(Published - 28 October 2019)
The retirement of Professor Ben Cousins, DST/NRF Chair in Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies, after some 28 years of service at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), is a significant event both for the University and for the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), the institute he co-founded in 1995.
Taking up a position at UWC after 19 years as a political exile in Swaziland and Zimbabwe, Prof Cousins taught in the Department of Anthropology from 1991 to 1995, when he was seconded from his department to start a policy research unit – initially called the Programme for Land and Agrarian Studies – that would support the development of land reform policy in South Africa. Initially operating on a modest grant from the Ford Foundation, PLAAS started as a small outfit operating from the basement of a building in downtown Bellville. From these humble beginnings, Prof Cousins turned PLAAS into a vibrant and essential part of UWC’s intellectual life: a research unit dedicated to doing rigorous research on the political economy of agrarian change to engage critically with government policy, and to nurture a new generation of critical young black agrarian scholars. He acted as PLAAS Director until September 2009, when he took up the DST/NRF Chair which he holds up to the present day.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Prof Cousins’s career at UWC is the way he continues to make an integral and valuable contribution to the intellectual and political life of PLAAS, even after the end of his tenure as Director. Using his Chair to leverage the institutional and intellectual resources of PLAAS, he continues to play an active role as postgraduate supervisor, researcher, public intellectual and mentor to his younger colleagues. The postgraduate programme he directed ushered a new generation of young black scholars into PLAAS and UWC, revitalising PLAAS as an organisation and laying the groundwork for creating the new generation of agrarian scholars envisaged at its founding. Prof Cousins’s good humour, insight, intellectual generosity and insight have played a central role in the life of PLAAS as an institution over the last 10 years.
His departure signals the end of an era at PLAAS – and the beginning of a new one. His colleagues will miss his intellectual guidance and his strategic advice, but his departure creates the opportunity for a new generation of young scholars to step forward. PLAAS and UWC are grateful to him for his enormous contribution, and proud to continue the work he started.
A farewell public lecture by Prof Cousins will take place on 28 October 2019. For more information visit: