The University of Fort Hare: archives deepening democracy!
The National Heritage and Cultural Studies Centre (NAHECS ) was established as the Centre for Xhosa Literature attached to the faculty of Arts in 1981. The objectives of the Centre were to accumulate, document, and preserve oral and written literary materials. All the collected material was pertinent to Xhosa language with the purpose to make it accessible to various researchers and the public.
In 1991 the Centre for Xhosa Literature was changed to the Centre for Cultural Studies (CCS). This change to a new name brought new objectives, which were as follows: to promote growth, knowledge and understanding of material and human resources through the collection, preservation, study, exposition, enrichment and advancement of material evidence.
In 1995 the University of Fort Hare Council set up a Council Task Force to review the CCS’s mission and activities. The Task Force’s findings and recommendations further broadened the role and responsibilities of the CCS. The Task Force recommended that the Centre has multiple and unique roles to play, including cultural production, which no other unit at University of Fort Hare could fulfill.
Again in 1998, Council approved a change of name from the CCS to the National Heritage and Cultural Studies Centre (NAHECS). The NAHECS became a broad-based heritage institute which focused on Liberation Archives, museums, academic work and, later, a research unit. It is in the same year that the unique Fort Hare African indigenous artifacts and the contemporary South African Black Art were unanimously declared a National Cultural Treasure protected through an Act of Parliament.
NAHECS became a national heritage institution that wanted to play a significant role in the transformation of the South African heritage landscape using its collections to reposition itself in the heritage transformation debates. It boasted priceless and unique cultural material collections ranging from artifacts to art and archives.
In fact the University of Fort Hare collection is constituted of African indigenous artifacts which date back to the 1880s. These artifacts are divided into two collections, namely the Estelle Hamilton-Welsh collection, and the F. S. Malan collection that date back to the 1960s. These collections are vital in understanding the historical and cultural evolution of the South African cultural communities and their relation to other cultures over time. A critical reflection and engagement with this collection affirms the role played by the local intellectuals in preserving and protecting African culture at a time when the conditions were not conducive to that. However, much work needs to be done to make the collections more relevant to the South African society at large.
Such relevance can be achieved when this collection is properly interpreted and contextualised. Oral history work is central to the re-interpretation and contextualisation of this collection. This is where the organic intellectuals are needed to assist in the process of critical engagement, interpretation and contextualising.
The proper interpretation of this collection is important since collections of this nature in South Africa are characterised by omissions, misrepresentation and distortion. These can be attributed to the nature and conditions under which the material was collected. The interpretation of the African indigenous artifacts that are kept in South African museums is a national imperative that is not receiving a proper attention at the moment.
The University of Fort Hare collection is not immune to these challenges and unresolved questions.
The South African Contemporary Black Art collection is another unique set of works housed at University of Fort Hare. This collection dates back to 1934. It boasts the works pioneering South African artists like George Pemba, Gerard Sekoto, Gerard Bengu, Tamsanqa Mnyele, Dumile Mhlaba-Feni and Gladys Mgudlandlu. People from around the world have studied this collection because of their interest in it as resistance or protest art. It is a priceless collection that serves as a record of collective resistance against apartheid.
When you view and analyse this collection you begin to understand that the black artists themselves were using unique creativity to register their contempt towards racism and oppression. You also begin to see that the black artists through their works were sympathising with the leaders and people of South Africa who were languishing in jail. On the other side these artists used their works of art as platforms to critically engage with ideas of race and racism, oppressor and oppressed, freedom of expression, peace and democracy.
The artworks played a critical role in making people of the world to understand the atrocities of apartheid and also conscientised people of South Africa about fighting for their human rights and democracy. It shows that many black artists of South Africa took a conscious decision to be involved in efforts of restoring hope for a democratic dispensation. Hence many of these artists paid a price for expressing their aspirations about a new society that embraces humanity. For instance, Thamsanqa Mnyele’s ody was riddled with the bullets of South African Defence Force. Dumile Mhlaba-Feni died a lonely death in the foreign lands hoping that his art works would one day find their way back to South Africa where they would enhance constructive cultural and social debates. The works of these artists are full of creativity and information that can heal and uplift our nation as well as help entrench the democratic values and principles. It is with this understanding that I strongly feel that collections of this nature are archival materials that can assist the South African nation in self-introspection and healing.
These collections can be viewed as historic cultural records whose significance, meaning and value cannot end with the emergence of a democratic dispensation in South Africa. They are flagship collections that are relevant in understanding the African creativity with a special purpose. Collections of this value and historical background are the cultural records to think of when this nation is debating the role that can be played by archives in deepening democracy. It is important to note that democracy cannot only be enhanced and consolidated by building democratic institutions alone but repositioning of collections of this nature will be part of the process.
The works in these collections are the nation`s records that can create spaces of engagement in civil society. They challenge the viewers to extend their imagination. At the University of Fort Hare, these collections of African indigenous artifacts, contemporary South African Black art and Liberation Archives have converted the Fort Hare Gallery, Museum and Archives stores into spaces of critical engagement about the past, present and the future of this country. South Africans have a tendency to think that it is liberation archives which are politically charged are the only records that we can learn lessons from, forgetting that cultural records in the form of these collections are vital sources to learn from in thinking about how this nation can heal itself and to consolidate democratic governance.
For further information see the NAHECS website.
Vuyani Booi is an Archival Platform correspondent based in Alice.