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The Research Initiative stimulates research activity by hosting and supporting research and publication projects in a variety of forms. It encourages the development of new methodologies, theoretical innovations, trans-disciplinary engagements, inter-faculty and inter-institutional collaborations, interfaces between public scholarship and the academy, and work in neglected or disavowed areas.



Recording a performance in Namibia in 1954
PHOTO: RUTH DAMMANN (With kind permission of the Basler Afrika Bibliographien, Basel, CH)

Amidst a flurry of recent work and a growing interest in sound, both within the broader sphere of cultural studies and with regard to historiographies, the APC has launched a research focus on acoustic archives. The move to pay close attention to historical sound archives seeks to expand our understanding of 'archive', and enhance awareness of the existence of acoustic collections. Moreover, the consideration of collections of recorded voices as part of both actual archives and archival practices, may broaden the scope of the ongoing debate about imperial archives.


The introduction of phonography in the late 19th century resulted in the establishment of sound archives in Europe and the US, which document the zealous activities of the recording and archiving of languages and musical expression by musicologists, linguists and ethnographers. The sonic and written files of acoustic archives, which hold immense collections of musical and voice recordings produced since the early 20th century, are part of the problematic legacy of imperial knowledge production. In the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv alone, some 16 000 Edison wax cylinders were recorded up until the 1950s in an attempt to create the material on which comparative musicology was to be based. A third of these recordings were produced in Africa.

Taking seriously the particularity of the content and form of those acoustic files - as fragments of performances of specific genres of speech and song, they also testify to the procedures and protocols of the generation of knowledge - we are beginning to interrogate the contents and raison d'être of those archives. In other words: we are engaging with acoustic files in the light of the grids of intelligibility that informed the creation of those archives. We pay attention to the politics of commissioning, the use of established colonial networks, but also a series of assumptions that, for instance, in the case of imperial linguistics, have assumed a relation between language and race. Engaging with historical sound archives, we at the APC seek to open up the acoustic documents of specific disciplines - notably of musicology and linguistics - to an investigation that moves beyond the established, and often reductive understandings of the roles of the acoustic files that operate within those disciplines, analyzing the way in which the content of the files often exceeds their status as examples of music and language.

The immensity of the available archival material is challenging; we have only begun to fathom its implications and status in the larger field of critical historiographies, archival studies, cultural studies, and curatorial responses. Building on the inaugural series of APC workshops and seminars held in 2012, we seek to promote research into acoustic archives within the research community comprising students, composers, artists and curators in Cape Town, and elsewhere. Our focus on sound archives encompasses and offers ongoing opportunities for graduate research and engages with the work of composers and curators of sound.

APC senior researcher Anette Hoffmann's recent work focuses on the specific qualities and challenges of voice recordings as products of imperial linguistic knowledge production more generally, and specifically on the recordings that were produced with African prisoners of war in WWI in Germany. Having researched, written on and curated historical voice recordings, Hoffmann has established a network with researchers and archives in Europe, especially in Germany.

Memory Biwa, who took up a postdoctoral fellowship with the APC in November 2013, engages with the recordings that were produced by the German linguist, Ernst Dammann, and his wife, Ruth Dammann, in Namibia in 1954. 



The Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative has launched a theme, Ethnologised Pasts and their Archival Futures, which aims to draw attention to the archival capacities and challenges of ethnographic material. It does this in order to enable ongoing recuperation of pasts, which were denied by colonialism and apartheid. The matter of restorative justice in South Africahas focused on recent history, with the cut-off for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission being set at 1960 and for land restitution at 1913. This theme contributes to a process of redress in relation to a much deeper past. It does this by calling into being an expanded archive for that period, and by accounting for its historical disavowal.  The work of expanding archive and reconstructing its many histories is a herculean task that will involve generations of labourers. But it is a task of great promise.



