karen Hofman 2022 ASSAf Science for Society Gold Medal winner

Hofman received a Gold Medal for her application of scientific thinking in the service of society, the results of which mean that we as a population are healthier.

Saving lives from salt and liquid sugar

The bread eaten by South Africans today has significantly less salt in it than it did 10 years ago. This is the result of mandatory regulations based on PRICELESS SA research that showed how many lives could be saved from averting strokes and the cost savings of doing so. Salt reduction is one of the most cost-effective interventions for population health.

Similarly, we now have choices when we order sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs). Hofman was instrumental in driving the Health Promotion Levy (‘sugar tax’), based on rigorous scientific research, towards reducing consumption of SSBs in order to advance public health. Liquid sugar is a major contributor to obesity, starting in childhood and extending across the lifespan, with obesity-related disease numbers now having overtaken HIV/Aids in SA. This demonstrates how intersectoral action is essential to improve population health.

Soft drinks will increase obesity in SA

Hofman's work on universal health coverage has strategically focused on priority-setting, a key driver to implement a sustainable National Health Insurance (NHI) by doing research to inform health benefit packages and decisions to improve both health systems and population health outcomes.

According to the citation, Hofman embodies the essence of the Science for Society award by conducting transdisciplinary research – she identifies policy relevant issues; engages with various relevant publics before, during and after the research endeavour; and commits time and has the expertise to disseminate the research evidence through channels both academic and, importantly, media, as well as direct public engagement.

Professor Imraan Valodia, Pro Vice-Chancellor Climate, Sustainability and Inequality, who nominated Hofman, says, "Professor Hofman is the epitome of a Wits researcher – world class research for creating a better world. This is a richly deserved recognition of the importance of her research."

Hofman says, “I feel most honoured that my contributions have been recognised by the Academy of Science of South Africa in an auspicious year when Wits celebrates its 100th anniversary. This award is not just for me, but it also belongs to my amazing team at the SAMRC Wits Centre for Health Economics and Decision Science. Our group of passionate and very smart individuals, whose backgrounds range from health systems, through health economics, to health law and health communication, have supported me and have believed in the mission of the organisation. My top-notch admin team are the glue that keeps us all moving forward.  The whole team believe, as I do, that ‘the health of SA is the wealth of SA’”.

The postcolony and necropolitics

Achille Mbembe is a Professor in the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER) in the Faculty of Humanities at Wits University, which he joined in 2001.

Mbembe’s work has played a role in shaping the scholarly agenda of the Humanities in late modernity. Over 25 years, he has consistently published works of international stature and reputation.

Professor Achille Mbembe

The Cameroon-born scholar earned his PhD in History at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1989 and a D.E.A. in Political Science at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (Paris).

Between 1980 and 1996, he was preoccupied with late colonial politics, decolonization and emerging nationalism. His research was instrumental in shifting debates on the place of power in Africa's postcolonial period.

At a conceptual level, the terms ‘postcolony’ and ‘necropolitics’ have become associated with Mbembe's work. These are now key terms in the vocabulary of the global Humanities. Of notable importance is his published work, Necropolitics, in which he theorizes about the origins of the contemporary world while highlighting the increase in militarization, inequality, and the revival of racism and fascist forces.  

Being human in Africa

Mbembe continues to produce globally leading scholarship. His seventh book, A Critique of Black Reasonpublished in 2017 and which sold over 12 000 copiesis an attempt at revisiting the relationship between capitalism and racism. In 2020 he published Deglobalization to argue that digital computation is engendering a new common world and new configurations of reality and power.

Over and above the multiple translations of his work, Mbembe is the most cited African scholar of his time. His interdisciplinary approach, combining History, Philosophy and Political Studies, has tackled key contemporary - from an early critical reflection on why the social revolutions in Africa predicted under conventional Marxist theory never arrived,  through revisiting the politics of life and death in his writings on ‘necropolitics’, to recent preoccupations with whether we can take seriously Africa and the diaspora's planetary predicament - and the possibility that the fate of Earth may be playing out on this continent - Mbembe stands out as one of the key thinkers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Commenting on the award, Mbembe says, “Without the unconditional support I was given at WiSER by its successive Directors and by my colleagues, none of what I have been able to achieve would have been possible. WiSER is today internationally recognised as one of the most successful initiatives ever created by any major global Southern university in the field of the Humanities and social sciences. With strong and unflinching University support, my hope is that it will remain a huge asset especially for younger generations of scholars in the years to come. I also thank the Faculty of the Humanities and its successive Deans, as well as Wits University Press, my South African academic publisher.”

Professor Garth Stevens, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, who nominated Mbembe, says, “Professor Achille Mbembe is really one of the most remarkable recipients of this award, given his phenomenal scholarship in the area of critical Humanities. It is even more fitting that this medal was bestowed on him on African soil and in the year that Wits has turned 100. We’re extremely proud to be associated with this level of scholarship. This attests to reserves of intellectual, academic and scholarly talent at Wits University, making it not only one of the premier sites for Humanities scholars, but for scholars more broadly across the African continent and across the world.”

Professor Lynn Morris, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research & Innovation at Wits, who attended the ceremony, says, “We are thrilled that two of our most highly regarded and respected academics have won this year’s Gold Medals from ASSAf. These awards highlight not only the calibre of the scholars at Wits but also their commitment to ensuring that their research resonates and has impact beyond the academy. We congratulate Professor Karen Hofman and Professor Achille Mbembe on this noteworthy achievement and celebrate their success. I would also like to thank Professor Garth Stevens and Professor Imraan Valodia for their nominations.”

Witsies also won the ASSAf Science for Society Gold Medals in 2021. These awardees were Professor Shabir Madhi, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, and Barry Schoub, Emeritus Professor of Virology at Wits and founding Executive Director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.