Update from APC Research Associate John Wright

17 Oct 2017 - 22:00
Photo: John Wright

Professor John Wright, APC honorary research associate, reports on his recent activities, including the publication of his article, “Southern Africa before Colonial Times”, the Southern African Historical Society conference in June, a session at the Doctoral Winter School in Urban Anthropology held at Iziko Museums in August, and the workshops on ‘traditional’ collections held at Johannesburg Art Gallery in August.


On 31 July, the Oxford Research Encyclopaedia on African History online, edited by Thomas Spear of the University of Wisconsin, published my article ‘Southern Africa before Colonial Times’. It covers the period from the emergence of Homo sapiens some 300 000 years ago to 1900. It seeks to interweave a basic narrative, with critical discussion of sources of evidence and of the concepts that scholars have used to give the evidence meaning. Many of them – such as ‘prehistory’, ‘precolonial’, ‘tribe’ , ‘tradition’, ‘ethnic group’ – are in need of rethinking or jettisoning,. I am collecting thoughts – mine and other people’s – towards an ongoing reworking, in line with the Encyclopaedia’s policy that authors should periodically revise their articles.

On 21-23 June 2017 I attended the biennial conference of the Southern African Historical Society held at the University of the Witwatersrand. I gave two presentations. One drew attention to the article mentioned above, ‘Southern Africa before Colonial Times’. The other was on the topic ‘Thoughts on tribalizing in colonial Natal, mid-19th century to early 20th century’. It was given in a panel discussion organized by a Wits colleague, Professor Cynthia Kros, on ‘Rethinking Tribalized Perspectives on the Past’.

The panel engaged specifically with ideas and arguments that are surfacing in many quarters from the stimulus given by the publication of Carolyn Hamilton and Nessa Leibhammer’s edited collection (to which, incidentally, I was a contributor), Tribing and Untribing the Archive.

On 3 August 2017 I joined Cynthia Kros in running a session at the Doctoral Winter School in Urban Anthropology, organised by three French academics and a Romanian colleague, held at Iziko Museums in Cape Town. (This was the second such workshop to be held: the first one took place last year in Istanbul.) Our session was on ‘The origins and development of ethnographic concepts and colonial ideas of southern Africa’s past’. We had a lively discussion of museum practices in this field, past, present and future, with the 14 students (seven from South Africa and seven from abroad) who attended.

The issues faced by galleries and museums in presenting – or not presenting – colonial-era ‘ethnographic’ material in a decolonial age surfaced again in the workshop on ‘traditional’ collections held by the Johannesburg Art Gallery on 12-15 August 2017. See Nessa Leibhammer’s report on the workshop elsewhere in this Gazette. I attended two of the four sessions: both were characterised by wide-ranging and probing discussion. What to do with ‘traditional’ material items is clearly exercising many curatorial minds in South Africa.