Museum displays and colonial and apartheid knowledge activities concerning material culture are one aspect the ethnologised pasts with which the project onEthnologised Pasts and their Archival Futuresis concerned. These displays and knowledge activities have attracted considerable critique but little alternative practice flows from, or in response to, that critique, especially within South Africa. This is, at least in part, because of the heightened political anxieties around the sites of colonial mortification. Any curator, artist or scholar who enters the arena and who goes beyond critique enters charged and sensitive spaces, beset with methodological difficulties. Construing an Archive: The Material Culture Record of Thukela- Mzimkhulu Region, c.1730-1910 addresses the challenges presented by ethnographic museum collections.

This pilot project (in partnership with the Johannesburg Art Gallery) seeks to move from the well-established critiques of ethnographic collections into new forms of practice. It is animated by the idea that critique can and should be generative of a whole new way of working.  It aims to go beyond critique to try and explore what a new way of working might entail, and to do the work involved. It does so from an interdisciplinary space that is not co-terminous with any of the disciplines historically involved in shaping the field. In pushing beyond critique into the matter of offering something new, its aim is not to write new histories of the past.  It is to provide carefully researched, and historicized accounts of collections and the preservation and curation of material remains, of their entanglement in colonial museum practices, as well as in dominant and local knowledge practices, and to present these in public as the frames for the collections.


C. Hamilton, N. Leibhammer, J. Wright, X. Kashe-Katiye, S. Byala, A. Wanless



The unfolding manifestations of South African democracy are the focus of an ongoing fictional effort by Professor Njabulo S Ndebele. But more immediately, he is focusing on boxing in the Eastern Cape as an example of an organic and local economic social  activity, perhaps one of numerous around the country, that represent nascent forms of social energy whose connection with the larger mainstream economy and whose potential to re-energize that economy could be a serious policy blind spot in South Africa's democracy.

Why has the Eastern Cape produced so many world class boxers: Nkosana 'Happyboy/Nko' Mgxaji from Mdantsane (South African Junior lightweight champion in 1972 and 1972, retaining it for the next 12 years); Vuyani 'The Beast' Bungu from Mdantsane (IBF World Junior Featherweight Champion from 1994 to 1999); and Nkosinathi Joyi, the current IBF Minimum-weight world champion, also fighting from Mdanstane? Is there something about the boxing industry in the Eastern Cape that could possibly suggest something of a sub-economy; something little understood from the point of view of the complex trajectories of social development? What can we learn from this Eastern Cape phenomenon about the growth or the lack of growth of an economy in a locality viewed as a target for development initiatives which may not necessarily take sufficient account of the potential for solutions embedded in local experience?

What comparable economic activity is visible in other parts of the country but which has not received much attention, for whatever variety of reasons? Relatively little is known about the history of business in the townships and the extent to which they may have developed an ecology of their own, which if better understood may have the potential to be local, regional engines of economic growth.


Sandra Prosalendis (Research Manager) and Mzimkhulu Dywili (Research Assistant)


In this project we draw into a single frame a range of work on cultural and political identity done by scholars from a variety of disciplines (archaeology, anthropology, history and history of art) concerning aspects of the recent pre-industrial southern African past, primarily, though not exclusively, the period from about 1700 to about 1840. In deciding to collaborate in a joint piece of work we are attempting not only to lift ourselves out of our respective disciplines (Hall, archaeology; Hamilton, history), we are also explicitly attempting to break out of the limits of the geographic 'patches' with which we are each most familiar (Hall, the north-west; Hamilton, the east), themselves patches deemed respectively to be distinctively  'Sotho' (or 'Sotho-Tswana') and 'Nguni'. We do this in order to reassess differences and explore similarities.

The work undertaken within this project makes the case for us to begin to think about the large states and polities of the period with which we are concerned less as tightly bounded homogenous polities with distinctive identities as 'Venda', 'Ndwandwe', 'Zulu', 'Swazi', or 'Fokeng', and more as entities with ill-defined and fluid geographical and political boundaries involved in temporally shifting processes of expansion and dissolution, in which identity cohesion and differentiation is an important dynamic in the politics of inclusion and exclusion. Our collaboration focuses on the ways in which their possible ideological choices were governed by deep histories of identity, origin and cultural practices. It examines how they were also constrained by the available frameworks, what Igor Kopytoff identifies across the wider region as a broadly shared set of cultural principles. Historians, wary of formulations which conceptualise culture as unchanging, might prefer to think of this as a cultural or intellectual inheritance that set the terms for thinking about the possibilities of ideological change and identity.

