“The 2015 student protests in South Africa placed the question of decolonisation at the centre of how we re-think and re-imagine higher education and society more than 20 years after the end of apartheid. The legacy of Cecil John Rhodes and the University of Cape Town are poignant reminders of the effects of colonialism in our present-day experience. Locating black intellectual histories in this space marks an important, ongoing intervention in the centring of subjugated knowledges in the South African academy,” said Christopher Ouma of the Department of English Literary Studies at UCT. “The urgencies informing the movement are, however, not without historical precedent. Our book seeks to place contemporary struggles in South Africa in conversation with historical ones here and abroad. We have entered a moment in which the movement has had to confront new crises and social and political configurations in South Africa and the world at large. Black Archives and Intellectual Histories therefore becomes a reflection, an embodiment, indeed a point of articulation, between these contemporary crises and the deeply sedimented genealogies of Black experience and the struggle that informs them.”
Along with Mandisa Haarhoff of the same department and Khwezi Mkhize of the Department of African Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand, Ouma was presenting the background to their project which started with a series of seminars at UCT in 2018 funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation. The series featured eminent scholars, activists and public intellectuals from South Africa, the continent and across the ‘Black Atlantic’ who interrogated questions around black intellectual histories and their relationship to the archive. These deliberations will now be published in book form under the title Black Archives and Intellectual Histories.
Ouma explained that the 2015 student protests were a “wake-up call particularly in spaces that studied culture and knowledge of culture”.
“UCT was pivotal because of the legacies of Rhodes all over the campus – in the architecture, the space and design. 2015 forced us to go back to that history, to look at its legacies and how it determined the curriculum, but also how we encounter that space – from both the margins and the centre. This project was inspired by that moment.”
The Mellon Foundation was celebrating 30 years in South Africa and funded a series of seminars in the English Department in the Faculty of Humanities. “This was important,” said Ouma, “because English departments across the continent are often seen as platforms for this kind of legacy of colonialism and empire. Cape Town is also important because of its history of slavery and its impact on colonialism. The department is in a city where slavery is very much part of the history and many prominent graduates have done work on slavery but their work isn’t taught in the department.”
“In spite of claims that globalisation has created the conditions for normative forms of belonging, the call for decolonisation in South Africa urges us to think historically as well as beyond perceived categories of identity,” said Ouma.
“The echoes of Cape Town’s deep colonial past continue to haunt the post-apartheid present,” added Mhkize.
The seminars were about starting a conversation on how black intellectual history can contribute to transformation. They focused on a range of topics including black intellectual histories and the question of the black archives, epistemologies, cultural production, movements and collectives in relation to the geopolitics of the black diaspora, South Africa’s place in its imaginaries, the politics of writing and student movements.
“The seminars tracked black archival, intellectual and historical work while foregrounding South Africa as a significant intellectual geography. They emphasised mobility, exchange and collaboration and covered a range of intellectual geographies. While South Africa is a central locus we are looking to contribute to dialogues across the Black Atlantic as well as intellectual geographies such as the Caribbean, the United States and Europe in conversation with South Africa,” said Ouma.
“We are looking at interrogating how normative orders of knowledge are constructed and contested,” he said. “This is central to the question of ecosystems of black knowledge production.”
He described how the seminar series has been leveraged at UCT to start to make practical interventions in developing a new undergraduate curriculum and, in particular, a course entitled Cultures of Empire, resistance and post-coloniality.
Confronting from a new horizon
Khwezi Mkhize read part of the book introduction. He highlighted in particular the pioneering work done in the late 1990s by Prof. Ntongela Masilela who developed the New African Movement website (http://pzacad.pitzer.edu/NAM/). The website was constructed to broaden the intellectual history of South Africa in its move towards liberation.
“This did much to open up the blind spot in work emerging around the Black Atlantic,” said Mkhize. “It started to articulate South Africa’s black intellectual histories along with those of the black diaspora at large in a process of multi-directional transmission and solidarity.”
He emphasised the importance of recognising our different relationships to history.
“The idea of black archives are about uncovering an uneasy relationship to history rather than the authoring of new additional narratives,” he said. “It’s about looking critically at the production of historical narratives and understanding the interests that shape them.”
In this regard he also mentioned the power of censorship in controlling what could and could not be written and documented.
He also pointed to the need to “archive the vanishing present. #RhodesMustFall is already becoming a memory. There were a number of important uprisings in this time including the Arab Spring which offer a range of possibilities for reframing”.
Activities of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 are another case in point requiring documentation.
Mandisa Haarhoff presented an overview of the chapters for the book thus far.
“The chapters respond to questions that arose from the seminars regarding the importance and integrity of the black archives. We hope to cross borders and languages, to challenge the limitations of traditional knowledge production and to highlight forms of silencing and power,” she said.
Initial topics include the background to the New African Movement founding archive; the intellectual presence and contribution of black women; intergenerational communication; ideas of black diasporic thought of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; art; performance art including African jazz; and, the use of Black dying and activism for political gain.
She emphasised the rigorous work in tracing the contributions of Black women. “Women whose names often disappeared from the intellectual records. We have to ask what happened to the contribution of these women – it can’t be that they were silent.”
“It’s important that we name names because an important part of the disappearance of the archives is about the lack of acknowledging the intellectual contributions,” she added. “This should serve as a prompt to research the lives and ideas of some of these people.”
She pointed out that knowledge production and the development of a complete archive is an ongoing task. “Knowledge production is a constant movement in and out of time,” she said. “It’s always an incomplete, ever-evolving project.”
She also highlighted the need to extend beyond material and narrative archives to include song, poetry and performance as well as to include sources like newspaper articles and photos.
“The colonial library is limited, it doesn’t have everything,” she said. “We have to trace records outside traditionally documented archives. There is a richer intellectual history than just that limited to the library. We have to look beyond text and challenge what constitutes an archive.”
“The photograph is an important medium for the circulation of ideas about race,” agreed Ouma. “Photography has been used to broaden our sensibilities on issues like gender and sexuality. With these media we interrogate directly or indirectly the intersections between race, gender and representation.”
He indicated that the Hiddingh Hall campus of UCT was turned into an exhibition space during the COVID-19 lockdown to raise issues around the creative process and black-lived experience. “These platforms continue to collect, curate and document black experience,” he said. “We need to decide how we bring such collectives into this project.”
Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS