Maverick Citizen


Saving our memories: The quest for true representation in our collective history

Saving our memories: The quest for true representation in our collective history
Part of the Liliesleaf Archive functions much like a library, where academics and history enthusiasts come to gain access to historically significant books and other materials. The section photographed above was donated by the Anti-Apartheid Movement. (Photo: Gilles Raffle)

As we strive to create accurate representations within our collective memories, it is relevant to understand that history shapes the ways in which we see others and ourselves; the past impacts the present and informs our future. That is why it is important to formulate ways in which memory institutions can fill existing gaps and prevent them from recurring in the future. 

Ivornatte Chitambo is the Head Archivist at Liliesleaf.

‘For history… is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, we are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.’ – James Baldwin

Throughout history, the main objective of institutions that store memory, such as archives, has been the battle against forgetting. Forgetting is a malfunction in a society’s handling of information and knowledge that should be preserved and passed on from one generation to the next. 

There is an assumption that human beings have effortlessly strived towards remembering and that memory has been instrumental in the handing down of various cultural signifiers and identities, which in turn have influenced the evolution of our collective activities and functions. 

However, this assumption is mistaken. So too is the idea that remembering is an outcome that captures and reflects all perspectives. Because it is through the conscious effort of some that the preservation of all our histories occurs. 

During a University of Johannesburg History Seminar held in February 2021, Vusi Kumalo presented a paper commissioned under an explorative educational partnership between UJ and Liliesleaf. The paper explores a popular narrative mostly documented through newspapers preserved from the 1960s. The newspaper publications outline a historical prison escape in South Africa, when four political prisoners (Arthur Goldreich, Harold Wolpe, Abdulhay Jassat and Mosie Molla) successfully escaped from Marshall Square prison and subsequently fled into exile. 

However, upon a more conscious inspection of the newspapers one notices that from a certain point, the timeline gradually begins to highlight and detail the experiences of the two white fugitives but not awarding the same platform to the two Indian fugitives, thereby creating gaps or silences in this historical memory. 

This is often evident in many similar historical cases and it is reasonable to consider that such instances are simply a sign of the times. 

The Liliesleaf Archive is home to a range of valuable archival materials, such as artefacts, books, newspaper clippings and academic journals that have been generously loaned to the site by a number of anti-apartheid activists and their families. (Photo: Gilles Raffle)

History and the way we see ourselves

As we strive to create accurate representations within our collective memories, it is relevant to understand that history shapes the ways in which we see others and ourselves; the past impacts the present and informs our future. That is why it is important to formulate ways in which memory institutions can fill existing gaps and prevent them from recurring in the future. 

Collective memory is defined as shared memories, knowledge and information that is associated with a social group’s identity. These memories are important because they are essential to the group’s attitudes, decisions and the way it approaches and solves problems. In relation to our society, it is evident that our collective memory does not represent the lived experiences of all our people in their entirety. This means lots of people are still living outside of their history. 

There still exists many untold stories and perspectives and unfortunately this further amplifies the threat of forgetting. 

In an age where we as a society are realising that representation matters, an important aspect of that representational equity should be that it is important to not only see our histories represented in the stories around us, but to also be presented with opportunities to be active participants in the telling of our diverse stories and experiences. 

In the minds of the public the role of memory institutions like museums has always been clearly and well defined; they are entities responsible for identifying, managing and preserving various records that have some significance and value attached to them. The constant changes and challenges that are traditionally experienced by memory institutions have always been present. But today, as a result of technological advancements as well as other variables such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the impacts of these challenges are stronger than before. 

As memory institutions continue to tackle such traditional changes, it is also important to consider the reframing and redefining of some of the roles within the institutions. It is by identifying the elements of change in the traditional roles of the archives and other memory institutions, including the relationship of forgetting and remembering, that archives can firmly stand as memory-preserving institutions. There is a need to create an environment that constantly challenges the nature of histories and memory, especially in decisions surrounding the preservation of historical materials and collective memory.

The role we play as a society in the telling of our stories should also be re-examined. 

As mentioned earlier, opportunities to be active participants in the telling of our diverse stories and experiences should also be encouraged. This will introduce multiple voices into the archives as well as other memory institutions. This approach will offer different narrations of the past and in this create a pathway to truer representations in our collective memories.

“Tell your story
Let it nourish you,
Sustain you
And claim you
Tell your story
Let it feed you,
Heal you
And release you
Tell your story
Let it twist and remix your shattered heart
Tell your story
Until your past stops tearing your present apart”

Lebo Mashile, extract from her poem Tell your story.

There is great value and impact to be discovered in the sharing and telling of our individual stories. Creating personal links to the history that surrounds us encourages the public to care and pay attention to its documentation and preservation. A goal of memory institutions should be to instil archival practices in an individual capacity to promote the preservation of collective memory.

Archives, along with the other memory institutions, represent the infrastructures that are already in place and that are required for the telling and preservation of our collective stories. Such institutions become more sustainable when their infrastructure and tools serve their communities in more ways than those defined as their traditional roles. 

An example of these unconventional roles can be when memory institutions are transformed into spaces where knowledge sharing or transfer can occur, either through the loaning of the entity’s tools or through fostering the development of certain skills for the community. This can be achieved through the creation of knowledge-sharing spaces and making them available to the public. 

Since 2018, the Liliesleaf archive has hosted workshops as part of a grant awarded to the Trust by the US Consulate. The programme is offered to Grade 10 and 11 pupils from different schools in Gauteng, and the main objective of these workshops is to work through the basic thought processes and practices that typically go into preserving and representing the past. This is achieved through a curated, project-based learning approach. 

Initiatives such as this encourage pupils to not only interact with research resources which are stored and preserved in archives, but also inform practical skills that can be applied in an individual capacity.

Initiatives such as the archive workshop by Liliesleaf present practical and sustainable ways to preserve our individual histories. Such skills can be applied in the hope that these individual stories will eventually contribute to the enrichment of the society’s collective memory in future. For it is through appreciating that the very fabric of our society comprises our individual memories that we realise that it is in part our responsibility to cherish and care for them so that we can pass them on to future generations.

The adaptation towards technological advancements as well as the implementation of these tools in the digital age will create opportunities for memory institutions to reframe their traditional roles and foster engagements and interactions with their communities.

As Lebo Mashile says: “Perspective in memory is the real power, as memory is the story, and the pen that writes the story controls the perspective… controls the memory and the psyche of the people who will receive the story, thus shaping our emotional responses to the story; perspective decides who is important in the story, who we empathise and sympathise with, who gets remembered, the victors and the villains.” DM/MC

Ivornatte Chitambo is the Head Archivist at Liliesleaf. The heritage centre is now a site of memory dedicated to the vast and diverse histories that speak to South Africa’s liberation struggle. Ivy’s passion for the preservation of history, culture and storytelling stems from her tertiary education in Information and Knowledge Management at the University of Johannesburg, along with the grim realisation of what can be lost if concerted efforts to proudly tell and protect the stories that define our history aren’t frequently practised.


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