See: Hall, S. and Hamilton, C., 'Cultural Inheritances and the Making of Identity-based Social Categories in South Africa, c. 1700-1840', Journal of Southern African Studies, 2011.


S. Hall, C. Hamilton

Njabulo Ndebele, Sandra Prosalendis (research manager) and Mzimkhulu Dywili (research assistant)



Employing visual tactics that attempt to express a year and half of trans-disciplinary discussion across a diverse range of topics undertaken within the Archive and Public Culture research initiative, this book project is a visual interrogation of normative categorisations of archive. Contributions on the archive of the history of southern African eras immediately preceding colonialism (that would be typically illustrated with fragments of potsherds) confront visually the legacy of Fanon's radical critique of colonialism embodied in the images of the body of the murdered Steve Biko. The potsherds in turn are released from duty as markers of cultural identity, and their images wander into essays where they exert pressure as objects of wonder in the contemporary. In the visual curation of the volume and in the various analytical moves developed within essays, the volume explores the capacities of contemporary visual and material archival and curatorial interventions to institute forms of care.


C. Hamilton and P. Skotnes: Introduction

D. Cohen: A Curator's Fingers: Photographers, Subjects, and The Third Thing

J. Berndt:  On the spectral life of posters in the archive

D. Herwitz: Sustaining Heritage off the Road to Kruger Park

C. Zaayman: On an-archive

A. Dodd: Awakening mortified imperial legacies in The Funnyhouse of a Negro

F. Langerman: Of wood and trees: locating Eden and Noah's Ark within displays of natural history

P. Skotnes: On bone books

N. Liebhammer and C. Hamilton: Salutes, Labels and other Archival Artefacts

K. Thomas: On the deaths of Biko and the archives of apartheid

M. Winburg: On reading the art of the !kun boys

M. Nixon: Getting the Picture? Making Sense of Percival Kirby's Photographs

L. Modisane: On cinema as archive

M. Buthelezi: On Ndwandwe and archival performance

N. Shepherd: Archaeology and 'regimes of care'



This project foregrounds the idea that it can be highly productive (theoretically, methodologically, historically and ethnographically) to explore the life of an archive or a record. The proposition is, on the face of it, counter-intuitive. Once safely cloistered in the archive, we imagine that an item or collection is 'preserved', ideally 'unchanged' for posterity. The range of papers under review for incorporation in this publication unsettle this assumption in all sorts of interesting ways; hence the 'life' of the archive.

SeeHistory in Africa, Volume 38:

Hamilton, C., 'Backstory, Biography and the Life of the James Stuart Archive', History in Africa 38: 319-341, 2011.

Jappie, S. 'From the Madrasah to the Museum: The Social Life of the "Kitaabs" of Cape Town', History in Africa 38: 369-399, 2011.

Jeppie, S., 'History from Timbuktu: Ahmad Bul'araf, Archives, and the Place of the Past', History in Africa 38: 401-416, 2011.

Wright, J., 'Ndukwana kaMbendwana as an interlocutor in the History of the Zulu Kingdom, 1897-1903', History in Africa 38: 343-368, 2011.

The following papers are in preparation for the South African Historical Journal:

Weintroub, J., Public Archives, Private Lives: Dorothea Bleek and Archival Biography

Mataga, J., Contesting Colonial Collections: the case of the Ngoma Lungundu in Zimbabwe

Twidle, H., Writing the Company: From VOC Daghregister to Sleigh's Eilande

Maaba, B.B,. The History of the Making of the ANC archives

Byala, B., A Biography of MuseumAfrica: colonial past, postcolonial present

McNulty, G., The Custodians of Archive in Contemporary Mbumbulu, KwaZulu Natal

Molins Lliteras, S.,'Africa Starts in the Pyrenees': Mahmud Kaíti, connecting al-Andalus and Timbuktu



Former post-doctoral research fellow in the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative (2009-2010) Kylie Thomas's manuscript, The Politics of Loss: Visuality and Mourning Post-Apartheid, argues that, while the HIV/AIDS epidemic has figured large in public discourse in South Africa over the last ten years, particularly in debates about governance and constitutional rights post-apartheid, the experiences of people living with HIV for the most part remain invisible and the multiple losses of AIDS have gone publicly unmourned. This profound fact is at the centre of the book which explores the significance of the disavowal of AIDS-death and engages with multiple forms of visual representation that work variously to compound, undo and complicate the politics of loss.The manuscript is under review with Bucknell University Press. 



