Archival Platform Heritage Day Newsletter


What do, should or could we celebrate, as individuals, groups, communities, on 24 September?  This is a question that we and many others are mulling over. So this month, we’ve asked our correspondents to think about what people around them are positing as heritage and to focus their attention on showing what information, evidence, or knowledge (in a word, archives) people are using to assert or celebrate something or somebody as heritage.

Reflecting on what ‘heritage’ means in the broadest possible terms, we argue that there is Heritage (with a capital H) and then there is heritage (with a small h). Heritage includes the sites, events, cultural practices and artefacts that are deemed by the state to be of particular significance. Inevitably this means that Heritage is driven by a political agenda – the national Heritage we celebrate in 2012 is far removed from the Heritage celebrated in 1938, for example. This year, the Department of Arts and Culture have announced that national attention should be focused on the theme “Celebrating the Heroes and Heroines of the Liberation Struggle in South Africa” and that the month of September be dedicated to “honouring and expressing our gratitude to those who dedicated their lives to ensure that our country achieved freedom and democracy that all of us enjoy today”.

But there are also oppositional, subversive or merely non-state forms of heritage practice. In some cases the practitioners and communities involved call on the state to recognise marginalised heritage sites and events and to acknowledge publicly those individuals, groups or organisations whose contribution to our history has been ignored or underplayed for one reason or another. In other cases, people simply get on with the work of preserving, promoting and celebrating ‘their’ heritage without a great deal of concern for public visibility or state support.

As we reflect on the legacy of heroes, heroines and villains, let’s not forget the contribution of ‘ordinary’ people: the masses of unnamed men, women and young people of all creeds and colours who added their voices to the struggle for liberation in many and varied ways. If we are to be a nation in which everyone is ‘at home’ we need to find ways to accommodate diversity, acknowledge difference, and celebrate the path that has brought us to the present.

As archivists, let’s remember the critical role that we have to play in holding safe the records that enable people to speak about the past. When the archive is inadequate, dysfunctional or closed, we lose the resources on which we depend to understand the predicament of the present; to make sense of the past. A skewed and inadequate archive makes it possible for dangerous stereotypes to take root and to flourish without challenge, and it makes it difficult to counter a dominant or ‘official’ narrative or develop alternative readings of the past. As populist politics take root and memory is contested for political ends, the defence of an open, accessible and capacious archive becomes essential.

Two of our Archival Platform posts this month address the critical issue of national archives. In Overcoming Legacies of the Past?: The National Oral History Programme, Mbongiseni Buthelezi focuses on the role of the National Archives in addressing the biases and gaps in the inherited archive, with specific reference to the National Oral History Programme. Sebinane Lekoekoe, our Lesotho-based correspondent, reports on the State of the Archives: Lesotho, and argues that government needs to attend to them! Taking a more academic turn, Harriet Deacon in Speaking Through the Cracks: Spaces for Debate between Theory and Practice discusses the choices we make in finding spaces to talk about theory and practice in museums, heritage and archives.

In Ancestral Stories this Heritage Month, Katie Mooney, addressing the issue of Heritage and heritage in National versus Personal Heritage: What to celebrate on 24 September?,  wonders how her personal heritage fits into heritage at large. Picking up on the issue of personal history and heritage and the way in which it relates to larger issues, Mbongiseni Buthelezi reflects on Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir.  Jo-Anne Duggan, touching on Family Histories and Mysteries, asks whom Alexandra Township is named after, an interesting question to consider in the year that Alex celebrates its centenary.

Our correspondents certainly rose to the challenge of reporting on what people in their area are thinking about when they think about heritage! In Disinherited: Distorting Heritage by Omission, Emile Maurice argues that South Africa’s political past is not a single narrative but rather one of competing traditions and aspirations, and asks why some histories are disavowed and neglected. Lucelle Campbell, arguing that Heritage Matters, speaks out against a “distorted” and one-sided view of history and heritage – with specific reference to the Khoe-San – and calls for a more inclusive approach. On a different tack altogether, In his post Spring Queen: The Staging of a Glittering Proletariat, Breneton Maart  – aka the ‘Brat’ succumbs to an aesthetic fascination with gorgeousness, an anthropological interest in the performance and pageantry of identities, and the way these come together as an expression of political defiance.

Three of our posts deal with celebrations and commemorations. As Lesotho celebrates 46 years of independence on 4 October 2012, Sebinane Lekoekoe reflects on 46 years Post Independence! Vuyani Booi offers two pieces, both dealing with the commemoration of events in which a significant number of people lost their lives at the hands of state forces. Thinking about the tragic events at Marikana, he asks, How will the Nkanini Hill Massacre be Commemorated by the People of South Africa?. Sadly, this event still dominated the headlines as people came together to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Bisho Massacre, an event Booi reflects on in his second piece, Our Collective Dreams Were Dashed on the Way to Bisho.

The International Council on Archives has recently adopted the Principles of Access to Archives, and we’re proud to highlight some of the excellent work being done by our colleagues to make archives accessible in wonderfully creative ways, and report on the new exhibitions and publications from the South African History ArchiveSouth African History OnlineGay and Lesbian Archives in Action and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. We’re proud also of the work that our colleagues in tertiary institutions are doing to make their vast, and often little-known, collections available to the public at large – see our reports on the South African Spoken Word Conversion Project and the Wits90 Treasures Exhibition at the University of the Witwatersrand, as well as the reopening of the University of Cape Town’s Jagger Library.

With best wishes

Jo-Anne Duggan and the Archival Platform Team

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