Every Archive Has Its Limitations: In Conversation with Wanelisa Xaba

Wanelisa Xaba’s beautiful and crucial intervention on responses to the fire that destroyed the University of ¬¬Cape Town’s (UCT) African Studies Library, published on Culture Review (The Black Body As A Moving Ancestral Archive ), encourages us to think more critically about what we consider to be an archive and our relationship to archives held in “spiritually dark institutions” such as the university. To redirect what she considers to be the Black middle class’ wasted tears over the material lost in the fire, Wanelisa mounts an argument about the body as a “moving ancestral archive” and how each one of us possesses physical features that are evidence of our lineage. For her, it is the shape of her father’s forehead that reminds her that she is herself an “archive of many archives”. Lianne La Havas’ Green and Gold in which she sings about her mother’s homeland, Jamaica came to mind:

Those eyes you gave to me
That let me see
Where I come from

By dismissing the contents of the archive lost in the fire that engulfed the African Studies Library, Wanelisa manages to not only decentralise the institution’s place as a custodian of the archive, but to also firmly present archives as ubiquitous and part of everyday life - as intimate and accessible, literally under one’s nose or on one’s forehead in her case. On this score, I am reading her alongside Kholeka Shange whose PhD touches on kists, room dividers and displays which are typically found in township homes as repositories of photographic archives and other family documents kept by our mothers and grandmothers especially1 . Both Wanelisa’s article and Kholeka’s thesis diminish whatever reverence one might have for university archives and instead implore us to look at ourselves and our surroundings a little closer.

South African pianist Nduduzo Makhathini characterises the university as “a space that does not listen to its surrounding”2 , if that is indeed the case, then UCT and other universities cannot be trusted to keep archives in ways that are fully attentive to the histories of Black communities without reproducing colonial narratives and practices. Wanelisa’s instinct to dismiss the fire and focus instead on how archives exist in myriad ways that one might overlook, is therefore important within the broader context of decolonisation.

I am not however, convinced that one can ignore the archival material in such institutions and rely solely on corporeal or spiritual archival content. All archives have their limitations, and one must work with the constraints and possibilities presented by different kinds of archives. For instance, unlike Wanelisa, I do not know what my father’s forehead looks like. As hard as I try to conjure him up in my mind’s eye, I cannot seem to settle on a clear image that I am confident is the right one. When I brush my teeth in front of the mirror, I try to recall whether he has a subtle overbite like me or perhaps izixhobo3 jutting out from either side of his mouth. In the two times I have met him as an adult I did not get impassioned accusations of being his doppelganger from family members. My mother does not have a convincing claim on my face either. The only time I am reminded that we have similar traits is when I call my grandmother, who is a bit hard of hearing, and she confuses my voice with my mom’s and says, “Yhu, ayafana ke amazwi enu, yaz’ ba ndicinga ungu Feziwe”.

Wanelisa is fortunate to have known her father intimately enough to be able to recognise him when she looks at herself in the mirror, but what of us whose fathers are absent? Of course this is not to say that I have no other means of gaining deeper understanding of who I am in relation to my people due to my father’s absence but my wayward genes present an obstacle to how I can read my body as a text that carries archival clues.

Interestingly, what I share with Wanelisa is that we can both trace our lineage to Basotho, but unlike her, I did not learn of this through a dream of one of my ancestors. Acclaimed author Zakes Mda makes reference to Basotho who migrated southwards and settled in parts of what is now the Eastern Cape in previous centuries in his historical novel, Little Suns. Of course, had I been paying any attention to my mother’s clan name, I would have realised that it carries this knowledge because she is Umvundle, Ubhayi, Ukhetshe, Umsuthu. As historian Nomathamsanqa Tisani says, “When one [recites family genealogies] ezithutha, they revisit their elders because elders are archives, they pass knowledge and help create new knowledge”4 .

In his acknowledgments, Mda mentions his reliance on oral history as a critical source but also on archives and libraries in Makanda. While I have not visited any university archives in recent years, I rely heavily on the likes of Mda who do. I cannot imagine what the work of Noni Jabavu scholars, Makhosazana Xaba and Athambile Masola, for instance, could have possibly been without their use of similar archives and relevant additional sources they could find. How deprived might we have been had Maaza Mengiste not had access to the photographs of the Italo-Ethiopian War that she brought to life in her novel, The Shadow King? These are but a few examples of how some of these archives, as problematic as they might be, contain critical material that deepens our understanding of our history.

