Looking back at 2017

16 Feb 2018 - 09:30
Vosloorus community members drew on archival material to remember Stirtonville, the area from which they were removed in the 1960’s, to compile a land claim. Photo credit: Jo-Anne Duggan
Vosloorus community members drew on archival material to remember Stirtonville, the area from which they were removed in the 1960’s, to compile a land claim. Photo credit: Jo-Anne Duggan


The various Gazettes of 2017 detail the many workshops held, conferences attended and papers completed by APC researchers last year, as well as the launches and public discussions of the APC’s two-volume Tribing and Untribing the Archive.  The two well-attended and dynamic Research Development Workshops again stand out as highlights of the year.

2017 also saw major steps towards completion of  three current projects of the APC.

Our latest Open Report: The Archival Platform’s Archival Activism Report has been finalised and is being edited  for  release and public discussion in early 2018.

--- Archival Activism: Synopsis

In 2014 the Archival Platform, published an Open Report on the state of the South African national archival system. While noting pockets of excellence maintained mostly through the dedicated efforts of committed personnel, the Report offered a detailed account of a failing system. In a companion Report due for release in 2018, the Platform investigated the role of a selection of activist projects operating outside the state which position themselves in the field of archives and which respond to a wide variety of society’s archival needs. It considers how changes in the national archival system shaped activist initiatives and was, and is, in turn, shaped by them.

Key Case Studies in the Archival Activism Report include: the South African History Archive; Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action; the Mayibuye Centre for Culture and History in South Africa; and the History Workshop. Apart from these detailed case studies, the 200-page Report also includes chapters covering archival activism in relation to “wound work’ and new initiatives and emerging trends in ongoing struggles for social justice and the archival possibilities that these new developments present.

The Report is attentive to change across time. It focuses on the period 1994-2017, but a number of the developments it discusses were inaugurated, or have roots, in the apartheid era.  The Report traces the shifts in archival activism across a number of broadly defined periods: the late 1970s where activist interventions were marked by defiance, opposition to the apartheid state and, in some instances, almost unconditional support for the liberation movement; the 1980’s when activism, driven largely by university based academics led to a focus on the creation of records on which alternative histories capable of challenging the apartheid narrative could be based; the 1990s, when organisations inspired by the wave of optimism across society played a role in creating a more equitable archival system and facilitating access to records of oppression previously withheld from view; the early 2000s when disillusion set in, many organisations closed down and those that remained active shifted their focus towards protecting the democratic rights to open, accountable and transparent government enshrined in South Africa’s new Constitution. The Report concludes with a discussion of archives as a crucial ground of political struggle and hence a necessary site of political activism in their own right.

Our latest book:   Wits University Press has accepted a proposal for the edited collection, Babel Unbound: Rage, Reason and Revolutions, based on the cluster of papers presented at our November 2016 Research Development Workshop, and extensively revised and augmented in the course of 2017. Work on the manuscript is largely complete and we envisage submission of the full manuscript to the Press in early 2018.

 --- Babel Unbound: Synopsis

Public discussion has long been understood to be central to the workings of democracy. Yet, today, mediating collective life through dialogue and debate seems impossible across partisan politics and religious divides, and many societies appear to have lost the capacity to solve problems through talk. States, their sovereignty eroded, appear “captured” by economic interests, while the media, for so long considered the fourth estate of political life, are overrun with stories of scandal, corruption and celebrity diversion, and swamped by a deluge of untested information and algorithmic data. In many societies, there is indignation, anger and outrage flowing from experiences of deep inequality. The extent of the failures in how we mediate collective life shows how crucial it is to understand the workings of the taken-for-granted and ubiquitous processes of public engagement, in all their multiple and sometimes unrecognised forms, well-beyond the bounds of what is imagined to be the public sphere.

