2016 in Review

1 Feb 2017 - 09:45
Tribing and Untribing the Archive
Tribing and Untribing the Archive

2016 has been a tumultuous year for South African universities. The student call for decolonised education places a critical spotlight on university curricula, established canons and the history of disciplinary practices. It underscores the centrality of a critical interrogation of archive in any review of prevailing knowledge practices and highlights the need for the kind of work pioneered in the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative. Most relevant is APC work in exploring the mutually constituting roles of archive and public, political and academic discourses and practices across time.

At the end of 2016 we can be satisfied with having reached a number of research milestones pertinent to the current crisis in higher education and to how matters are discussed and debated in public and academic life. 

We held two dynamic trans-disciplinary research development workshops at which over forty works-in-progress were presented by graduate students and academics from UCT and other universities in the region and abroad. The workshops, along with our occasional lunchtime research labs, and ad hoc reading groups, are key aspects of the APC’s attempt to create conditions that facilitate and support the development of innovative, often cross-disciplinary, forms of research and emergent thinking.

APC researchers participated in numerous other academic fora which tackled questions directly relevant to the crisis and the challenge to produce new knowledge outside of inherited colonial frames. These are reported on in detail in the various gazettes of this year, and include the workshop convened by UCT’s Black Academic Caucus as part of the ICA 3rd Space Symposium, a number of events that focused on connections across the global south, and projects concerned with the persistently neglected southern African past before European colonialism.

Most significantly, the end of 2016 saw our two volume publication, Tribing and Untribing the Archive, roll off the presses.  The volumes tackle the way in which the pernicious combination of tribe and tradition continues to tether modern South Africans to ideas about the region’s remote past as primitive, timeless and unchanging. They track how the domain of the tribal and traditional was marked out and came to be sharply distinguished from modernity, how it was denied a changing history and an archive and was endowed instead with timeless culture. They show how the concept of tribe was imported into the region and mapped onto indigenous concepts in a way that appropriated and skewed the indigenous concepts. The twenty-one essays work together to make the marooned archive of material culture more visible and more available for consideration as an archival resource than has been the case historically. They do this by releasing the materials from pre-assigned identity positions as tribal into settings that enable them to be used as resources for thinking about identity in the long past and in the present.

Another notable achievement is the large strides made by the APC’s Five Hundred Year Archive (FHYA) project in developing an archival exemplar that challenges the notion that there is no archive available for the southern past before European colonialism. The FHYA anticipates unveiling a prototype of its digital archival exemplar—populated initially with some 7000 archival objects—in April 2017.  The Archival Platform, in turn, has completed and presented a draft of its huge report on archival activism that will be published in early 2017.

A profound rejection of the colonial archive is at the root of the current student activism and this makes the report especially timely. With the very nature of archival activism both gathering force and changing as the contributors write, the report seeks not only to review what has been achieved in recent years, but also to grasp current shifts and to understand their historical roots.

A third APC project, a collection of essays on the nature of public debate, has also been presented in early draft form. It, too, is especially timely, focusing as it does on the ways in issues of public concern are discussed in spaces and networks well-beyond what is understood to be the public sphere. In all these ways, the APC is generating research that is highly relevant to current developments and pressing crises in South Africa and globally. 

While we can be satisfied that we are working at full tilt on a number of critically important fronts, we face ongoing challenges that require considered responses and new strategies. In our November workshop we began to address an important issue raised by APC masters student, Himal Ramji, namely, the extent to which key aspects of APC work are directly relevant to current debates and need to be brought into the view of the university and the public in a much bigger way.  In their own right, the two-volume book Tribing and Untribing the Archive, the online archive, and the Archival Activism report, are all steps in this direction. But the substance of the discussion initiated by Ramji is that they need to be activated in additional ways over and beyond their immediate circuits of engagement.  This challenge is firmly on the agenda of the APC for 2017.