Univ.-Prof. Dr. Kirsten Rüther, M.A.

© Der Knopfdrücker


Telephone: +43 1 4277 43213
email: kirsten.ruether@univie.ac.at

Office hours summer semester 2022:
Monday 5-6pm (Please register by email.)


Having her disciplinary anchor in the study of history, Kirsten Rüther represents the extensive field of "African History and Societies". Her expertise derives from various, successively developed areas of work. These initially included the examination of the political and everyday historical relevance of Christianisation in the context of mission and colonialism. In a later phase of her career, she dealt with the process of political transition and social transformation in South Africa, pursuing this change through the activities of healers, the knowledge of medicines and through people’s management of diverse "afflictions". More recently, she has devoted her energies to urban studies in Zambia. She is particularly interested in housing policies of the late colonial state.

Her studies and research have often taken her to South Africa and, more recently, to Zambia as well. She enthusiastically uses archives and libraries, but is also involved in a major oral history project. Over the many years of doing research, she has been able to build lasting collaborations with colleagues, make friends and learn to remain open to situations. In my view, the most rewarding aspect about doing research is that one is challenged to deal with surprises. Encounters often cannot be predicted – this is wonderful.


  • CV


    Full Professorship for „African History and Societies“ at the Department of African Studies.

    2018 Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin (November)

    2017 Zentrum für Interdisziplinäre Forschung (ZiF), Bielefeld (February-March)



    Post-doctoral assistant at the Historical Seminar of the University of Zurich



    Guest-professorship in the field of „Global History“, Freie Universität Berlin



    Habilitation: Venia legendi in the field of „Modern History“


    2005 Fellow at Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut in Essen

    Project: Editing the field of „Global Interaction“ within the project of Enzyklopädie der Neuzeit (15 vols)


    2003-2004, 2006-2007, 2008-2012

    Post-doctoral assistant at the Department of History of the Leibniz Universität Hannover



    Research officer in the „Special Research Project“ (Sonderforschungsbereich) on „Coping with Transformation in African Societies“, Universität Hamburg

    1999-2003 various extended research stays in Durban, Pietermaritzburg and Johannesburg



    PhD degree in „History“, Universität Hannover

    1996-1997 extended research stays in Johannesburg and Oxford



    M.A. degree in History, English Studies and the Study of Religion, Universität Hannover

    1993-1994 Erasmus stay in Bristol

  • Functions
    • 2013-2016, 2020-ongoing
      Head of Department
    • 2019-2021
      Leadership Doc.funds: Cultural Mobility Studies
      Leadership research platform: Mobile Cultures and Societies
    • 2014-2020
      Deputy Directorate of Doctoral programme
  • Memberships
    • Member of Advisory Board at the Centre for Atlantic and Global Studies (CAGS), Leibniz-Universität Hannover, 2017-ongoing; www.cags.uni-hannover.de
    • Curator of the European Forum Alpbach, 2016-2019.
    • Advisory Board at the Journal of African History, Politics and Society.
    • Member of the editorial department at "Stichproben. Wiener Zeitschrift für kritische Afrikastudien."
    • Member of Advisory Board at SADOCC (South African Documentation Centre), Wien.
  • Research Focus
    • Political, social and religious transformations in southern Africa, 19th-20th centuries
    • Global history and the history of entanglements from the vantage point of southern African societies
    • Family, kinship and biography, with an empirical focus on South African and German connections, 19th-21st centuries
    • Healing, medicine and popular culture in South Africa, 20th century
    • Urban development and housing in late colonial/ early independent Zambia, 20th century
  • Ongoing Research

    Currently I am working on three research projects.


