In Conversation with Professor Gary Minkley- SARChI Chair in Social Change, UFH

Read time: 12 mins

Who is Prof Gary Minkley?

I was born and raised in East London and went to De La Salle College until apartheid forced its closure and then to Selborne College. I studied at UCT, majoring in History, Economic History and English and African Literature, and then did postgraduate studies also at UCT. I received my PhD in History from UCT in 1994. The thesis was entitled ‘Border Dialogues: Race, Class and Space in the Industrialisation of East London’.

In the early 1980s I got a job in the History

Department at UWC and worked there until 2003. During my time there I became a full professor, was head of Department and worked with a collective of incredible colleagues and friends. UWC, known then as the ‘University of the Left’ was an exciting, daunting and stimulating place to be and I was both lucky and privileged enough to have been able to link my academic, research and teaching work with social and political interventions around ‘people’s history’, with the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) around the transformations of the public history sector, at places like Robben Island, District Six and more broadly.

In the early 2000’s, mainly for family reasons, I moved back to the Eastern Cape. I got a job at the newly established Fort Hare Institute of Social and Economic Research (FHISER) at Fort Hare, as a senior researcher. In 2007 I was appointed as the Director of Postgraduate Studies in the GMRDC- marking a two year period in university administration -  until my appointment as a NRD/ DST South African Research Chair SARChI Chair in Social Change and have been in that position since then. My academic work at UFH maintained a similar trajectory, while focusing on my core responsibilities of research and teaching and learning, especially in relation to the History Department and to postgraduate students, while also working on its applicability outside of the academy – on research relating to land restitution, to rural development, to evidence led policy research, as well as around public history and new heritage.

 Please tell us about your research interest and your past and current work/projects including your most significant research accomplishments?

(i)    Social and economic history of East London:

My postgraduate research work in History was on a social and economic history of East London, and in my PhD I tried to connect issues of how material, representational and active lived space further connected to those of race, class and  gender, as well as being concerned to connect how these related to segregation, apartheid and industrialization. Out of this work, my primary research arena has been the city of East London and the broader Eastern Cape, including city and countryside.


(ii)    Collaborative research projects:

A second area of research emerged with my collaborative work at UWC, particularly with colleagues Leslie Witz and Ciraj Rassool (with whom I co-authored the Unsettled History book outlined below), but also other colleagues, which became a new approach within South African History - named as public history.

This approach is concerned with the ways that the production of history takes place outside of the academy and both shapes, but also defines public pasts as much more powerful than the more academic written histories produced by ‘experts’.

So,  everything from political rallies and strikes, to road-names, museums, monuments, festivals and tours,  landscapes, memory, media, images and sounds produce pasts and knowledges about pasts – and these are significant and always contestable (as the Black lives matter or fees must fall public statue engagements so eloquently demonstrate at the moment).


Applied research:

This also translated into doing much more applied research: as mentioned elsewhere through doing museum transformation research at Robben island museum for example, or in Land Restitution in Duncan Village and in the former Ciskei; in research for the TRC, and so on.

(iii)              Photography and visual history:

A third area of my research related to a series of projects around photography and the visual history, in part with Patricia Hayes at UWC (and with whom I edited the Ambivalent book, see below). In  part, it was determined by the ways that forcibly removed residents of Duncan Village, (for example) used photographs to prove their dispossession under the Group Areas Act and forced removals.


This has led to me being concerned with visual history and with how visual history provides both different methods and different meanings and interpretations of the past – what another author has called ‘raw histories’ - not yet cooked or processed by the constraints and limits of an academy still largely dominated by white men.



(iv)    New and different approaches to History:

This led me to also explore new and different approaches to History, related to aspects of the visual, as already stated, but also to sound (and by this I don’t just mean music), to the performative, to social acts and to the repertoires and social networks associated with the contingent and experiential. So, I am interested in trying to think about how pasts are lived, made, represented and changed through these social and cultural practices.


(v)      SARChI Chair

This has been consolidated around research that is concerned with understanding the social and what this means in the Eastern Cape in particular (this was the brief and definition of the scale and scope of my Chair).  It is also concerned with how this social has changed over time, hence its focus on History, my discipline.  So, the Chair is concerned with understanding social pasts and changes, rather than with projecting an anticipated future hopefully determined by some advocated and directed social change action.


As such, many of my current projects under the Chair have titles like: ‘Social Acts and Projections of Change’; ‘Reworking the Social’; ‘Sounding the Land and the Social’, or ‘Looking for the Social’, amongst others. In essence, the argument shaping and defining the research is that we cannot take the social for granted, but rather need to actively explore and research what is meant by ‘the social’ at different times and for different people, in order to better understand and engage various formations of social change.


(vi)      Sounding the Land:

A final example which also points to the public engagement of the research is a collaboration between the Chair, postgraduate research students, the History Department and  Cory Library at Rhodes University, various artists, musicians and intellectuals.  This collaboration has produced what turned into a virtual exhibition at this year’s National Arts Festival, entitled Sounding the Land’.


It includes film, music, interviews, a ‘tour’, an exhibition and various histories associated with ungrounding the 1820 settler claims to history and entitlement. This is not commemoration, but detail the violence of land dispossession and listen to alternative understandings of these pasts. The exhibition can be viewed/ accessed via the NAF website from/ On 4 July.


