Genealogy South Africa: Quo Vadis?

  • Posted on October 25, 2012

A crisp spring Saturday morning in Cape Town: crowds of people thronging the shops nearby, schoolboys fighting it out for victory on a sports-field up the road. Inside a packed hall a larger than expected group asks, “Genealogy South Africa: Quo Vadis” (where are we going).

The Genealogy Society of South Africa (GSSA) brings together people with a passion, to explore their personal pasts. Founded in 1964, the GSSA has nine branches with members spread across the country. As Ferdie van Wyk writes the advantages of joining the GSSA are numerous, “One becomes part of a family of likeminded researchers with vast experience and one can interact with them on a personal level. You know that you can call on the help of people that are supportive and accommodating. You will gain access to research and educational resources and remain up to date with developments in the world of geneaology. Yu get the opportunity to go on outings to sites of genealogical significance and listen to experts in the research filed. Benefits include discounts on genealogy books, DVDs and CDs”.

What struck me most forcibly, as a stranger to this group, was the sense of community and camaraderie. There was a sense of a shared mission and interest. Over tea I overheard several people asking others if they had traced a “missing piece ” in their family trees – and noted the exultation in their voices when the response was “yes”. This was generally followed by a detailed description of the meticulous research often combined with a fair degree of serendipitous good luck that enabled them to slot another final piece into the puzzle of the past.  When the answer was “no” it was another matter altogether. Then, heads were bent together, chins scratched earnestly as new avenues and alternative sources were considered. Family history is a serious business, and researchers are hungry for answers!

While individual members are on a mission to explore their personal pasts the GSSA engages in a number of projects and creates a number of products that add to the resources available to individuals and to the body of knowledge abut South African family histories. One of the GSSA projects is aimed at collecting and preserving genealogical information found in cemeteries. This includes data inscribed on headstones, memorial and crematorium plaques or recorded in burial registers. Indexed information is made available on DVD while photographs of headstones are available free of charge via the Internet.  Another project focuses on the more recent past. In another mammoth undertaking, a team GSSA volunteers is photographing and transcribing more than 171,000 images of the 1984 voters roll. This will be of particular use to family history researchers because it includes the maiden names of married woman.

The GSSA produces a number of publications. These include Familia, the society’s quarteley journal and Capensis, the quarterly journal of the Western Cape branch. These include articles covering family registers, character stories, irrespective of how well known or unknown the individuals are, historical events, and advice on research. Other publications include family registers and general resources such as passenger lists, family bible transcripts and christening registers.

Many people, when told about the Archival Platform’s Ancestral Stories initiative ask how we record and where we publish family histories.  Our answer to that question is, we don’t. We’re interested in the diverse resources that people draw on to explore their personal pasts and in the processes through which they do this.  In the case of the GSSA it’s clear that researchers draw heavily on documentary archives.

A number of the presentations at the workshop focused on archival resources – and the importance of preserving and making these accessible. Heather MacAlister spoke of the far-ranging activities of Ancestry 24 and the vast team that contribute to making a wealth of material available online. Lunette Kourens of the Western Cape Archives and Records Service mentioned the resources available in the holdings of her institution and the services offered to researchers. She fielded a number of questions about the state and accessibility of these, making a strong plea for members of the GSSA to understand the constraints facing provincial and national institutions. David Slingsby of the Cape Town Family History Society shared some insight into the challenges facing members intent on tracing their roots in archives far across the sea. Marguerite Lombard spoke enthusiastically of the activities of the Drakenstein Heemkring which offered advice and made resources available to people whose families live, or lived, in and around Paarl. Listening to Nicol Geldenhuys speaking of the work of the Genealogical Institute of South Africa (GISA), my mind turned to the Protection of Personal Information Bill, and I wondered what the implications f this might be for the study of family history. The presentation on the work of the Huguenot Museum and the Huguenot Society of South Africa reminded me of the huge, but relatively invisible influence of French culture on South Africans. Elmien Wood spoke of her experiences of working with the vast archive of the Genealogical Society of Utah in Salt Lake City. Bossie Minaar, admitting that his organization, the archive of the NG Church in South Africa was not always particularly friendly to family history researchers, described its holdings and the services it offered to other institutions. A treasure house in the making! Mogamat Kamedien, better known as ‘Kammie’ ended the morning with a lively presentation on the Cape Family Research Forum. Kammie is clearly an archive activist and the questions he raised about the archives and the role of civil society in ensuring that these were inclusive and accessible lingered in my mind long after the event was over.

It was a very full programme and it brought several issues into focus for me.

The GSSA is largely a society that focuses on the history of South Africans of European origin. But, the research into individual families reveals the complex nature of South African identity and the entanglement of European settlers with people brought to the country as slaves as well as with the local population. Where once people eschewed these ancestors, today they are embraced. This is a story that needs to be teased out of the records and shared.

The Archival Platform has on several occasions lamented government’s lack of interest in archives and records and commented that it is possible that individuals do not understand the power of the record. It was a privilege to spend time with a group so impassioned about records of all sorts and so committed to preserving and making them accessible. Our challenge is to get all South Africans to share this passion!

For more information about the Genealogical Society of South Africa see their website.

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