Report on the APC Research Development Workshop Sept/Oct 2020

2 Oct 2020 - 09:00


After the successful first online workshop in April, the APC convened once more on Zoom for the second Research Development Workshop of the year, on the days of 29 and 30 September and 1 October. A new record of 31 papers by 33 authors were discussed, manifesting the vitality of a research community that is reacting to the limitations imposed by the pandemic with a renewed desire to engage, debate, rethink.

Keen to work at the intersection of different medias and disciplines, the APC drew inspiration for the visuals of this workshop from Survive, a music video and artwork produced by multimedia artist Gerald Machona and performer Tankiso Mamabolo in the context of the calls for radical change in South African universities in 2015 and 2016.

Screenshot of the APC Research Development Workshop. Photo courtesy Rifqah Kahn.

In keeping with the online format experimented with in April, all participants read the papers beforehand, specific commenters were assigned to write dedicated short pieces, and the discussions focused on each paper for 30 minutes. Ranging from archaeology to archival theory, from performance to podcasting, the papers were divided over the three days into 11 Flash Sessions hosted by a Flash Driver – knowing that the threads connecting them were sounder than the different disciplines they belonged to.

The first day fell under the general theme of Archive and the workshop was aptly opened by the discussion of Carine Zaayman’s ongoing engagement with her concept of “anarchive”, as applied to a new postdoctoral project. Absence, as much as presence, and representation of reality are issues we mulled over during the rest of the three days.

Session one, on “Archaeology, Material Culture, and Heritage”, continued with a call for a renewed collaboration between archaeologists and historians made by Chris Wingfield, who led us to think about methodology, practice, and disciplinary boundaries. Steve Kotze closed the session with a paper narrating how an individual’s story of collecting and preserving artefacts informs a broader discussion on social norms, curatorial practices and historiographical traditions. Indeed, compassionate attention to single lives and biography as prisms for our gaze into the past was a common thread for many papers presented during the workshop.

The second session delved into the affordances of “Digital Archives”. Vanessa Chen presented her new project on the traces of the Chinese community at the Cape, a project that will require approaching digital archives as much as physical ones. Benathi Marufu exposed the challenges and opportunities of studying three projects of digital archives both from within and from without. Finally, Fabian Saptouw discussed our physical and mental pilgrimages to physical and digital archival items.

The papers of the third session of the day dealt with museums and heritage from four different angles. Lebogang Mokwena analysed the making of a digital exhibition on isishweshwe and questioned the women’s history attached to that. Greer Valley and Sibonelo Gumede brought us to a once-affluent neighbourhood of Durban and narrated how the concept of “heritage” can be mobilised to make and re-make urban spaces. Cynthia Kros enlightened us on the anti-racist roots of the Parisian Musée de l’Homme, the eventful lives of two of its prominent members, and the more recent decades-long struggle to come to terms with French colonialism. Ending the first day with refined thought, Alirio Karina analysed how the Nairobi National Museum addressed different discourses of ethnicity in Kenyan history, and proposed to step forward from this generation’s reference texts on colonialism and the postcolony.

The second day was broadly dedicated to Genres, starting with a session on variations on biography. Susana Molins Lliteras presented the critical introduction to her translation of a colleague’s book and brought into the discussion the issues of authorship, translation choices, accessibility and readability across different “regions” of African historiography. Heather Hughes offered her view of Madikane Cele, with one of the papers that helped the discussion to focus on the blurred line between colonisers and colonised, Christianity and tradition. Sizakele Gumede elaborated on her work on Harriette Colenso, using the telling of Harriette's story to elucidate a shift in Natal colonial governmental practices.

The second session of the day dealt with books that travelled and people who wrote after travelling. Tomohiro Kambayashi introduced us to the diffusion of Booker T. Washington’s works in Japan, Korea, and South Africa, proposing to de-centre the study from the United States and showing similarities and differences in its reception in these places. Angela Ferreira addressed the theory on travel literature to shape her engagement with The Diary of Henry Francis Fynn. Matthieu Rey presented his approach to the writings of Alexander Bailie (who travelled to Bulawayo to meet Lobengula) and called into question the concepts of “borderland” and “frontier”. Athambile Masola, concluded the session with a fresh piece on an African woman who travelled to London in 1935, Frieda Matthews, and on her writings on Empire and Africa.

The combined sessions six and seven spoke about voices and stories, starting with the paper by Precious Bikitsha unravelling the history of Xhosa poetry and the figure of the poet, imbongi. Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja introduced us to the “sonicgraphy” of Onghili ya Nashima, of the political value of her art, and the collective efforts to make sense with “multiple ears and hearts”. Himal Ramji closed the session and our second day of the workshop with a paper on the debated history of the “cattle-killing”, or rather on how various figures publicly debated the events and their interpretations only a few decades after they had taken place.

The third day was broadly defined by the concept of Praxis. Our discussion began with Billy Keniston’s paper on white exiles in Botswana, their undercover lives, their commitment to the Struggle, and definitions of combatant and non-combatant members. Patrick Whang brought to us a piece of the recent history of Lesotho, posing questions of political pragmatism, democracy, and armed struggle, while at the same time troubling an easy reading of Cold War blocs in southern Africa. Camalita Naicker closed the first session with a detailed analysis of the political role of non-racialism in shaping the history of South African labour organisations from the early 20th century, showing internal contradictions and original weaknesses of a policy that became widely accepted in the political arena.

The second session of the day collected papers dealing with colonialism and its complex interactions with African interlocutors. Daniel Dix pursued a vivid and detailed approach to the daily administrative routine of colonial magistrates. Sibusiso Nkomo urged us to think about the concept of the vernacular and presented his findings on the first newspaper published in Sesotho, started by French missionaries in  the Free State. Wade Smit engaged with the changing concepts forming the political discourse of African politics and rule at the end of the 19th century, showing the way to future studies on late-independent and early colonial history.

The penultimate session of the workshop was opened by Henry Fagan’s discussion of the “Cobbing debate” and the mfecane in a bibliographical perspective, from its historical roots to its scholarly consequences on our understanding of the nature of the source, and its interpretation. The second paper, by Carolyn Hamilton and John Wright, summarised the exciting work on their upcoming book, which deals with African polities in the pre-Zulu era of what is now KZN, studying the political issues of mobility, change, environment, violence, and discussions about the past. After that, Ettore Morelli presented a paper on his book project that focuses on the political world of the Highveld up to mid-19th century, sparking a debate on the concept of state in an African context. Then Thokozani Mhlambi considered what the pandemic is doing to the role of literacy and orality in society, and introduced us to wide-reaching research on African metal-workers, travelling specialists, and myths.

The workshop ended, after three fruitful days, with the presentation of two projects that combine academic training and “traditionally” non-academic output. Precious Bikitsha, Abdud-Dayyaan Badroodien, and Wade Smit discussed their “Umlando weembali”, a project of historical podcasting they worked on before the pandemic, but which has obtained a new urgency in the present. Carolyn Hamilton, Debra Pryor and Chloe Rushovich presented the 500 Year Archive (, the first exemplar of the Five Hundred Year Archive project, now live and online: a portal to the digitised collections of many research and heritage institutions, a platform for presentations on key items and themes in these collections, a forum to share research and knowledge beyond the cloisters of academia, and much more. Go take a look!