Research Themes

HUMA’s research themes are deliberately broad and expansive.  They are intended to function in two ways simultaneously: on one hand, to constitute a collective intellectual project, which gives coherence and cohesion to the intellectual life of the Institute, and on the other, to create space therein for individual researchers to make their own way into the issues.  An architectural metaphor perhaps captures this best:  if the Institute is imagined as a building, the research themes give it size and shape, at the same time as creating many rooms which individual researchers can inhabit in their own way.


Each theme encompasses three modes of analysis: theoretical and conceptual; empirical; and ethical.   While separable in some respects, these are also closely interconnected, and the research themes will create opportunities to explore these linkages too.

The research themes are envisaged as vehicles of interdisciplinary research and engagement – with the intention of discussing and debating what interdisciplinarity might entail.


On Being Human

This theme aims to contribute to resurgent scholarly interest in questions of what we humans share, even if in recognition of profound differences – as the basis for grappling with the contours of ‘a good life’.

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Circuits of Consumption

If the first research theme grapples broadly and variously with our relationships with others, this research theme focuses on our relationship to ‘stuff’ – again, theoretically, empirically and ethically.

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Individual researchers at Huma make their own way into the issues as they see fit.

Deborah Posel‘s statement of research:

Money, marriage and motion – aspects of South Africa’s history of consumerism

My current research builds on a long-standing engagement with South Africa’s history of race and power, adding a new focus for me on the politics of consumption, status and inequality.  The project initially took root in the present, with an interest in the post-apartheid ‘freedom to consume’, which has had a conspicuous, and highly contested, imprint in the contemporary conjuncture (see ‘Races to Consume’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2010).   This has since been a suggestive lens to hold to recent political controversies, not least the furore that attached to Julius Malema and the politicization of race in the ANC Youth League under his leadership (publication forthcoming). Read more on this research here.

Shamil Jeppie’s statement of research:

I am leading the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project ( with its mutli-faceted concerns with the cultures of reading and writing in Timbuktu, the broader region, and in other regions of the continent.  My own work with the Timbuktu materials focuses on one individual, Ahmad Bularaf  (d.1954), who was a major copyist and collector. I am trying to understand his methods and approach to copying and collecting books and the network across northwest Africa that he cultivated over decades.  I also hope through him to understand earlier processes of archiving and collecting in Timbuktu. Read more here.

Zethu Matebeni’s statement of research:

My research interests are located in a range of fields and sub-fields, including Sexuality Studies, Gender Studies, Urban Studies, Ethnographic theory and practices as well as HIV and AIDS. My PhD thesis, Exploring black lesbian sexualities and identities in Johannesburg, is considered “the first in-depth monograph length study of black lesbian life on the African continent”. Another reviewer considered it a “significant” manuscript because “it challenges the idea and meaning that black lesbian sexualities lack pleasure, or that such sexualities are only shaped by violence”. Building on this thesis, my ongoing research investigates the ways in which sexuality and gender are used to unsettle and defamiliarize the ‘normalized’ and the ‘norm’. In most cases, the people with whom my research is interested in are considered ‘less human’, unAfrican, made to be outcasts in many ways and even violated. I am curious about the ways in which these groups of people transgress, challenge and expand society’s notions of what it means to be human. Currently I am working on three projects that deal directly with this pre-occupation. Read more about them here.

Ilana van Wyk’s statement of research:

My research interests centre on the twin themes of money and religion, and in particular on new forms of Christianity and on the South African Lottery. I have been doing research in South Africa on the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG) since 2004. The UCKG is of Brazilian origin and has been phenomenally successful in establishing branches and attracting followers in post-apartheid South Africa. Unlike other Pentecostal-Charismatic Churches, the UCKG discourages acts of ‘Christian’ charity and fellowship. Instead, the church encourages members to engage in contractual relationships with God to ensure lives of abundant wealth, health and boundless consumption. My work on the UCKG problematizes the nature of (religious) sociality, questions the dichotomies between the religious and the secular and investigates Christian epistemologies. Apart from my work on the UCKG, I have also been doing research on the South African Lottery since 2008. I am particularly interested in poor people who play the Lottery and in local ideas about luck, chance and ‘work’. Beyond Lottery players, my project also looks at former Lottery winners who have ended up in jail. I am particularly interested in their life stories and economic ‘imagination’. Most recently the project shifted to an investigation of the charitable arm of the Lottery apparatus. To read more, click here.