Sunday, October 16, 2011

The importance of historical literacy

The Witness: LAST Thursday the University of KwaZulu-Natal Special Collections Day provided a showcase for the Alan Paton Centre and Struggle Archive, the Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre, the Centre for African Literary Studies and, the hosts of the event, the Campbell Collections.

My friend (and cousin-in-law) John Aitchison also spoke on the occasion.

academic and activist John Aitchison, who donated his archive to the APC, spoke on the subject of historical literacy.

Aitchison said that “historical literacy­” in South Africa was currently suffering from the three As — “aphasia, amnesia and aporia”.

Aphasia — a difficulty in remembering (and by extension, speaking) because of some head injury or infection. In historical terms the head injury took the form of the destruction of records during the apartheid period­. There was also little writing and documentation undertaken — “it was dangerous to do so” — resulting in a lack of internal writing on the struggle and hence the dominant record was written by exiles with their own particular ideological and political perspectives.

“We also have a tremendous fight against self-induced amnesia,” said Aitchison regarding the second A. “The often self-service amnesia of whites as well as the tendency to airbrush out the resistance from non-mainline ANC supporters — Nusas and other student protest groups, the Black Consciousness movement, the churches, NGOs, etc.”

Aporia is originally a Greek term denoting an impasse or state of puzzlement, inconsistency, doubt or indecision, another feature of the malaise­ affecting historical literacy. Aitchison said the cure could be found in the special collections and other archives that “different story” documents can be found that cast a new light on our history and deconstruct the new myths appearing about our past.

Historical literacy, according to Aitchison, apart from obviously being based heavily on our normal literacy, requires us to develop the skills to overcome these difficulties of the brutal lack of historical texts, the self-serving erasing of memories about the past, and the difficulty of understanding the “difficult readings” and getting access to them.

Which is why special collections are special.

The full article is well worth reading, as it gives examples of some of the hidden history that can be found.

The Witness: Alan Paton Centre and Struggle Archives

THE collection includes Alan Paton’s papers, the manuscripts of his poetry and short stories and his correspondence; the archives of the South African Liberal Party; the documents of organisations involved in the struggle against apartheid in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, such as the Black Sash, the Detainees Aid Committee and the Five Freedoms Forum. The Special Collections of the Natal Society, which includes books collected over the past 150 years by the Natal Society, and the O’Brien and Hattersley Collections. The oral history project: ‘Recording the anti-apartheid struggle in KwaZulu-Natal’ recorded interviews with many activists. The centre also houses the Sinomlando Project, the oral history project of the School of Theology.

Website of the Alan Patron Struggle Centre and Archives.

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