Opinionista Omar Badsha 13 July 2020

Holding on to history: SA History Online under threat as Covid-19 diverts funding

The largest independent online history project in Africa, South African History Online, has played a pioneering role in promoting a new people’s history as well as history education. But the 20-year-old project needs more support if it is to survive.

As a small boy growing up in a Gujarati Muslim family, whose grandparents had immigrated to South Africa from India in the late 1890s, I spent many hours listening to the stories of my grandmother in our home in Durban, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). Bedridden, but with a glow of recollection in her eyes, she would relate tales of her early life in that western Indian state, with its seaports and ancient dynasties.

Later in the 1970s, I began working with the General Factory Workers Benefit Fund, the Institute of Industrial Education and trade unions. We ran evening classes for the new union leadership on topics such as working-class struggles and worker rights. Of course, we turned to history to explain segregation and inequality and so we developed an alternative history curriculum to what was being presented by the apartheid state.

More than two decades ago, the same challenges we faced then led me to establish the South African History Online (SAHO) project. We set this up with our own resources in 1998 and registered it as a non-profit Section 21 company in June 2000.

Our mission was to address the biased way in which the historical and cultural heritage of South Africa and the continent had been represented to date. We were committed to reaching out to academic, heritage and community groups in our own country and the rest of Africa to compile a new people’s history. 

From the outset, we wanted to promote history among young people and to support the learning and teaching of the subject at schools and universities. We were the first in South Africa to offer, online, the new history curriculum. We were also aware that many young people were not studying history and the humanities. We realised that we needed to work closely with the Department of Basic Education (DBE) and our higher education institutions to promote history. We were also mindful that unless people understood this, the country would find it very difficult to train a new generation that wanted to implement a developmental state.

With minimal resources, we initially began working from home and then in a space that the University of South Africa (Unisa) provided free. We drew on the expertise of young students and Information Technology specialists for assistance. Many, who joined us as researchers, have gone on to obtain their PhDs, becoming senior researchers, archivists and lecturers. One of the most successful programmes we run is the Partnership and Student Internship Programme. Since 2012, SAHO has taken on over 160 PhD, masters and undergraduate students, local and international, as interns.

We currently have eight full-time and three part-time staff, but, in reality, require twice the number that we presently employ. We are fortunate that we have student interns who now produce two-thirds of our articles and run our community oral history and classroom programmes.

SAHO is now the largest independent, online history project on the African continent. Our archive offers more than 50,000 documents, videos and images. Last year alone, 6.4 million people accessed our website. SAHO has changed how history is taught and all our articles are linked in real-time to journal articles, videos, archival material and newspaper coverage. Material from the SAHO site is quoted in academic and journal articles. When the newly established Sol Plaatje University opened in Kimberley (Northern Cape), their history and heritage courses were run using the SAHO website.

Much of our work has been supported by funders — initially BP South Africa and later by organisations such as the National Lotteries Commission, the Ford Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. We cannot thank them enough.

However, funding is drying up due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Several supporters are re-allocating funding that was earmarked for our projects, to humanitarian relief work. We now find ourselves in a terribly precarious situation, paying half-salaries to our staff. We are considering closing our offices and moving to smaller premises and are now working on a month-to-month basis.

We currently have eight full-time and three part-time staff, but, in reality, require twice the number that we presently employ. We are fortunate that we have student interns who now produce two-thirds of our articles and run our community oral history and classroom programmes.

SAHO, because of its massive readership, gets on average 10 people contacting us daily with queries or sending us material which needs to be edited, verified and uploaded.

We have had a long-standing relationship with South African and international universities and we have initiated a dialogue with the university management of the Universities of Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria and other universities to work on partnership agreements where we undertake joint research, and also to approach funders. This initiative will take some time to put into operation, but in the short term, we need the support of the government, foundations, business and the public to help us continue with our work.

The SAHO project offers much and has also provided personal lessons. Not least, I have come to appreciate the depth of the emotional scars that apartheid has left us with. Daily, we have people who have lost family members come to us as they try to find out what happened to parents and siblings in the liberation Struggle.

For example, I was recently contacted by a young woman born in Zambia; her mother was Zambian, her father a South African exile who died when she was six. She wanted to meet his family and to find out more about his role in the liberation Struggle. SAHO has inherited the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and we need support to continue the unfinished work of the commission.

SAHO has had so much support over the years, from funders and those who have freely given of their time. We are now reaching out again for assistance to continue offering our services at no charge. More than ever, we need to be able to understand our past if we are to make sense of the present. DM

See a five-minute video on SAHO here. To read more about the work of SAHO click here. If you want to donate click here. If you want to contribute articles, fundraise or do research for us, please contact Omar Badsha at [email protected]

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