Where political thinkers are considering alternative models of how a deliberative democracy might work in the future, this book offers a close examination of how public engagement takes place in the present: it goes beyond a focus on normative processes of deliberation to map and theorise the myriad engagements that emerge and gather force in public life. To understand the dynamics, we try to get up close and track the circulation of ideas – big and small – in action in social and political life. This approach allows us to describe processes that seem instrumental to recent developments – the seeming collapse of what has long been thought of as the public sphere. The book shows how publicness is by nature moving and fragmented, circulating through networks that criss-cross fields and media, fragmenting into “capillaries” and sometimes thickening into nodes of public engagement. We examine how convened public spheres, counter public positioning, sequestered publics and capillaried networks operate in intersecting ways. We pay close attention to the role played by various forms of media, and various kinds of archives, in setting the terms of public debate. In so doing, we generate a clutch of concepts and methodologies that enable us to grasp how public matters today come under discussion both in relation to, and outside of, the classical mode of rational critical debate that is the cornerstone of democratic processes.

The APC’s third project, the Five Hundred Year Archive (FHYA), completed a major piece of research infrastructure in the under-served field of ancient southern African history: a digital version of the published James Stuart Archive, and the creation of a research tool with an advance search function, and which links the edited, translated published text directly to digital pages of the original archival text used by the editors of the published text. This tool is a breakthrough development in the field and will shortly be available at the Killie Campbell Africana Library. Its greatest potential would be realized if the Killie Campbell would agree to make this invaluable part of the national archival state freely available and readily accessible on-line. It is designed to work optimally on-line which would allowing researchers outside of the immediate Durban area to make ready use of this invaluable national archival treasure.

The  FHYA has also completed the core customization and data management work on its digital archival exemplar and has begun testing and presenting the exemplar.  The exemplar brings together and makes searchable on-line archival papers, audio-recorded materials, archaeological materials, ethnographic collections, botanical collections, and art collections, from local and international institutions, along with contributions from the public. The materials concerned are those pertinent to the long past before European colonialism in what is now the KZN-Swaziland region. It has been most exciting to see the system in operation.

Umsenge, Cussonia spicata: A dried plant specimen from the Father Franz Mayr Collection at the Bew's Herbarium, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg. Photo credit: Bews Herbarium

In recent presentations in KwaZulu-Natal, our stakeholders and potential users were thrilled to type into the FHYA search bar the Zulu plant name umsenge, and to obtain not only the Latin name, Cuassonia spicata, but to locate a plant specimen in the little known Bews Herbarium in Pietermaritzburg. The specimen was collected by Fr. Frans Mayr around 1900 who recorded notes on its usage in the indigenous pharmacopeia of the Natal region in the nineteenth century.

He noted that the bark of plant was ground to a powder and then taken in water as a cure for biliousness. The FHYA search function showed further results from an entirely different collection, that of James Stuart located in the Killie Campbell Africana Library in Durban.  Stuart’s notes record lengthy conversations he had in 1902 with  Mkando kaDhlova, who mentioned umsenge-leaf skirts, worn by women who “dance the hunting dance whilst the assembly sings.”

Hair is another topic, like the indigenous pharmacopeia, in which there is much contemporary interest.  A search of the FHYA centered on hair produced a hairpin located in the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA). The pin is generically classified as ‘Zulu’ and coming from ‘Zululand’. We learn that it was collected in 1905 by the visiting anthropologist, A.C. Haddon. The FHYA search function connects the hairpin to a separate collection in the nearby Cambridge University Library that includes Haddon’s diaries. They in turn tell the researcher that the hairpin was not collected in Zululand at all, but in neighbouring Natal, at a specific homestead, that of Chief Laduma of Swartkops.  A wooden hairpin

A wooden hairpin with a beaded head from the A.C Haddon Collection at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), University of Cambridge. Photo credit: MAA

The ability to search across institutions thus illuminates otherwise isolated or misclassifed materials in remarkable ways. Illumination is facilitated by another of the FHYA’s devices: the possibility of public uploads. During an FHYA workshop in KwaZulu-Natal in June 2017, two participants added additional information to the digital hairpin record using the FHYA public comment and upload function.