Daniel Herwitz's HERITAGE, CULTURE and POLITICS in the POSTCOLONY begins from a fact and a question. The fact: most every continent on the globe is given over to the remaking of the human past into a heritage, into many heritages. Heritages are particular constructions placed on the past but there are many other ways for the past to be spun. The question follows: Why script the past into something called a heritage, especially given how tainted the colonial practices of heritage were for so many of the persons, groups, ethnicities, nations now busy spinning their pasts into heritages, especially given how much damage was done to their ancestors, their histories, worlds in the name of heritage, that exalted authority preached and practiced with missionary zeal and in the missionary position.

HERITAGE, CULTURE and POLITICS in the POSTCOLONY explores this fact and answers this question through close and engaged study of heritage-making in three countries on three continents: India, South Africa and the United States The United States is included because it is the first postcolonial nation, the one that rewrote itself as the place where the rude bridge arched the flood and unfurled the flag to April's breezes. There, the issue is settler heritage filtered through dense layers of media, Obama as President Lincoln the man, the monument, the movie film star, an America where politics hovers between real issues and celebrity aura. The chapter on India is about the many states through which a decolonizing country unfolds its past as a national past, commuting the diverse and contested panoply of artifacts and traditions into a unified/national secular whole - and with all manner of political discontents to follow. South Africa is chosen because the politics of heritage are so controversial and robust in that transitional democracy. South Africa is a country in search of a single national narrative, a shared national consciousness, and yet its problems and prospects of heritage making point away from that into a whirl of identity politics, historical arguments and market forces. South Africa is an intensive study in the prospects of heritage making for the twenty first century. 

The book is due to be released by Columbia University Press in August 2012.

This book was entirely workshopped in the Archive and Public Culture seminar while Daniel Herwitz was an Andrew Mellon Visiting Scholar in the Department of Anthropology, UCT. Herwitz retains an Honorary Research Position attached to the research initiative, while serving as Director of the Institute for the Humanities, University of Michigan.



Litheko Modisane's forthcoming book, South Africa's Renegade Reels: The Making and Public Lives of Black-Centred Films, seeks to understand the way certain films take on exemplary/iconic status in a country (South Africa) where the historical production of film has been minimal, and in a context of intense political reality. A situation where representations were required and insufficiently offered takes on an exemplary role. The book lays bare the public critical engagements around old renegade films and new ones. It dissects the subtleties in the public lives of forgotten films from South Africa, that are oriented to black social experience; Come Back, Africa (1959), uDeliwe (1975), Mapantsula (1988), alongside a new one, Fools (1998), and a television comparator Yizo Yizo (1999-2001). Thus, South Africa's Renegade Reels: The Making and Public Lives of Black-Centred Films excavates from the record, iconic and newer black-centred films and television. Through analysis of public reflections on the films' representations of black identity, the book shows the complex nature of films in modern public life. It shows that films are not merely objects of entertainment and mass distraction, but probing texts, the critical import of which supercedes the contexts of their making. Historically, thematically and formatively disparate, the films allow a breadth of argument and observations, without sacrificing their individual nuances.    

While South Africa's Renegade Reels: The Making and Public Lives of Black-Centred Films does not follow the conventional route of reading films closely, it nonetheless recuperates certain films as modern representations flowing endlessly among other modern realities as they circulate in and out of South Africa. In doing so, the book enriches and is enriched by established methodologies of film study, by expanding the cultural and conceptual boundaries of film as a phenomenon of textual circulation.

Modisane's book is due to be published by Palgrave Macmillan (USA).