Five Things about Mellon’s Support of Arts and Scholarship in South Africa

The Mellon Foundation has been making grants to South African universities since 1988. Thirty years later, we look back at the experience and how it informs future grantmaking.

A world-class opera star and a scholarly deep-dive into an ancient South African language are among the many fruits of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s 30 years of grantmaking in South Africa.  From the last days of apartheid to contemporary South Africa, the Foundation has drawn on the transformative potential of higher education and the humanities to build institutions, advance new knowledge, seed emerging scholars and artists to take root, and to provide opportunities for a new and more diverse generation of graduates and scholars.

As the Foundation enters its third decade in South Africa, we look back at the experience and how it informs future grantmaking.

International Grantmaking and the Mellon Foundation mission 

Throughout its history, the Foundation has made international grants even as it has predominantly supported American institutions. Given the Foundation’s mission to strengthen and promote the humanities, the arts, and institutions of higher education and culture, it is no surprise that Mellon’s grantmaking has involved international engagement. The humanities concern themselves with fundamental questions about the ways in which human beings render and express experience; in a socially and politically interconnected world, scholarship in the humanities often extends beyond our immediate geographies, asking us to engage with other cultures and regions.

From 1990 to 2005, much of Mellon’s support for international initiatives was stimulated by notable geopolitical shifts that presented new opportunities for timely research and scholarship, or brought to the fore urgent problems in which the Foundation’s support could make a difference. For example, in years 1995-2003, the Foundation made grants that supported the study of forced migration and refugees; after the fall of the Berlin Wall, grants were made to support and create educational institutions that could spur the democratic development of the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries.

5 things south africa.jpg“Conservation of the Art Collection of the Constitutional Court of South Africa,” a three-year Mellon-funded project led by curator, Melissa Goba. Art courtesy of Sipho Ndlovu.

Early Grantmaking in South Africa

The Foundation began supporting select South African universities in 1988, initially under a program for societies in transition from authoritarian rule.

The Foundation’s higher education goals in South Africa were always linked to the wider struggle for economic and political freedom, recalled Stuart Saunders, the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town. Mr. Saunders served as Senior Advisor to the Mellon South Africa program for 13 years before Saleem Badat’s appointment in 2014. Mr. Saunders said that William G. Bowen, the president of the Mellon Foundation from 1988 to 2006, was interested in supporting universities that wrestled with overcoming the strictures of apartheid.

The Foundation sought to contribute to the emergence of a flourishing democratic society in South Africa by strengthening leading universities that could help advance economic and social transformation after the ending of apartheid. Mellon’s support increased rapidly after the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the subsequent process of dismantling apartheid began, especially after the 1994 transition to democracy.

 “We were strengthening democracy in South Africa and producing qualified people who could take leadership in society,” Saunders said.

Significant accomplishments in South Africa

Mellon’s sustained investment in South Africa has greatly benefited the region’s higher education system, in large part by supporting hundreds of graduate students and potential post-apartheid faculty, especially black South Africans. Our grants have advanced scholarship and publishing, established research chairs, center’s, and graduate programs, and developed universities’ library, archival, and digital infrastructure. Mellon funding has also supported the country’s leading research and graduate universities for scholarly endeavors and institutional transformation. 

02. xam land with rock engraving.jpgInformation about South Africa’s historically-significant rock art paintings have been digitized and are accessible online where they are preserved for future generations. Photo courtesy of Pippa Skotnes.

Notable achievements since 1988:

  • Sustained support for the arts, humanities, and interpretive social sciences at leading research universities in a context where the primary emphasis is on STEM fields. Foundation funding has been critical in enabling new knowledge production, scholarship, and publishing in the arts and humanities.
  • Digitization of historically-significant “rock art”—thousands of rock art paintings that are hundreds of years old are now accessible via the Internet and are preserved for future generations.
  • Support for 250 scholars through faculty development awards, and 1,840 scholarships (1,700 graduate, 140 post doctoral) to cultivate the next generations of art and humanities scholars.
  • Enhancement of ‘race’ and gender diversity and inclusion among faculty and graduate student populations.
  • Strengthening of library resources, digital collections, and information and communication technology facilities.
  • The creation of a dictionary of the original language of the Khoi people.
  • Contributions to transforming South Africa opera, which now includes black performers such as Pretty Yende, a soprano who has become an internationally renowned opera star.
  • Digitization of all judgments of the SA Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court of Appeal, making these documents free and accessible to the public online.
  • Conservation framing, restoring, cleaning, displaying, and storing the extensive art collection housed at the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg.​

Looking Ahead

While South Africa has made progress post-1994, the country still has much work to do in terms of economic development, social justice, the consolidation of democracy, and the transformation of universities.

In 1988, President Bill Bowen envisioned the South Africa program as one that might help the country to become a hub for strengthening higher education on the African continent. With its 2014 Strategic Plan the Mellon Foundation has seen his goal to fruition by establishing a new International Higher Education and Strategic Projects (IHESP) program, with Saleem Badat, the former vice-chancellor of Rhodes University, as the first full-time and New York based Program Director. South Africa is a now a sub-program and anchor to the wider IHESP program.

Moving forward, IHESP will continue its South African grantmaking, and extend support to select universities in Uganda, Ghana, Egypt, and Lebanon, and specific pan-African and pan-Arab institutions that can facilitate collaboration between universities.

Badat sees as his task “to review, renew, expand, and re-energize grantmaking” in support of the key areas where Mellon has already made an impact, and where our mission—to strengthen and promote the contributions of the humanities and the arts to the well-being of diverse and democratic societies—continues to be of benefit: creative scholarship in the arts and humanities; strengthening graduate education; cultivating a more diverse faculty; and supporting initiatives that mobilize universities, scholars, and artists to collaborate locally and internationally on grand challenges affecting humanity.