Boyzie Myeni wrote: “My friend Zandile has one of these. It is black. She uses it for scratching her head. She bought it in town in KwaDukuza for R5. Some people sleep with these and it can be dangerous.” In turn, Sabelo Nkabinde commented: “My dear friend Thandi has a modern version of this and it called Hlokoloza [lit. to poke].” He then uploaded a picture of Thandi’s hlokoloza and gave the following details:
Author / Producer: Chinese Shop
Title: Hlokoloza
Description: It is about 15cm long with round melted plastic head and was made in China. The main purpose is to scratch an itching scull and for decoration.


Hlokoloza: A present-day hairpin bought from KwaDukuza, KwaZulu-Natal. It is about 15cm long with round melted plastic head and was made in China. Photo Credit: Five Hundred Year Archive

The current round of presentations and workshops are proving most useful in testing the in-depth searching and cross-referencing functions of the FHYA, and provide insight into how productive the digital format can be for researchers and interested parties of all kinds. See below for a short report on the November 2017 presentations.

The FHYA has also begun to share information about the exemplar and our modification of the AtoM open access software, with other institutions seeking to use it for their collections.

In late 2017 the FHYA assisted the  Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC)  in making the decision to develop a similar archival system. The ELC  has  an archive of unique manuscripts dating back to the 1740s that are testimony to an extraordinary history of resistance to Dutch East India Company (VOC) oppression. It is the only known archive of unofficial records from the VOC period, making it an exceedingly valuable archive for understanding our society’s multicultural history. FHYA support included a training workshop held the 11th December 2017, attended by 3 executive level ELC staff members.

For more information on the ELC visit

ELC visit

Chloe Rushovich of the FHYA and Sally Titlestad of the ELC, examine a volume from the ELC archive, dating back to 1743. Photo credit: Debra Pryor

In 2018, the FHYA will work on refining the operations of the exemplar, and will concentrate on its presentation and promotion, locally and internationally. We aim to use it to do two things: firstly, to advocate for, and promote, the digital curation as archive of materials pertinent to the long southern African past, and to promote their ready accessibility;

and, secondly, in relation to this material, and indeed any other collections concerned with very different subject material, to demonstrate and advocate for, the specifics of our approach that go beyond a typical archival system by making visible the processes of the production of archival materials. This includes making our customized open source software, as well as our own training manuals and other resources, readily available to other institutions and projects. To this end, FHYA Content Manager, Debra Pryor has produced a booklet on the FHYA adaptation of AtoM (Access to Memory software) Standards and Uploading Procedure. In 2018 the FHYA team will also be publishing papers on a variety of aspects of the project.

At the end of 2017, we said good-bye to Visiting Researcher, Chris Wingfield, who returns to Cambridge, and welcome back our former post-doc Duane Jethro who is in SA for a four-month research stint. PhD students George Mahashe, Erica de Greef and Carine Zaayman are now all working on full drafts of their theses and are preparing to hand in, as are MA students Himal Ramji and Rehana Odendaal. New faces in 2018 will include doctoral students Nashilongweshipwe J. Sakaria, Performance Studies (provisional title:  Between Oudano Archives and a collection of new works of Cultural Resistance ),Greer Valley, Fine Art (European Ethnographic Museums)  as  well as  History Honours students Sonam Shah and Elizabeth Visser. 

Special words thanks are due to Jo-Anne Duggan who so effectively assumed the APC helm, allowing Carolyn Hamilton to take six months of sabbatical leave; to the FHYA team – Grant McNulty, Debra Pryor, Chloe Rushovich and Katie Garrun  - who put in a strong push in the latter half of the year to meet project deadlines; and to Lesley Cowling, APC research fellow and then APC research associate, who has played a key role as lead editor of the Babel Unbound  book project.


APC year-end function.

APC year-end function. Photo credit: Jo-Anne Duggan