Trained as a historian, Professor Carolyn Hamilton holds a National Research Foundation Chair in Archive and Public Culture at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and has published widely on the pre-industrial history of South Africa.
Her recent work focuses on the limits and possibilities of archives, and on operations of power in and through archives. Along with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Prof. Hamilton was responsible for the establishment of the Archival Platform, a civil society-based intervention in the politics of archive and the role of archive in a democracy.
She currently hosts the platform at UCT, and was previously a member of the board of the South African History Archive and the inaugural Council of Robben Island, and a founder member of the Gay and Lesbian Archive.
After Madiba was released in 1990, she had the “terrifying honour” of being one of his speechwriters.
“The toughest speech that I worked on with him was the Natal speech – ‘Take your guns and knives and throw them into the sea.’ As the writer, I was caught between the desires of certain UDF leaders to deal decisively with Inkatha and Madiba’s determination to make a powerful reconciliatory intervention.
“He also wanted a speech resonant with history, which is probably why I was put to work on it. Madiba himself mobilised archive in that speech and he, in turn, is now part of the archive available to us in the present to mobilise in crafting the future.
“It is important that the uses to which his archives are put are as honourable as his own life and true to the ways in which he used the archive,” she says.
Having joined the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Board of Trustees in 2015, Prof. Hamilton will contribute to the Foundation’s work in investigating this role of archive in public life.
“What social and political roles have the memory and archive of Madiba played in public life up until now and what role should or could they play going forward? Who mobilises the memory and archive of Madiba, and with what purposes and effects?” she asks.
“These are the kinds of questions I have spent a lifetime researching and the area in which my research chair is located.”