The future of the past
Why future South African historians may struggle to write the history of our time
Who is the most influential nineteenth-century South African? Is it Shaka, king of the Zulu, or the Voortrekker Piet Retief, or Andries Waterboer, Griqua captain? Or perhaps the entrepreneur Joseph Barry of Swellendam, or the colonial secretary John Montagu, or the diamond magnate and later prime minister Cecil Rhodes? Or perhaps the Xhosa chieftain Maqoma, the newspaper editor John Jabavu, or the ZAR president Paul Kruger?
It’s not really a question with a correct answer. Each of these nine figures – and there are surely many others – could be considered influential. Each deserves their own biography if they don’t have one already. And where they are yet to be written (or where they are outdated), historians can write (or rewrite) these biographies because the sources that these individuals and the society they inhabited left behind, evidence of their thoughts and deeds, are preserved in archives across South Africa (and, for some, outside of South Africa too).
But this is not true for everybody. Not everyone in history was a trailblazer, tactician, or traitor. The thoughts and deeds of most, in fact, were never recorded or, where they were, never preserved. There are many reasons for this. Records of the powerful and privileged are often preserved, but we easily neglect to record the lives of ordinary people, the illiterate, poor, or marginalised. Power plays an important role in determining whose history is recorded. But there are also practical concerns: Archives are expensive. Not everything we do or think must be preserved. Think of the countless emails you send out every day; surely not all of them should be preserved for posterity. Archivists must choose what/who is important, or what/who may be important.
The implication of an incomplete archive is that no history is ever complete. We remember what archivists a century ago wanted us to remember. Put differently: We have already forgotten all the people who were never recorded, or whose letters, diaries, or journals were never thought to be important enough to be preserved.
A project that I’ve headed over the last five years at Stellenbosch University – the Biography of an Uncharted People project – aimed to bring these stories back to life in a new way: by using large administrative datasets. We’ve transcribed and analysed baptism and marriage records, voters’ rolls, probate inventories, advertisements, tax censuses, company records, death notices, government petitions, and many other sources. We wanted to know whether these ‘boring’ records could tell the histories of ordinary men and women, rather than just the political, social, and economic elite.
The project came to an end last week with a conference in Stellenbosch. Over the last few years, we’ve unearthed new answers to old questions, from the sexual behaviour of twentieth-century Capetonians, to the seasons runaways chose to escape enslavement, from the success of female investors in the private capital markets, to the reasons why Cape rebels joined the Boer republics during the Anglo-Boer War. And many, many others. What surprised me most was that our quantitative sources and techniques often opened new questions rather provide definitive answers. One example: Our techniques (not available to government bureaucrats of yesteryear) helped to reveal preferences and biases that people of the time might not even have been aware of.
But despite the vibrant academic discussions during the conference, there was an elephant in the room too. It was the state of South African archives. There were two main concerns raised: The first about the accessibility of the archives; the second about its ability to preserve digitised (or ‘born-digital’) records.
Over the last few years, my students and I have struggled to gain access to the wonderfully rich documents in the Western Cape Archives Repository on Roeland Street. Our attempts to digitise and transcribe large numbers of historical records, at our own cost, have fallen on deaf ears; it doesn’t help that, after twelve years, there is still no national digitisation policy. The tragic consequences for my students who want to work on the period of slavery, for example, is that they are not allowed to photograph full series of records, making its analysis impossible.
Granted, not all archives are so behind the times. The Archive of the Dutch Reformed Church in Stellenbosch has long since entered the twenty-first century, and has welcomed our digitisation and transcription efforts. Through this partnership we have built up a rich database of church loans to indigent farmers, allowing us to begin understanding the role of the church as a banking institution.
The second concern with the archive is its inability to preserve new documents. As one archive expert noted at our conference, future historians will find it difficult to write a history of the first decade of the post-1994 era. Why? Because those records simply don’t exist anymore. The transition to democracy occurred at the same time as the computer and ICT revolution. Emails replaced letters. And while emails today are preserved in the cloud – hopefully long enough for future historians to have access to them – this was not the case in the late 1990s. Those internal memos, reports, correspondences, and minutes that historians use as source documents are lost.
An inaccessible and incomplete archive has implications for us today and for our future. Even if we don’t realise it, our identity – who we think we are – is shaped by the stories we tell ourselves. An incomplete archive implies an incomplete (hi)story. And that is dangerous, because it offers a (political) opportunist the ability to concoct new stories, stories that cannot be tested against the historical evidence.
It goes without saying that the archive can, of course, never be complete. The historical fiction writer Hilary Mantel summed it up best: ‘Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth.’
And that is why we need to do everything possible to preserve and make accessible the ‘few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth’ that still remains. Otherwise, the histories future historians write, whether that be of influential figures or ordinary men and women, will be half-truths, and the stories we tell ourselves about the past, will be skewed and distorted. Just as our past determines our future, so will our present and future shape our past.
An edited version of this post appeared (in Afrikaans) in Rapport on 13 November 2022. Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash. Hat tip to Charles van Onselen for the Hilary Mantel quote.