In the 1980s, at the beginning of my academic life, I attempted a thesis on power and authority in the Zulu kingdom under Shaka. It was well received, but I came away from the exercise concerned about my sources and the complex entanglements in which they were involved.
I spent the next ten years of my research life probing those entanglements and published Terrific Majesty: The Powers of Shaka Zulu and the Limits of Invention (Harvard University Press) in 1998. At the time South African Marxist historian reviewers rued what they regarded as my turn to ‘postmodernism’. This surprised me since the book was an attempt to understand the complex interplay over time of political, academic and public discourses and practices that shaped, and were shaped, by the archives used in my original thesis. Terrific Majesty was an enquiry into the making of the archive of Shakan times. I regarded it as a prudent methodological prerequisite to trying to write about the early Zulu kingdom. It was, if anything, a bit prissy and conservative in its historical concern, rather than redolent in postmodern excess.
I felt reasonably sure that I knew enough about political and academic discourses and practices to explore those aspects of my concern. After all, I had a large body of research by other scholars to help me there. But the notions of 'archive' and 'public' were, at the time, less well served by existing scholarly analysis. They became increasingly strange to me and I became uncertain about them, in the way that anthropologists do about such things. (And by then I had come to value anthropological perspectives on the taken-for-granted.) 'Archive' and 'public' thus became the focus of the next series of projects which I initiated: the five year-long Constitution of Public Intellectual Life Research Project, its ongoing successor forum, the Public Life of Ideas Network, the Refiguring the Archive exercise, and its yet ongoing successor, the Research Initiative in Archive & Public Culture.
Sometime shortly I hope to feel sure enough about what has happened to 'the sources' to launch into public life those bits of the original thesis from the 1980s which yet remain unpublished. Scholarly work can be a slow business!
I have had the good fortune to worry about sources, archives, the public life of ideas and many other things in the company of boldly inquiring and imaginative graduate students, from across a range of disciplines. The challenges they offer me, and that they face in pursuit of their ideas, have prompted me to think a great deal about the nature of research development, especially in a transitional context like contemporary South Africa. Issues concerning research development and post-graduate pedagogy are increasingly of as much concern to me as the troublesome entanglements that I have researched.
I first entered university in 1976, baptised into the world of politics in a time of student and worker activism, Yeoville communes, and the dangerous lives of exiles in places like Swaziland. An activist disposition developed then remains with me, realised in the APC Research Initiative most obviously through my nurturing of the Archival Platform intervention, in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation (see Archival Platform).