Conference urges historians to rethink perspectives on Southern African histories

Rhodes>History>Latest News

Professor Julia Wells
Professor Julia Wells

By Julian A Jacobs, PhD Candidate, School of Journalism and Media Studies


Addressing over 200 historians, artists, archivists, curators and scholars at the 27th biennial South African Historical Society (SAHS) conference, keynote speaker Professor Francis Nyamnjoh from the University of Cape Town challenged the audience to embrace their incompleteness as scholars and to borrow from one another on their journey of self-activation.

Speaking on mobility, globalisation and the policing of citizenship and belonging in the 21st century, Prof Nyamnjoh stressed the fact that mobility as a concept is central to being – being informed, being a human, being natural and supernatural.

“Every human is mobile therefore the world is mobile,” he said. In his book #RhodesMustFall, he looked at mobility from the standpoint of Cecil John Rhodes.

Rhodes, he said, showcased the commitment of British globalisation. He saw the British as God’s chosen race and he ensured that others did his bidding. Prof Nyamnjoh labeled Rhodes as “nimble-footed”, as he quickly crossed borders uninvited, such as in his trek from South Africa into Zimbabwe (Rhodesia). He urged scholars in the room to move into a convivial environment where scholars have conversations across disciplines to become interconnected. He concluded his talk by asking, “What if we take everyone’s mobility into account and realise that we are all incomplete?”

Earlier during the opening ceremony, Rhodes University Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Dr Peter Clayton welcomed all delegates to the University at a time when host city Grahamstown was preparing to celebrate its 200th year of existence. President of the SAHS and Deputy Dean of Humanities at Rhodes University, Professor Enocent Msindo, urged delegates to interrogate and to have robust discussions on the papers being presented at the conference.

Several breakaway sessions were held throughout the first day, including a discussion on the use of Applied Theatre tactics to re-enact historical events, as well as using drama, dance and music to display meanings of histories. Professor Julia Wells of Rhodes University’s History Department spoke about the history of Piet, a Ghona Xhosa man who was sent to prison on Robben Island for leading an insurrection against the British in the early 1800s.

Piet escaped from Robben Island after three months, which led Prof Wells’ research team to look into the history of the Ghana Xhosa people east of the Kat River and south and west of the Great Fish River. This area of land she called The Basket, which is supposedly the place where Piet spent his formative years.

Rhodes University Drama and History alumnus Masixole Heshu spoke about bringing the past to meet the present, in reference to the Battle at Grahamstown on 22 April 1819, also called the 5th Frontier War, where Makhanda and others retaliated against the British for removing them from the area around 1812.

Heshu is debuting a play at this year’s National Arts Festival called Dancing with the Dead, a reference to the retaliation battle at Grahamstown in 1819. 

Further interesting conversations were held throughout the day, including topics such as interracial relationships in the early 20th century in South Africa; listening to the Rivonia Trial: a new perspective of an apartheid archive; South African Chinese associations post- apartheid; land rights, rural livelihoods and displacement in Zimbabwe; the fluid label ‘Skollie’ amongst the Cape Town communities between 1938 to 1976; SADF war and recreation life; and a focus on the Ciskei bantustan.

The conference, entitled, “Trials, Traditions and Trajectories: Rethinking Perspectives on Southern African Histories”, commenced on 24 June and will run until 26 June.