Special Issue of South African Historical Journal

A recent special edition of the South African Historical Journal brings to life the shifting contexts and varied social imperatives out of which archives are initiated and sustained. This just-published special focus on Archive put together by NRF Chair, Carolyn Hamilton, showcases five papers by Archive & Public Culture research associates and is available online at: https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rshj20/65/1.

Hamilton’s overview paper, ‘Forged and Continually Refashioned in the Crucible of Ongoing Social and Political Life: Archives and Custodial Practices as Subjects of Enquiry’ offers an assessment of the state of South African archives. Shaped as much by fractures, uncertainties and changes in contemporary social and political life, the current dilapidation of the South African national archival system, Hamilton suggests, is a more complex problem than simply a matter of inefficiency and bias. Any attempts to analyse its current situation with a view to changing it, or indeed to understand in any situation why some things are preserved in certain forms, others in other forms, and some things not at all, requires us to recognise that archives, and other preservatory forms, are artefacts. It is central to Hamilton’s analysis that these artefacts and their linked practices and processes, are forged and continually refashioned in the crucible of ongoing social and political life.


In mapping out something of the range and form of contemporary engagements with inherited and newly collected materials about the past, looking at how they were, and are, entered into the record, and how those records change over time, the essay raises questions about the roles of archives and archive-like activities in contemporary, and past, social life. Making and maintaining archives, and the host of practices with similar features, are things that people do, for complex reasons, and in a variety of ways.

In refiguring archive-as-source as archive-as-subject, the essay recognises archives as simultaneously sites of storage and as practices in social life. It goes on to examine the range of methods – historical, ethnographic, literary and biographical – which researchers from a variety of disciplines mobilise in order to examine records as historical and contemporary subjects of investigation in their own right rather than simply as the storehouses of sources used by historians. The papers that follow offer instances of these different methods applied to archive-as-subject.

This special focus of the Journal  – 65(1), 2013 –foregrounds the interdisciplinary approach to archive practised by the APC and draws attention to the range of methodological approaches being developed in the research initiative. Including four papers by graduate students at UCT and part of the APC’s effort in nurturing student publication, this publication follows on the papers by APC research associates published in 2010 in a special focus on Archives in the international journal, History in Africa.

The paper by APC Anthropology Masters graduate Megan Greenwood, ‘Watchful Witness: St George’s Cathedral and the Crypt Memory and Witness Centre’,examines a case of exhibition practice in a post-apartheid, democratic South Africa. Being neither a museum nor a gallery, the Centre’s practice is informed by a particular, significant historic relationship between Christianity and exhibiting. The paper examines how the Crypt Centre engages with selective events from South Africa’s sociopolitical past through exhibition practice, and to what ends. In particular, it examines the theme of bearing witness that surfaces at multiple levels in the exhibition content and process, considering its relationship with contemporary sociality.

In ‘Archival Aspirations and Anxieties: Contemporary Preservation and Production of the Past in Umbumbulu, KwaZulu-Natal’, another Anthropology student, Grant McNulty explores the contemporary preservation and production of the past. His paper examines the Ulwazi Programme, a web initiative run through the eThekwini Municipality that uses the existing library infrastructure, new digital technologies and municipal residents to create what its advocates term a collaborative, indigenous knowledge resource, in the form of a Wiki.

The paper then investigates various other locations in Umbumbulu where the past is being dealt with and custody of the past is actively managed by, for example, local, non-professional historians and traditional leaders. In some instances, the work being done straddles the custodial and the productive, inviting a re-examination of notions of custodianship and the production of versions of history.

While these practices are frequently thought of as separate, the ethnographic material reveals that in daily practice, the distinction between the two is unclear. The paper considers the resources that are mobilised as evidence in the present by different actors in Umbumbulu so as to substantiate claims about the past, and reveals both archival aspirations and anxieties. There are those who aspire to a fixed record as a mechanism of preservation and acknowledgement, and others who have anxieties about such a configuration.

In her essay, ‘On Biography and Archive: Dorothea Bleek and the Making of the Bleek Collection’, Historian Jill Weintroub describes the making of the Bleek Collection, its formation into a coherent, scientific archive over decades, and the particular role of Dorothea Bleek (Wilhelm’s daughter) in this process. It draws on the theoretical writings of Michel Foucault and Anne Laura Stoler to elaborate notions of ‘archive’ as process and product of history, and to complicate its meanings in regard to the making of knowledge about the past.

In interrogating the making of the Bleek Collection, Weintroub seeks to offer additional layers of nuance that can be gleaned from situating the making of the collection within time. She describes how the collection has been fragmented and consolidated over years through a range of archival interventions, and the ways in which the particular life and scholarship of Dorothea Bleek has directed this process of archive making

APC research associate, Sara Byala, uses the history of Johannesburg’s MuseumAfrica (formerly the Africana Museum) to determine what happens when we enter a museum informed by its particular history. In ‘MuseumAfrica: Colonial Past, Postcolonial Present’, she traces this museum’s story from its founder’s arrival in South Africa in 1902 to the near present, and, by probing the biographies of the museum, its personnel, and its objects, renders its present state newly understandable. This process of uncovering biography and what is here termed ‘backstory’ (following Hamilton) then becomes a methodology capable of being used in multiple postcolonial institutions.

History doctoral student, Susanna Molins Lliteras (‘From Toledo to Timbuktu: The Case for a Biography of the Ka’ti archive, and its Sources’),focuses on the iconic Timbuktu manuscripts, examining the ‘life’ of a particular collection, the Fondo Ka’ti archive. This is one of the many private libraries that have surfaced in the town in recent years, and that has positioned itself apart from other libraries due to its unique historical construction.

Molins Lliteras argues that archival biography is the most relevant approach when analysing this topic and offers an assessment of the sources for such a biography. She treats the Fondo Ka’ti archive itself as an historical artefact, looking both at its conditions of production as well as at how its own being has in turn affected the context in which it finds itself. Such a perspective enables fresh insights into the entangled processes that produce history, it can point to the hybridities embedded in both archives and identities and set up alternative sources for histories.

In ‘Writing the Company: From VOC Daghregister to Sleigh’s Eilande’, literary scholar Hedley Twidleexplores recent literary re-creations of the early Dutch East India Company (VOC) years at the Cape of Good Hope, concentrating on Dan Sleigh’s Eilande (2002, trans. Andre ́ Brink, 2005). He examines how an archivist turned novelist uses the textual ‘islands’ provided by official documentation to create a huge prose work that is remarkable for placing the seventeenth-century settlement in its properly global colonial context. Surely this region’s most exhaustive rendering of the genre known problematically as ‘the historical novel’, it ranges from Germany and Holland via St Helena and the Cape to Madagascar, Mauritius and Batavia.

Noting that for Brink ‘the lacunae in the archives are most usefully filled through magical realism, metaphor and fantasy’, (Coetzee and Nuttall, Negotiating the Past, 3), he suggests that Sleigh’s work forms an opposite pole, offering an example of a much slower, lonelier genesis and a more cautious recovery of historical specificity. He attempts to discern the possibilities and constraints of these very different fictional modes as they engage a vast, trans-continental archive.

‘Writing the Company’, then, refers not only to contemporary literary re-presentations of the VOC period, but also to the massive project of trans-oceanic correspondence through which this early ‘multinational’ constituted itself: a mass of journals, company reports and judicial records that constitute a vast textual exchange not only with the Heeren XVII (Lords Seventeen) in Amsterdam and the Council of India in Batavia, but also between the buitenposte(outposts) of the VOC at the Cape, and the forgotten posvolk who inhabited them.

source: APC Gazette

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