Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

English Literature in Southern Africa: Nelm at 30(1)

Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

English Literature in Southern Africa: Nelm at 30(1)

Article excerpt


The National English Literary Museum champions the cause of the humane values such as tolerance, acceptance and inclusivity so nobly and memorably embodied in our literature. All South Africans who write creatively and imaginatively in English have a place in our museum, irrespective of their origin, mother tongue, personal convictions or age. Furthermore, all South Africans appreciate the significance of this body of work and its contribution to world literature.


To maintain and extend the nation's leading collection of southern African English literary heritage and to serve as a source of expertise through exemplary research, conservation, exhibitions and public programmes.

The National English Literary Museum (NELM) is one of South Africa's greatest treasures (website: http:/ / Tucked away in the university town of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, NELM collects all creative writing by southern African authors who write in English, and in the following genres: novels, short stories, plays, essays, poetry, theatre, television and film scripts, autobiography, travel, letters, memoirs and diaries. Critical writing on the authors and their works is also collected, as well as writings on related subjects such as literary history, censorship and literary awards. These materials are collected in all formats: books, study guides, theses, literary manuscripts, press clippings and audio-visual material.

This article will provide an overview of NELM's history, its collections, research and outreach programmes, satellite museums and finally, a look to the future.

NELM's beginnings

Nothing much, if anything, had been done about collecting and conserving South African literature in English until 1960, when a professor from Texas visited South Africa and, with considerable success, persuaded some local writers to donate or sell their literary manuscripts to his library. One of the collections of manuscripts which ended up in American hands was that of Herman Charles Bosman. Professor Guy Butler, himself a noted author and the major force behind the drive to teach South African literature at university level, organised a counter-offensive and in 1972 Rhodes University's Institute for the Study of English in Africa sponsored the foundation of the Thomas Pringle Collection for English in Africa, with the express purpose of collecting books and manuscripts illustrating the role of English as a language of South Africa. Many literary friends of Butler contributed their manuscripts, typescripts, scrapbooks, press-clippings and other memorabilia to this project. In July 1974 the National English Documentation Centre was established as an independent body. This then became the National English Literary Museum and Documentation Centre and in 1980, the National English Literary Museum (NELM) became a Declared Cultural Institution under the national government.

NELM also collects English literature and criticism about that literature from South Africa's neighbours: Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland. This provides a unique perspective on the region as a whole and on the way in which citizens of these countries interact with and are influenced by each other. Many overseas authors have set works in the region, thus providing a unique "outsider" perspective on southern Africa and her diverse cultures. These works also form part of the collection.

Although many continue to believe that NELM's focus is on the writings of 1820 Settlers and their descendants, the truth is very different. Literary materials are collected without regard to the race, age, gender, social standing, academic qualifications, political or religious views of the authors. And no judgements are made regarding the quality of the material: if it has a South African connection and is published in English, NELM staff will try to obtain a copy. Translations into English from other South African languages are also kept. …

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