Narratives from The Apartheid Archive, Historical Papers, University of Witwatersrand

Narratives from The Apartheid Archive, Historical Papers, University of Witwatersrand

The Apartheid Archive

The Apartheid Archive is a research project concerned with the narratives of ‘ordinary people’ regarding their experiences of living in South Africa’s apartheid system. The project’s collection of different groups of narratives, interviews and ancillary materials is available electronically on the website of Historical Papers at the University of Witwatersrand and also ‘on paper’ in the archive. Electronically, it can be accessed at

The Apartheid Archive  has been explored in relation to Whites Writing Whiteness by researching its core 66 written narrative accounts, received as the result of a public call for submissions, as a data-set. The WWW database on this records the meta-data and other key aspects of each narrative related to WWW research, and provides live-links to the full narratives on the Wits Historical Papers webpages. The structure and coverage of the project and the reasons for the inclusion of its narratives in WWW research are detailed below.

WWW research and the 1950s on

Because factors around the collection policies of archives and the political transition of South Africa, collections containing family materials including letters written in the period after approximately the 1950s are notable mainly for their absence from its archives. The focus has been on safeguarding survival of the papers of radical groups and organisations and such things as trial records concerned with the political struggle. A by-product is that other and more ordinary kinds of collections have been unattended to or if collected then buried in the uncatalogued and so inaccessible holdings of libraries and archives. Consequently exploring shifts in letter-writing practices as an index of social changes occurring in the 1950s through the 1970s – a period of highly consequential political and other changes in South Africa – has not been fully possible for this later period. WWW research has therefore responded to the methodological and analytical issues arising in three interconnected ways.

Firstly, it has included collections containing letter-writing for the period from the 1930s on, even though these may not have more fully multi-generational contents, so as to ensure there is as much epistolary content for this later period as possible given the structural issues. It has also drawn on related forms of representation, including photographs and communicative exchanges in narrative accounts. Thus the second response of WWW research has been to use such materials to explore the events around, during and in the aftermaths of the political violence associated with the Sharpeville, Soweto and Marikana massacres and some earlier similar events, as peak ‘moments’ and key events both signalling and propelling change of a momentous and ‘grand narrative’ kind. And thirdly, another trajectory for WWW work has been to explore the narrative accounts of how people experienced and understood ordinary everyday life under apartheid which have been made available through the electronic publication of research materials collected by researchers associated with ‘The Apartheid Archive’.

The Apartheid Archive project

The Apartheid Archive project was established in 2008 to explore the complex relationships existing between apartheid as a system of institutionalised racism and its effects on memory, identity and subjectivity, which can potentially produce a kind of collective amnesia about the apartheid era. It has collected narratives of ‘ordinary’ everyday experiences in apartheid times, doing so within a psychosocial framework and focusing on the stories and narrative accounts of people from those sections of society whose experiences are not often part of historical accounts. As well as recording these accounts, the project engages with them analytically and theoretically in enquiries of different kinds, and making these accounts available electronically to other researchers has been part of its invitation to collective engagement.

A large number of researchers have been involved with the project and an array of publications have resulted, which within its broad psychsocial framework has included some different interpretations of the narrative materials. In a key publications from the project, Stevens, Duncan and Hook (2013: 10) note that some of the narratives have received more attention and discussion than others and that ‘there is perhaps a difference of approach here between a broad-based sociological perspective drawing on a wide frame of data and a more iterative in-depth approach prioritising  certain over-determined facets of the data and progressively working through them’. [see Garth Stevens, Norman Duncan & Derek Hook,ads 2013. Race, Memory and The Apartheid Archive. Basingstoke: Palsgrave Macmillan.]

A distinction between the broad-based and the iterative and in-depth is not in fact the basis of differences between sociology and socio-psychology (which lies in how interiority is conceived), and nor is there any necessary methodological separation between the broad-based and iterative either (for these can be combined). However, Apartheid Archive narratives have not yet been fully analysed as a data-set by giving attention to patterns across the entirety of the materials collected, rather than focusing on selective narratives (for instance, over a third of them are undiscussed in Stevens et al 2013). Thus another purpose of providing a portal to the Apartheid Archive narratives within the framework of a WWW database is to encourage treating these as an interconnected set of documents, produced within the same framework by people who received the same guidance as to the purposes of the project and the same implicit as well as explicit messages about the shaping of what they might write. It is, then, to take up the invitation to a collective engagement made by The Apartheid Archive researchers and through the WWW research to introduce them to additional research networks.

The collection

The structure of materials in The Apartheid Archive collection is as follows:

A. Project history
B. Narratives

Public submissions (66)
Student narratives (38)

C. Interviews (16)
D. Conferences
E. Conference photographic materials

The public submissions and student narratives and also the transcripts of the interviews noted here can be accessed electronically.

WWW research focuses upon the public submissions, because the basis of The Apartheid Archive project was its conception around a concern with the hidden histories of sections of the population whose accounts do not often become part of the historical record and these were solicited as written submissions. As a consequence, these are narratives with some letter-like aspects, for they were written as responses to a communicative call, and have implicit in them that there is an external addressee they were written for and sent to. The student narratives, while interesting, are by a more homogeneous group of people and more importantly were occasioned in a different way. Thus the WWW focus is on the public submissions as a set with some shared structural aspects.

Some key aspects of the narratives

  • Participants were requested to provide accounts of their earliest memories of apartheid; and while most do this in a straightforward way, some recognise that there was ‘before’ in which things happened and were experienced by them but were not put together and named as being offensive or inappropriate, and others also recognise links with wider political circumstances than their own specific memories.
  • The memories which people accounted for involve a variety of different specific circumstances, with a number of participants noting that what is called memory is constituted from a situation and a context.
  • What was ‘first ‘in terms of these accounts was impacted by the age at which the particular memory that stuck in the mind had occurred, so in some narratives this was when participants were very young, while for others it was in early adulthood.
  • The memories narrated range from those that were large and violent, such as the events at Soweto and the use of batons to police segregation in public spaces, to abusive encounters and the use of racist terms, to lower key occurrences which cumulatively caught a raw nerve.
  • There were some systematic differences, depending on whether the narrators are black, coloured or white. For black people, the memories were usually of external events and people impinging on their lives and how they felt about themselves; for people in coloured groups there were often negative experiences within families; while white people sometimes experienced vague terrors about ‘them’ or them as terrorists, or felt guilt including about their own tacit complicity in apartheid practices and policies.
  • State and other kinds of violence, both formal and informal forms of segregation, the use of racial insults and particularly offensive words, endemic poverty and systematic deprivation in rural areas, black townships and the former ‘homelands’, were all seen as part of apartheid as a system.
  • There were differences of experiences and responses within the black, coloured and white communities, as well as between them. The range of black responses noted includes perplexed shame, growing political consciousness and involvement, anger, and ‘impotence’ around an exaggerated masculinity.
  • Changes in people’s experiences and also in how they felt about themselves were mentioned as having occurred over time. Soweto as a watershed and its aftermath, the period before the Soweto events, changes occurring during the 1990s, and post-1994 changes alongside the continuation of much racism, were all noted.
  • There are interesting aspects of these narrative accounts with regard to whiteness specifically, including the prevalence of white guilt and its inappropriateness and difficulties in finding more appropriate forms of response.

Last updated: 5 March 2017


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