One of the challenges presented by colonialism is the problem of the colonial archive - a largely inaccessible archive that represents a sometimes purposefully incomplete narrative on the past, peoples and even futures. Whether in how it codifies and crystalizes living customary law, presents the beginning of African history as the point of colonisation or how that archive excludes Africa from the Enlightenment project, the need for liberatory and accessible archives and archival practice is urgent for any social justice agenda.
On the 13th of April, 2022, the Archive at the Centre of Memory, an initiative of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, hosted a discussion on archives, ghosts and justice between Dr Kholeka Shange, lecturer of anthropology at the University of Witwatersrand, and Professor Verne Harris, head of Leadership Development at the Foundation. The discussion was facilitated by Kneo Mokgopa.
Shange’s work on the photographic archiving of uMntwana uMagogo as well as Harris’s new book, Ghosts of Archive, both contest the colonial archive and colonial archival practice.
“In truth, I don’t know what ghosts are. But I know what they do. They haunt,” states Harris in Ghosts of Archives in the context of describing archives as necessarily and structurally spectral. Archives are full of ghosts, traces of communication and identity signifying the presence of those that are no longer with us. In these and other ways, Verne argues, to work with archive is to work with ghosts. Even here, we must be wary of allowing colonial and patrilineal cultures of descendants to overdetermine what we mean by ghosts.
In Shange’s work, she makes a point of researching and writing about blackwomen, who have historically been oppressed even in archives - their lineages are not recorded, their relevance noted only in relation to the men in their lives, the invisibilisation by hypervisibility. In these ways, shared Shange, “you can be everywhere and nowhere”.
The discussion coincided with the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory’s opening of ‘Reality Check: Accused #2, Walter Sisulu’, a new virtual reality exhibition wherein guests are invited to immerse themselves in the Rivonia Trial and listen to the original testimony given at the 1963-4 trial by a 52-year-old Walter Sisulu. We were fortunate to have also shared the evening with members of the Sisulu family. In their contributions, Elinor and Beryl Sisulu highlighted the demands of justice which insist that histories and archives are made accessible.
‘Reality Check: Accused #2, Walter Sisulu’ is now showing at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. ‘Ghosts of Archives’ is also available for sale.
Please see the link below for a podcast on the discussion as well as a podcast on the whole event.
To launch he Archive at the Centre of Memory, the Foundation hosted a discussion on archives, ghosts and justice between Dr Kholeka Shange, lecturer of anthropology at the University of Witwatersrand, and Professor Verne Harris, head of Leadership Development at the Foundation.