It is beautiful that Wanelisa has such a close relationship with her ancestors who visit her through dreams that carry messages about her family history. The manner in which she centralises African spirituality in the conversation about archives is a productive contribution towards broadening the definition of what constitutes an archive and forces us to “acknowledge spirituality as part of knowledge making between the living and non-living” as Babalwa Magoqwana would say5 .

However, drawing from a recent statement that Wanelisa posted on her Facebook account, which I shared because she has a gift of analysis and articulation that makes many feel represented, she bemoaned the manner in which ukuthwasa is seen by some as a trend. This is hardly surprising considering the ways in which colonialism repressed African spirituality and knowledge systems. The reality is that while there has been a resurgence of African spirituality in recent years, many Black people remain alienated from their ancestors. Without a consciousness of one’s underground gang and the messages they might be communicating through dreams, those rich archival treasures might be lost for some.

As one of the people who was sad about the destruction of parts of the African Studies Library, I am not deluded about UCT’s past and present in relation to Black people and communities. I want to assure Wanelisa that when I came to learn of the archives burning, I was not on some, “massa is our library burning?” tip. Instead, I was mourning the loss of archival documents that have been lost to this generation and future generations who might also be as alienated from their history as I have been. As Angelo Fick wrote in an article about the poor state of archives in the country:

“The archive is not a luxury in a society with the traumatic history that South Africa has. It is an essential treasure, which we have to preserve. Archives contain the documents and artifacts which gainsay the distortions to which various actors in a society may wish to subject our understanding of the past and the present. The record may be discomforting, but it allows for some semblance of truth to be maintained in the face of “alternative facts”, or the reconstruction of the past and the present for political benefit, corporate profit, or opportunistic incitement”.

If the record is discomforting then the question is how do we sit with that discomfort rather than being blasé about the destruction of certain archives? If an archive does nothing but bring anger and pain to Black people, then there is no doubt in my mind that it should be destroyed. I recently visited the Phansi Museum in Durban and for me, the mannequins held captive and swinging like strange fruit in that space are disturbing and deserving of destruction. The trouble is when the relationship to an archive is a little more complicated than that in the sense that while some discoveries may open wounds that have not quite healed, in another way the very same archive can be a source of healing and restoration even if all healing is temporary for us in anti-Black world 6 .

In a recent virtual discussion about music and decolinisation , jazz historian Lindelwa Dalamba in a brief reference to the UCT fire reminded those listening that, “no archive is perennial” and therefore we have the responsibility to continuously think about how to preserve different kinds of archives. It is for this reason that Wanelisa’s theorisation about archives deserves our attention. Not only that but last weekend, I spent a lot of time turning Wanelisa’s ideas over in my mind and shared her argument with a close friend who had come to visit me. She stood in the bathroom watching me as I lathered my body with soap and went on and on about Wanelisa’s stimulating article. At some point I looked up to find my friend’s eyes welling up with tears. “Hay’ ntombi, what’s wrong?” I asked. “I miss my dad”, she said, studying her face in the mirror. Like Wanelisa’s dad, hers is also an ancestor in another world, a generous and blossoming archive.

Ncebakazi Manzi is a writer, composer and singer-songwriter based in Johannesburg. She launched her blog, Usiba Luyadala, in September 2020

1 Kholeka Shange’s thesis is titled: Ngiphathel’ uGubhu Lwam’ Ekhaya Lapha, Mnawami! UMntwana UMagogo and the Photographic Image
2Ndunduzo Makhathini was speaking at the Township Studies Symposium (May 2021)
3 Inspired by the likes of Athambile Masola and Kholeka Shange, I use isiXhosa throughout the piece without italicising it or translating it because English fails to capture certain meanings or the flair of our languages. I believe the meaning is not lost in any of these instances and the reader, whatever their first language, should be able to follow.
4Quoted in Babalwa Magoqwana’s chapter titled, “Repositioning uMakhulu as an Institution of Knowledge” in the book, Whose History Counts: Decolonising African Pre-colonial Historiography, 2018.
5Taken from the same chapter above
6A conversation with my sister, Funeka, during the UCT fire, helped me think about the complicated and sometimes contradictory relationship to archives