Auto-archiving” in Muslim Communities on the Cape Flats

  • Posted on December 19, 2013


For so-called “coloureds” in Cape Town, the experience of archive has historically been marked by absence. On one hand, the relationship with state institutions and the “official” record has been one of exclusion, in the form of both underrepresentation and limited access. On the other hand, due to generations of social, economic and physical dislocation, families have often been dispossessed of personal materials that speak to the past.

While these inadequacies have kept history out of reach for many, recent years have seen the rise of a new archival consciousness within one particular segment of this group – the Cape Muslim community. Over the past two decades in particular, heritage activists and cultural enthusiasts have come to revisit the past, engaging with existing records and establishing novel repositories of their own.

This post-apartheid archival consciousness and its related activities can be divided into two distinguishable, mutually-influential levels. On one hand, we find the individual community members who, for varying and often personal reasons, engage in archival research. On the other hand, there are social organisations centred on heritage preservation, the promotion of local histories and archival skills-development in the broader community.

Both the individual and group initiatives have had to compensate for existing gaps in the record. The strategies employed in such projects transcend the traditional notions of “archive” and the kinds of sources that can speak to the past. They also illuminate broader socio-political needs in which archival sources become entangled. 

History begins at home: self-archiving at the individual level

These recent developments have their foundations in individual community members who, discovering a passion for historical research, embarked on enquiries into their family origins and the past of the broader community.  Although much of the advancements in archiving practices amongst Cape Muslims have arisen post-apartheid, their beginnings can be traced to at least the late 1970s.

As homes were being torn down and communities pulled apart by the Group Areas Act (1950), influential figures like social worker-cum-historian Achmat Davids, the “father of Cape Muslim history” began the task of cultural preservation. This involved recording spoken histories, collecting images and preserving material culture. In addition to creating an archive, Davids also drew on records in state repositories in order to piece together historical narratives about the early Cape Muslim community. As the first “community historian” he left a lasting legacy, manifested in published secondary research and the mobilisation of others in the search for knowledge of the local past.

Since then, people scattered across the Cape Flats have begun to delve into their family histories, drafting family trees, and establishing informal repositories of photographs and other objects. For many, the search begins at home. Such a grass-roots approach is taken both to compensate for gaps in the official historical record, and in line with the ideology that history begins at home. Generally there are two kinds of archive that the domestic sphere has to offer: that which speaks to specific historical narratives, and sources that stand in for more general cultural belonging.

Concrete details, often used in genealogical projects, are taken predominantly from oral history. In many ways the lynchpin of such work, oral history provides a solid basis for the recovery of dates, places, people and events. Accessing oral sources often involves a shift in perspective, whereby researchers view the stories long told in their family not simply as “tradition,” but as valid repositories of historical fact. In addition to oral sources, written documents like letters and diaries are sometimes recovered for such information. However, such documents are rare. Where they do exist, they are invested with great value and guardedness.

In fact, this nascent heritage consciousness has promoted a more general rise in the evaluation of inherited written documents, particularly those in the Arabic script. This is partly due to the success of a handful of individuals in tracing their family ancestry through biographical details included in Arabic-Malay manuscripts, referred to locally as “kietaabs.” However, such manuscripts are generally didactic religious materials, containing little if any personal information. Furthermore, because most people do not understand Malay, the contents remain a mystery.  Yet, in a curious turn of events, as physical objects, independent of their content, such books are seen as markers of family history. More specifically, their mere possession is tangible “proof” of Southeast Asian ancestry. Consequently such documents are highly sought after, being carefully sequestered in family collections all over Cape Town.

Research, Preservation and Museumisation: Community Heritage Groups

Through word-of-mouth communication, many Muslim history and heritage buffs have come to learn about each other’s efforts. Often mutual acknowledgement has resulted in the formation of collectives, which work together on heritage-centred projects.

The most successful example is the Cape Family Research Forum (CFRF), established by a group of amateur genealogists from the Cape Flats in 2002. The CFRF began as a forum for investigation into the genealogical roots of what they term the “creole” descendants of slaves residing on the Cape Flats. Collectively, the group has investigated a plethora of family histories, using state records and oral histories. From this work, they have created their own archive, containing tens of files detailing the origins of common family names in the community. Such files travel with the CFRF to cultural fairs and exhibitions, where the group has become a popular feature. Hundreds of people have flocked to their stands at festivals, seeking answers to questions about their ancestry.

In addition to carrying out research, the group is involved in skills-training and heritage advocacy. It facilitates public workshops on research methodology in state archives, led by in-house historian Ebrahim Rhoda. Members representing the group have also been active participants in heritage debates. The CFRF has also presented at events by groups serving similar needs in other communities, such as the Genealogy Society of South Africa’s Western Cape branch, and the South African St Helenian Heritage Association. Finally, in 2012 they were the recipients of a Western Cape Cultural Affairs’ award for their Contribution to Marketing Archival Services and Resources. Thus, the CFRF’s expertise in archival research and heritage awareness extends beyond its initial target group, and has resulted in esteem and tangible links in the broader heritage network in Cape Town.

Recent years have also seen the rise of organisations focused on the revival, preservation and museumisation of Cape Muslim culture. Such groups are important because they show a desire to accumulate and preserve culture through objects, and also to display this heritage to others – both within the local community and outside of it. In so doing, they also define what kinds of objects represent the Muslim community’s cultural history.

One of the earliest examples is the Simon’s Town Heritage Museum (est. 1998), popularly referred to as the “Malay Museum.” The collection is largely reliant on objects donated from the community, and is thus both a repository of collective history and personal heirlooms. As individuals have free-reign over what they donate, they inadvertently decide what kinds of objects hold the potential to document the cultural past. Furthermore, due to the curator’s inclusive attitude, the range of things included is astounding. A growing array of images, articles, preserved foods and spices, clothing, Sufi ritual instruments, old school books and even toys fill the museum’s various rooms.

Taking a slightly different stance on cultural preservation is the South African Melayu Cultural Society (SAMCS, est. 1996), founded as an effort to preserve “remnant Malay culture” in South Africa. In line with this aim, the Society focuses on reviving and preserving intangible heritage, such as cooking and cuisine, music and dancing. This involves encouraging such practices amongst its members, and organising displays and performances for the appreciation of outsiders. Thus, their idea of archiving Malay culture involves not simply preserving objects, but living out experiences and showcasing them to others. The idea of a living heritage is central to a society like the SAMCS, as one of its main aims has been to reconnect with the global Malay diaspora. By demonstrating the continuation of practice, and not simply the possession of familiar objects, connection as living Malays is all the more plausible.


In attempting to “fill the gaps” in the historical record, increasingly heritage-conscious Muslims in Cape Town have taken it upon themselves to work the archive to the best of their ability. Where possible, they have mined extant, official records for slivers of information relevant to their past. However, they have also taken to identifying stories, objects and processes, which they perceive as adequate sources for the particular histories they desire. The urge for ordinary community members to create their own archives highlights both the acknowledgement of the inadequacy of state institutions to accommodate their histories, and a willingness to take matters into their own hands. Having said this, as groups like the CFRF gain a name of themselves, there has been an increasing interest from state institutions like the Western Cape Archives and Records Service to work collaboratively with them. The result of such partnerships is yet to be seen.

Saarah Jappie is a graduate student in the History department at Wilson College, Princeton. She has a Masters degree in Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town and worked as a researcher in the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project, exploring Islamic writing cultures in Africa.

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