The Ash Heap of History: Reflections on Historical Research in Southern Africa

By Edgar, Robert | African Studies Quarterly, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Ash Heap of History: Reflections on Historical Research in Southern Africa


Edgar, Robert, African Studies Quarterly


Abstract: When I began conducting research as a graduate student in southern Africa in 1973, I was following in the wake of an intrepid group of American scholars--Gwendolyn Carter, Tom Karis, Dan Johns and Gail Gerhart--who were amassing a remarkable collection of documents on the South African freedom struggle for their From Protest to Challenge (1972-1977) series. They challenged archival/library research that favored government or establishment sources by creating an alternative archive that laid the foundation for reconstructing modern South Africa's freedom struggle. My own experience with documentary collecting on political and religious movements over the past three decades has been unconventional to say the least--and has even involved sifting through dustbins to retrieve documents. Because of my extended relationships with individuals, groups, and communities, my own efforts at documentary collection and retrieval have yielded totally unexpected and often surprising results. This essay is a reflection on the methodology of documentary collection with a focus on two case studies from the eastern Cape: 1) the discovery and return of the long-lost Ark of the Covenant of the Israelite church group and 2) the search for the burial site of the African woman prophet Nontetha in Pretoria and the return and reburial of her remains at her home.

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In 1980, I was conducting research in Lesotho on Lekhotla la Bafo (LLB), a Basotho anti-colonial movement that had been the precursor of the modern political party, the Basotho Congress Party (BCP). A decade earlier, the BCP was on its way to winning the country's first post-independence election when Prime Minister Leabua Jonathan declared the election results null and void. After the BCP staged an abortive coup in 1973, many BCP leaders fled into exile and any group linked to it in any fashion was targeted for retribution by the Jonathan regime. Hence, when I began interviewing the elderly members of Lekhotla la Bafo, they were naturally reluctant to divulge much. In one case, a person closed all the curtains and doors in his home before he spoke to me. Shortly after that encounter, I stumbled across rich source material when another historian and I located a LLB veteran, Hlakane Mokhithi, on the outskirts of Maputsoe. Although Mokhithi's memory had dimmed, he was willing to share a document that he had preserved for decades. He rummaged in an ash-heap in the burnt-out shell of a building and pulled out a piece of piece of plastic sheeting wrapped around a hand-written notebook of LLB songs. [1] This was a major find since members had not been willing to sing any of their songs to me. [2]

During the decades that I have been researching history in southern Africa, I experienced many other occasions when I retrieved evidence through persistently digging through other kinds of ash heaps. Whether in Lesotho or South Africa, I operated in a super-charged political environment in which I had to develop instincts and skills--not taught in the classroom--for tracking down new sources of documentation in unorthodox ways and places and coping sensitively and tactfully with a basic reality--that the "politics of inequality," as Gwendolyn Carter put it, erected barriers that impinged on all research undertakings.

For example, many Africans had an absolute skepticism of any researcher--especially a white researcher--who came into their lives. Based on long and painful experiences with political authority, their assumption was that anyone asking questions was not likely to be gathering evidence that would benefit them. There was not much I could do to overcome this stigma except to be honest and forthright and hope that with time people would begin to trust and open up to me. In some cases that took a long time. One schoolteacher who assisted me in the Ciskei and Transkei in 1974 told me years later that he had remained skeptical of me for months and kept a close eye on my behavior before he began to trust me. …

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