Collecting history

2011-10-12 00:00

LAST Thursday the University of KwaZulu-Natal Special Collections Day provided a showcase for the Alan Paton Centre and Struggle­ Archive, the Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre, the Centre for African Literary Studies and, the hosts of the event, the Campbell Collections.

During a morning seminar representatives of each of the collections outlined what they had to offer while additional speakers threw light on aspects of research undertaken in these collections. Yvonne Winters of the Campbell Collection was followed by Vukile Khumalo from the history department on the Durban campus who outlined his findings on Ndongeni Zulu, Dick King’s companion on his famous ride from Durban to Grahamstown in 1842. An especially topical subject given that the six-part series The Ride is currently airing on SABC 3 in which Barry Armitage­ and Joe Dawson ride the route taken by King and Ndongeni.

In 1905, in an interview with the colonial civil servant James Stuart, Ndongeni tells of his descent from a Zulu royal family close to the throne; close enough to be caught up in the conspiracy against King Shaka kaSenzangakhona that resulted in his assassination, which caused Ndongeni’s father to decide it was prudent to leave Zululand and come to Port Natal, the white trading settlement.

In 1842 a British garrison was besieged at Port Natal by the Boers who had established the Republic of Natalia­ with Pietermaritzburg as its capital. King asked Ndongeni to accompany him and ride to Grahams-town to seek help.

Ndongeni had to drop out half way — due to tiredness and severe chafing — and there are doubts as to whether King actually made it all the way. “King never talked about the ride,” says Khumalo. “Yet he became a settler hero ... and a key figure in the foundation of the colony of Natal.”

Ndongeni’s role was less emphasised to ensure his role didn’t eclipse that of King. “However, the only accounts we have are from Ndongeni — yet he is not really seen as part of the ride.”

While Ndongeni was cast in a subservient role during the 19th century in the 20th African writers such as Herbert Dhlomo found in him an empowering figure. “Here was a native of royal blood who had to rescue the English in Natal yet he and his fellow Zulus were never accommodated in Natal politically,” said Khumalo.

Others saw Ndongeni as “someone who participated in their subjugation by helping the English”. But, as Khumalo pointed out, it’s not that simple. The Boers had plans to remove large sections of the Zulu population and were also known to practise slavery. Perhaps the English were the better option? But, in 1842, with a powerful Zulu kingdom in place, were either group seen as potential­ conquerors?

Shortly before his death in 1916 Ndongeni gave interviews reflecting on his journey and his life, one of them to Ethel Campbell. That interview and the one by Stuart are held in the Campbell Collection. It’s holdings like this that make special collections special, allowing researchers to uncover and give voice to the past.

Other speakers included Karunanda Chetty on the Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre who was followed by Aziz Hassim, author of The Lotus People, who reminisced on life in the Grey Street area of Durban. Christine Stilwell detailed the holdings of the Centre for African Literary Studies on the Pietermaritzburg campus, a near neighbour of the Alan Paton Centre and Struggle Archive (APC) to which Jewel Koopman provided an overview, while academic and activist John Aitchison, who donated his archive to the APC, spoke on the subject of historical literacy.

Aitchison said that “historical literacy­” in South Africa was currently suffering from the three As — “aphasia, amnesia and aporia”.

Aphasia — a difficulty in remembering (and by extension, speaking) because of some head injury or infection. In historical terms the head injury took the form of the destruction of records during the apartheid period­. There was also little writing and documentation undertaken — “it was dangerous to do so” — resulting in a lack of internal writing on the struggle and hence the dominant record was written by exiles with their own particular ideological and political perspectives.

“We also have a tremendous fight against self-induced amnesia,” said Aitchison regarding the second A. “The often self-service amnesia of whites as well as the tendency to airbrush out the resistance from non-mainline ANC supporters — Nusas and other student protest groups, the Black Consciousness movement, the churches, NGOs, etc.”

Aporia is originally a Greek term denoting an impasse or state of puzzlement, inconsistency, doubt or indecision, another feature of the malaise­ affecting historical literacy. Aitchison said the cure could be found in the special collections and other archives that “different story” documents can be found that cast a new light on our history and deconstruct the new myths appearing about our past.

Historical literacy, according to Aitchison, apart from obviously being based heavily on our normal literacy, requires us to develop the skills to overcome these difficulties of the brutal lack of historical texts, the self-serving erasing of memories about the past, and the difficulty of understanding the “difficult readings” and getting access to them.

Which is why special collections are special.

Alan Paton Centre and Struggle Archives

THE collection includes Alan Paton’s papers, the manuscripts of his poetry and short stories and his correspondence; the archives of the South African Liberal Party; the documents of organisations involved in the struggle against apartheid in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, such as the Black Sash, the Detainees Aid Committee and the Five Freedoms Forum. The Special Collections of the Natal Society, which includes books collected over the past 150 years by the Natal Society, and the O’Brien and Hattersley Collections. The oral history project: ‘Recording the anti-apartheid struggle in KwaZulu-Natal’ recorded interviews with many activists. The centre also houses the Sinomlando Project, the oral history project of the School of Theology.

• Website: www.library.unp.

Gandhi-Luthuli DocumentationCentre

THE Archival Collections of the Documentation Centre includes material on Indian History; the indenture experience and ships lists.

The museum displays artifacts, paintings, sculptures, posters and photographs pertaining to Indian culture and heritage.

The centre holds a large collection of record interviews and films on the struggle era.

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Centre for AfricanLiterary Studies

THE Centre for African Literary Studies (Cals) holds over 15 000 items, mainly books, but also video material, showcasing the literature of the African continent.

Cals initially came into being to house the Bernth Lindfors collection. The collection boasts some 13 000 books, journals and rare tape and video material and is especially notable for its holdings of material published in Africa, such as a full collection of Onitsha market literature from Nigeria. Also in the collection is a large body of newspaper clippings relating to African authors and wide ranging bibliographical resources for criticism about African literature.

• Website:

Campbell Collections

THE Campbell Collections is an internationally renowned and unique collection of rare archival resources, art works and cultural artifacts. Housed in a neo-Cape Dutch style house, the Collections were bequeathed to the then University of Natal by Killie Campbell and her brother, William. The collections comprise the Killie Campbell Library, the Mashu Museum of Ethnology, the William Campbell Furniture and Picture Collection and the Jo Thorpe Collection of South African art and craft.

• Website: http://campbell.

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