Black Archives and Intellectual Histories Seminar Series: Notes about and possible future directions

12 Jun 2018 - 14:45
Athambile Masola and Ntongela Masilela, both who were presenters at the first seminar of the Black Archives & Intellectual Histories Seminar Series.
Athambile Masola and Ntongela Masilela, both who were presenters at the first seminar of the Black Archives & Intellectual Histories Seminar Series.


Black Archives and Intellectual Histories, is a seminar series concerned with placing South Africa in conversation with other parts of the continent, as well as with the greater African diaspora. It takes seriously the role of the archive, and the role that histories of African intellectuals could contribute in expanding our understanding of present day concerns, including the role of higher education, decolonization and discussions on the global south.

The series forms part of the Mellon Foundation’s 30th Anniversary active in South Africa celebrations. It is curated by Dr Khwezi Mkhize and Dr Christopher Ouma, both who are in the English Department at UCT, and they are assisted by APC Post-doc fellow Dr Thokozani Mhlambi.

The first of the series of seminars was presented by Prof Ntongela Masilela, the eminent South African-born cultural thinker. Masilela drew our attention to early iterations of archive, as articulated by New African Intellectual, Tiyo Soga, who in 1867 wrote on the pages of his newspaper, Indaba:

What are the corn-pits, the cattle kraals, the boxes and the bags? What are the skin skirts’ pockets, and the banks for the stories and fables, the legends, customs and history of the Xhosa people and Fingo people? This is the challenge, for I envisage in this newspaper a beautiful vessel for preserving the stories, fables, legends, customs, anecdotes and history of the tribes. The activities of a nation are more than cattle, money or food. A subscriber to the journal should preserve the copies of successive editions of Indaba and at the end of the year make a bound volume of them. These annual volumes in course of time will become a mine of information and wisdom which will be a precious inheritance for generations of growing children.

Soga’s explicit turn to the preservatory, in his prompt to readers to make bound volumes at the end of each year’s collection of editions, can be viewed as a call for archives. Masilela sees in this prescience of Soga an indication of “the genius of the man,’ and he believes that it was this vision that was “taken as a gospel by later generations of New African intellectuals.”

Many people established newspapers after Soga, with much the same vision of archiving the histories of African people; papers such as Ilanga lase Natal (1903), Imvo Zabantsundu (1884) and in Nigeria, Iwe Irohin (1857). And as historian Tim Couzens (1976) notes, the emphasis in the writing in the early African-owned press tended to be more essayistic and reflective, rather than simply reporting of cutting-edge fact. “Because the newspapers appeared weekly they relied less for their impact on the immediacy of their news than on comment. Journalists tended to be philosophical and moral commentators rather than reporters in search of contentious local items.”

Masilela linked the early iterations of archive with the conceptual understanding of ‘archive’ as elaborated by APC-Chair, Prof. Carolyn Hamilton, when she writes, that “archive is understood to be the site of the evidence and in the face of such interest it matters whether the evidence is preserved” (2011). By seeing their political and social engagements as vital moments that must be preserved, New African intellectuals were in fact busying themselves with archive. This is even as there was an explicit state-led attempt to frustrate this process; HIE Dhlomo, who in the 1930s ran an independent library for Africans in Johannesburg, would later bemoan the fact that Africans were in-general denied access in the many public libraries across the country.

Masilela did not emphasize the role of ‘cultural repertoire’; which Hamilton introduces in her subsequent conceptual framing of archive (2012). This refers to another form of memory-making that looks to performative, ceremonial and psychical (I would here include dreams, hallucination, etc.) gestures, the contents of what people mobilize as archive in post-apartheid South Africa. Premesh Lalu’s intervention is relevant here when he uses the postapartheid moment when a sangoma (shaman) goes on a quest to find the bones of late 18th century Xhosa king, Hintsa. The quest, as the sangoma claimed, was prompted by an ancestral instruction in a dream (Lalu, 2009).

But there is also another aspect of human voice that does not derive from the speech act. This is the part of voice elicited by cough, laughter, ukuncokola (vernacularity) and other registers. There is an argument for an ‘object voice which does not go up in smoke in the conveyance of meaning, and does not solidify in an object of fetish reverence, but an object which functions as a blind spot in the call and as a disturbance of aesthetic appreciation’ (Dollar, 2006). This voice refuses to be metaphoric in its nature and it cannot be limited to the conveyance of meaning through language. For it attempts in its nature to escape the frame of words that characterizes rational thought—that closed-circuit of voice and the mind’s ear. Such involuntary action may be deemed interruptive to the otherwise deliberate domain of words, grammar and meaning, which are the hallmarks of archive (see Mhlambi, 2018).

Masilela complemented the organizers of the series, and also offered a challenge—he said that he would have opted for the term ‘African Archives’ rather than ‘Black Archives’ as implied by the framing of the Seminar Series. But nonetheless he recognized the multiplicity of meanings and the ‘interdependency’ of the two terms, ‘African’ and ‘Black.’ One can also argue however that the term Africa, as it points to a territorial signification may be better suited in the long run, as we think of postcolonial futures. The nature of the archive is that it invites different sets of conclusions on its contents, for those who use it. The mercuriality of that process may be foreclosed by imposing a racial designation in-advance. In fact, it may demonstrate an inability to imagine future instances in which archive may matter.  

As the world seeks for new definitions of what it means to be human, it is likely that African contributions would elevate those discussions as sources of inspiration as European and other models become exhausted.

The experiences of African woman coming to the fore seem to be doing just that. This was confirmed in the follow-up discussions given in the seminar; (1) by Athambile Masola, University of Pretoria, whose work is on Noni Jabavu’s memoirs and life story and questioning the erasure of black women in literary historiography, and (2) by NRF Next Generation Scholar at the Centre for Humanities Research (UWC) Dr Thozama April, whose work theorizes women through the life of Charlotte Maxeke.

The invocation of Maxeke is perhaps prescient as now, there seems to be some exhibition touring the world which claims to have ‘discovered’ an archive of photographs from an African Choir which toured England in the 1890s, which are held by the Hulton Archive of photographic archives (see Gillian Anstey, Sunday Times, 15 April 2018) . One of the members of this choir has subsequently been identified as Charlotte Maxeke, Zubeida Jaffer mentions this in her book on Maxeke (2016). 

Albert Jonas & John Xiniwe, who were part of the tour of the Choir from South Africa who toured England in the 1890s. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Albert Jonas & John Xiniwe, who were part of the tour of the Choir from South Africa who toured England in the 1890s. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

But that the discourse of ‘discover’ in terms of this archive is still being used, shows the resilience of a particular paradigm in Western thinking, that believes that Africans are lost in terms of historical knowledge. Yet there have been so many people who have written on the experiences and humiliation of this choir in their tour (including music scholar Viet Erlmann, 1991). It would therefore be incorrect to say that these personalities have now been discovered. The method used to arrive at this ‘discovery’ of the choir is not satisfactory, as it does not derive its assumptions from experience (that is archive), rather it seems very content in its ‘archival ignorance’. What is the role of the claim to discover then?  The discourse of discovery is there to force present-day events to appeal an old mould by which “African worlds have been established as realities for knowledge” (Mudimbe, 1988).

The operations of this is deceptive, as it takes the very contents of institutions of archive, whose primary aim is to ensure that we do not forget, and recirculates them in public life under an explicit search for truth. But that truth is undercut by the very route it is required to take to receive renewed public attention.