The Southern African Historical Society biennial meeting displayed dynamism, renewed energy, and increasing interest in digital initiatives.
Scholarly society meetings have a routine. Even without looking at the program, you know what to expect. The attractions of camaraderie, connection with colleagues, and a smattering of provocative new papers outweigh the formality of panels and predictable plenary sessions. Last week’s biennial meeting of the SAHS defied old stereotypes and exceeded conventional expectations. The constellation of individuals, institutional presence, and publications showcased innovative scholarship, new initiatives, provocative thinking, and commitment to making historical research relevant in both public and academic contexts.
Formal remarks and casual conversations emphasized the symbolic and practical importance of renaming the group the Southern African Historical Society, signaling ongoing attempts to re-situate South Africa in the region—and by implication in the wider world.
The meeting, hosted by UNISA in Pretoria, ended a week ago, and my agenda since then has been crammed with new research, lots of meetings, and learning to navigate Johannesburg. And yet, I’m still thinking about this meeting, and how inspirational it was. I was motivated by coming into contact with energy, dynamism and renewed commitment to studying a wide range of issues that illuminate the Southern African past.
Although I encountered familiar faces, this was not the SAHS meeting of years past. There were many new participants: post-graduate students working at honors, masters, and PhD levels in Southern Africa, the UK, and the US. There were also presenters from Zimbabwe, Botswana, the UK, Canada, and the US, as well as more South Africans of color—students and faculty—than I remember from previous years.
It’s impossible to summarize the contents of a full program that ran three parallel panels per session; one person will always miss more papers than one can take in. But given conversations that I heard in several specialized panels, it seems that the plenary roundtable on “Interrogating the Archive: Problems and Possibilities,” resonated across thematic, spatial, and temporal boundaries, prompting conversations that will continue beyond the conference, into new research and new popular/political initiatives. At least one can hope.
The people of Southern Africa are creating change faster than many observers can register the ongoing transformations and digest their importance. Consequently, ensuring the preservation of records, cataloging what’s available, and securing transparent access for scholars and members of the public remains incredibly important, as is ongoing discussion of the multiplicity and centrality of “archives” to public life.
To that end, the on-line Archives Platform launched by Harriet Deacon on server space at the University of Cape Town should prove invaluable for local heritage activists, scholars in the region, and scholars from further afield who are interested in aspects of African studies and/or the changing terrain of digital scholarship. If you’d like to subscribe to the Archives Platform newsletter, contact harriet at conjunction dot co dot za.
It was also heartening to see a plenary session devoted to Zotero. The possibilities of ground-up collaborations to create shared catalogs of archival records, digital resources, and essential reading lists bodes well for current students and scholars alike. It seems a particularly rich field for current graduate students, who can create intellectual collaborations regardless of location and without the need for travel to bridge the distance between the main training locations in South Africa, the UK, and the US.
Jane Carruthers re-instituted the practice of a presidential address; she used the opportunity to encourage academic historians to take a more active role in public debates about heritage and history in Southern Africa, saying, “History does not have sole rights on the past.” She also reflected on historiographical turning points—a clear reminder that we’re empowered to make our own histogriographical moments, and current political fluidity offers ample opportunities.
Keynote speaker William Beinart provoked conference delegates to think beyond the nationalist narratives that have predominated in South African history, drawing upon the practices of African history, social history, and environmental history to craft new narratives “from the ground up.”
Given the enthusiasm of conference delegates, the dedication to the profession and the Society in evidence among the new slate of officers and executive committee members, and an enlarged editorial team ready to make the most of the South African Historical Journal’s new on-line presence through Taylor & Francis, we all have a lot to look forward to during the two years until the next SAHS meeting.