Please share some of your research highlights

There’ve been quite a few:

(a)    The books and special journal issues I have published/ edited/co-edited, amongst many other publications. The books and their titles, can almost be read as a kind of mapping out of my academic and intellectual concern, viz:  

  • gender and colonialism and the violences of authoritarian and settled masculinities; with apartheid and race and the remains of that racial capitalist social into the post-apartheid;
  • with the unsettled histories and public pasts that equally remain and are re-articulated and contested (hence unsettled);
  •  and the ambivalent ways in which the pasts and presents continue to shape the forms of and nature of change in the social and human worlds we live in, encounter, visualize, listen to,  assemble and act in, experience and structure.


(b)    Several postgraduate students – doctoral and masters  - primarily South African, that I have supervised and seen emerge as historians, researchers and intellectuals. The Chair has hosted more than ten postdocs over the past ten years. Several of these graduates have now moved on to senior research and teaching positions at other universities and contribute substantially to inter-institutional collaboration, a growing local and international community of scholars, and publications.


(c)     Research Networks have been developed primarily through the Chair’s contributions to the DST-NRF Flagship on Critical Thought in African Humanities at UWC under the important and influential directorship of Professor Premesh Lalu, and the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change at the University of Minnesota.


I consider research, teaching collaborations and partnerships as really important and are the means to share resources, intellectual communities, ideas and research skills in much more meaningful ways than being stuck in individual and isolated competitive silos of academic work.

The Chair has also developed partnerships with and contributed to the work of the NRF SARChI Chair in Visual History and Theory (with Patricia Hayes) and the 5 year Mellon Supranational project on Remaking Societies, Remaking Persons, under the leadership of Ciraj Rassool at UWC. More recently these collaborations have extended to Rhodes University to more firmly base the ongoing work of the Chair in the Eastern Cape, and to Basel University to explore the challenges and demands of international and north/south research and institutional collaborations, amongst others. A further less formal influential relationship exists with Professor John Mowitt at Leeds University.


(d)    The research work I have done outside of the academy relatesto aspects of applied history and transforming or changing society. This can be seen in my early work in people’s history projects, in work with the TRC and around Land Restitution cases, particularly in the Eastern Cape and in relation to various other development projects, related to rainwater harvesting, to housing, to rural development, to service delivery.


Secondly I have worked in public history and heritage, initially in relation to the Robben Island Museum and District Six. The obvious one that resonates at the moment, to illustrate how these public histories matter, is in relation to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests and the removals of statues that are seen to symbolize past histories of racism, empire, slavery and oppression. My co-authored book (Unsettled History) has a chapter concerned with these important and on-going, often unequal relationships between monuments and memorials and the past. Colin Bundy, a SA historian at Oxford, has recently made these connections, quoting from our work at the end of his article.


(e)    In particular, my work in the Chair and which the 'Remains of the Social' manuscript highlights, has been preoccupied with tracing the social particularly in relation to the questions of race and the resiliences of racism that continue to violently mark the subject of the human.


How do you ensure your research is well communicated, digested and acted on?

This is a very difficult question to answer. My field is primarily History and Social Change and my role as such is therefore to address the limits of past accounts and to encourage new, different, innovative and alternative histories to those generated by apartheid, racial capitalism and oppressive and violent patriarchies, amongst others.

This is what needs ‘working through’: to think about and to research, engage, track, trace and articulate, to view and to listen to what it means to be human, and to think about and hear anew what is at stake in this work, and in our thinking about the social and social change. Our work as historians and through the Chair is to argue for continuing to radicalise the project of history and for more history, for the enabling practice of history as criticism for understanding and indeed defining or demarcating the social and what that means. Our work seeks to then – institutionally, intellectually and collaboratively – intensify the work of history and social change by producing more history: histories of concepts, critical histories of historical practices, histories that interrupt the discourse of capitalism and multiculturalism, patriarchy and race; histories of the formation of objects and subjects, systems of knowledge and the elaboration of discourses.

So my research is communicated within my fields of work, in the academy and beyond in public history for example (meaning in museums, exhibitions, displays, memorials, tourist routes and representations), in lived archives, repertoires and affective performances, and in sound and visual encounters and engagements. The digestion and acting on, as I’ve tried to suggest, are not the registers through which the work of the Chair is either framed or seeking to or even able to address. It does seem to me particularly important to make this argument that there are different forms or research communication and its audiences and it is not a ‘one size fits all’ process.

Furthermore, the Chair has centrally articulated its concerns around the humanities and questions of evidence and its relationship to public and community. It has done so in forums like the annual Winter Schools and workshops, in the Red Assembly exhibition and engagements amongst others, as well as in engaging scholarship that produces cocreated, self-reflective knowledge, particularly in relation to heritage and public knowledge, and in relation to archives and to aesthetics.


What has been the greatest impact of your work?

I think it is in the broad field of the discipline and how History is practiced, applied and broadened changed– that is its primary focus and its main concern. To develop new research findings, and to publish them; to encourage new generations of historians and researchers who are confident to define their own paths forward and further re-define and re-interpret pasts and presents on their terms and so on. So,  I would hope that the greatest impact of my work resides in the work, singular and plural, that has enabled new knowledge, and new knowledge makers to develop, and in the process, to assert that it is from the site of the black university that many of the enduring problems and legacies of colonial and imperial racial, class and gender forms of domination and oppression can be addressed in new and different ways.

What advice would you give to Young Researchers out there?

Pretty much what I’ve just said above. That there is an urgent need for new generations of scholars, academics, intellectuals, historians who will follow and define their own paths and in so doing, confidently and critically build on but as importantly revise our existing understandings and map out their own foundations with dedication, energy, excitement, focus, and creativity. My advice would be to work hard, very hard, but do so with belief, with questioning and criticism, with energy and thought and with a sense that what you do can be serious fun.