    1.       The History of the Winter Family

    2.       The Politics of Housing in Late Colonial and Early Independent Kenya, Zambia and DR Congo

    3.       The Burial of Dennis the Goat – Revisiting the Years of the South African Transition


    The History of the Winter Family – A Winters’ Tale Emerging in a South African Context

    In a collective research project based on archival research and – mainly –  oral history we are reconstructing the history of “the Winters”. The family consists of many branches. Once there was a missionary couple, “the Winters”, who went to South Africa as part of the Berlin Missionary Society in the 1870s. They separated from the mission and established themselves in the Pedi heartland, where they interacted closely both with the paramountcy and local South African authorities. A son married into a Swazi lineage which came from afar as well to establish themselves in the region. This was the starting point for a line of Winters to emerge who were later discriminated against on the basis of their skin colour and ethnic categorisation. The missionary couple’s son married an Afrikaner woman after the death of his Swazi wife. It is form there that another family line came into being who were “white” as the South African nomenclatura dubbed their roots and belonging.

    The Winters’ tale captures the pain, the ambitions and injustices of South African history over at least four generations. The family’s tale relates to issues of claiming lost land and to being cast as “coloureds” in-between other ethnic labels – even though there was a constant social and familial interaction with so-called “whites”, “Indians” and “the Pedi”. A colleague of mine and I were happy to be contacted, in 2008, by a descendent of the “German-white-Swazi-Indian-coloured” line of the family and her sister. They themselves and their mother had intermarried with men “of the Muslim faith” while staying in immediate touch, at least partly, with versions of Christianity available in both town and countryside. We are exploring the family history from a variety of angles, and we appreciate that so many of “the Winter family” have engaged with us in a series of conversations.



    The Politics of Housing in Late Colonial and Early Independent Kenya, Zambia and DR Congo

    This research was started with funding from the Austrian Science Funds (FWF). In three case studies, between 2017 and 2021, a group of researchers committed themselves to the study of housing as provided in the context of employment.

    Parallel to a doctoral fellow writing on “Building Ideology” in Livingstone, I am currently devoting time to coming up with a history of the provision of housing in late colonial Zambia and ideas of social advance among an emerging urban strata of aspiring citizens. The book will focus on issues of rent-paying, the meaning of house numbers and addresses as well as on representations of houses and homes in Zambian life-writing. I am also pursuing a focus on the cultural, political and architectural meanings of roofs, which are mentioned excessively in the archival record.



    The Burial of Dennis the Goat – Revisiting the Years of the South African Transition

    In 1992 a goat called Dennis was murdered in the streets of Umlazi. Dennis had the reputation of being like a human being, and his owner, Xolani Sabelo, was determined to give him a human burial. This proved difficult as the Umlazi authorities were reluctant to assign space from their cemetery for Dennis’ grave. Xolani then went from pillar to post to find a place for his beloved friend and companion. A variety of print media and radio stations keenly covered the story, and in many ways the story of the death and burial of Dennis the Goat was a story of African journalism re-emerging from apartheid pressures.

    The story unfolded in a fragile moment of South African history, namely virtually between the ending of apartheid and the beginning of “new times”. Everything was in flux. There was a high level of violence sweeping through the country. There were many expectations towards a better future. The “output” will be an extended essay offering various possibilities of reading the story.

  • Projects

    Funded Projects

    • 2021-2022
      Summer School “Spaces for Future: Processes of Rural & Urban Transformation in Southern Africa”
      49.000,00€ Volkswagenstiftung (jointly with A. Daniel, Wien; R. Gronemeyer & C. Ludwig, Gießen; L. Mwewa, Windhoek)
    • 2017-2021
      Employment-Tied Housing in (Post)Colonial Zambia, DR Congo and Kenya
      428.484,00€ FWF – Einzelprojekt
    • 2019-2024
      Doc.funds “PhD Programme in Cultural Mobility Studies”
      1.331.836,48€ FWF (jointly with 6 co-applicants)
    • Research Platform “Mobile Cultures and Societies” (continued from 2014-2018)
      349.000,00€ Univ. of Vienna (jointly with 6 co-applicants)
  • Publications

    See u:cris

Last updated: 03.03.2022