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Archive for the ‘Non-fiction’ Category

Video: Penny Siopis Discusses Her First Retrospective Exhibition

Penny SiopisOne of South Africa’s most influential artists, Penny Siopis, speaks about the importance of the concept of time in her work.

A current retrospective exhibition of Siopis work, Time and Again, which opens to the public at the Iziko South African National Gallery on 18 December, coincides with the publication of Penny Siopis: Time and Again, which was edited by Gerrit Olivier.

Siopis says the exhibition reflects time with respect to “looking back” on her life’s work, but also her personal perspective and exploration of time, both as subject matter and as a medium.

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Excerpt from Forgotten World: Mpumalanga’s Extraordinary Archaeological Phenomena

Forgotten WorldHeritage Portal has shared an excerpt from a landmark new Wits University Press title, Forgotten World: The Stone Walled Settlements of the Mpumalanga Escarpment by Alex Schoeman, Peter Delius and Tim Maggs.

The book focuses on the stone walled settlements of the Mpumalanga Escarpment, stretching from Ohrigstad in the north via Lydenburg and Machadodorp to Carolina in the south.

Very few people know much about these settlements, how and when they were created, and why today they are deserted and largely ignored. A long tradition of archaeological work which might provide some of the answers remains cloistered in universities. The ensuing knowledge vacuum has been filled by a wide variety of exotic explanations – invoking ancient settlers from India or even visitors from outer space – that share a common assumption that Africans were too primitive to have created such elaborate and complex stone structures.

At the recent launch of the book, Sekibakiba Lekgoathu, head of the Wits History Department, described the book as a major achievement in documenting part of the precolonial history of African societies.

Read the excerpt, which explains something of these settlements, “one of the most extraordinary archaeological and historical phenomena in southern Africa”:


“If you drive through Mpumalanga – perhaps on your way to Nelspruit or the Kruger National Park – and look carefully out at the land, you could see something remarkable. Once you leave the vast expanses of the highveld you descend into the rolling hills and open valleys of the escarpment. The changing seasonal hues of the mountain slopes are dotted with clusters of evergreen trees and darkly forested kloofs. If you keep a close eye on the landscape flashing by you will see fragments – large and small – of building in stone, near the sides of the road and further away on the hills above you and the valleys below. Once your curiosity is pricked you may find that wherever you look you will see sections of stone walling breaking the grass cover, and kilometre after kilometre of stone ridging traversing the hillsides. If you were to fly over the area in a small plane you would be amazed by the endless stone circles, set in bewildering mazes and linked by long stone passages, that cover the landscape below. In some places the coverage is quite sparse and intermittent but in others it is dense, continuous and intricate. If you study the views provided by Google Earth and focus on the ghostly circles that cover the landscape you may get a sense of the extent of the heartland of this world, which stretched from Ohrigstad to Carolina and connected over 10 000 square kilometres of the Mpumalanga escarpment into a complex web of stone-walled structures.

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Jeff Guy Argues that Entrenched Rights for Traditional Leaders are not Historically Valid

Theophilus Shepstone and the Forging of NatalJeff Guy, historian and author of Theophilus Shepstone and the Forging of Natal, commented on the Traditional Courts Bill, which was introduced in 2012 but lapsed earlier this year.

In an article about customary law and the application thereof for the Daily News, Chris Pieters wrote: “Noted historian Jeff Guy hopes that the next version is drafted with adherence to human rights and equality as well a comprehensive understanding of what it means to be a person.”

During a panel discussion on land reform and traditional leadership Guy argued that the move to give more power to traditional leaders is not steeped in custom or tradition. According to the article, traditional leaders or chiefs are artificial constructs put in place by the apartheid regime, which the current government has not sought to abolish.

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Under apartheid, chiefs were appointed to the people and they stood as representatives of a flawed regime.

The current ruling party has endeavoured to develop this system by entrenching corrupted versions of customary institutions, which may have the effect of creating parallel sovereign traditional states.

The bill, rumour has it, will be reintroduced before year’s end. Guy notes that the Traditional Leader and Governance Framework Act allows for the recognition of chiefs as traditional institutions. It further emphasises the recognition of tribes and identifies the elite to govern them.

At the September Land Summit, organised by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, the rural representatives made it clear that “tribalism” is to be abolished under land tenure policy. The proposed policy, fiercely advocated by the department, seeks to transfer ownership of land in communal areas to traditional councils. This could ultimately mitigate any land claims disputes between the elite and the destitute.

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Gabeba Baderoon Calls on South Africa to Remember Slavery, 180 Years Since it Was Abolished

Regarding MuslimsWhat is Slavery to Me?Gabeba Baderoon has written an article for Africa is a Country about the legacy of slavery in South Africa today.

1 December was World Aids Day, but also marked 180 years since slavery was abolished in South Africa. Baderoon says “few remember” that apartheid was built on the system of slavery, and asks: “How will we remember its legacy this month?”

Baderoon says “the legacy of slavery still permeates South Africa today”, and mentions Zoë Wicomb, as well as Pumla Gqola’s What Is Slavery To Me? Postcolonial/Slave Memory in Post-apartheid South Africa, which she calls a “superb and ground-breaking study” that “takes up the challenge of articulating the pertinence of this period for the present”.

Baderoon’s own most recent book, Regarding Muslims: From slavery to post-apartheid, examines the role of slavery in shaping South Africa’s notion of race and sex.

Baderoon stresses that extreme violence – especially sexual violence – was the norm under slavery:

Seen in this light, the slave-holding period is the primal scene for understanding racial and sexual codes in South Africa, and our lack of attention to slavery prevents us from understanding a foundational time in our history. What do we miss by doing so? The historian Robert Ross writes that “throughout the 180 years of slavery at the Cape, not a single man, slave or free, was convicted for raping a slave woman.” The scale of such sexual violence is part of the reason that South Africa continues to experience epidemic levels of sexual violence today. Because of the high proportion of male slaves to male colonists, colonial society at the Cape had an intense fear of slave resistance and consequently slaves were disciplined through “the massive use of judicial force” (Ross, 1983, 2) and “violent and extreme” punishment (Worden, 1985, 4). It is striking that a system characterized by such brutal control was portrayed as mild and picturesque.

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Kylie Thomas Launches Impossible Mourning with Ingrid de Kok and Keguro Macharia

Kylie Thomas

The launch of Kylie Thomas’ Impossible Mourning offered book lovers an intellectual feast at a pack out Kalk Bay Books late last month.

Those who gathered with an ear for poetry and a heart for the fascinating and deep debate that the book evokes were not disappointed. They benefited from a topical and relevant discussion about how those who live with HIV/Aids are often rendered invisible by the media.

Thomas was joined in conversation by Kenyan writer, activist and academic Keguro Macharia. They spoke about how South Africa denies the devastation caused by the disease and how this makes mourning the loss and suffering wrought by the disease impossible. Impossible Mourning is a look at the representation of HIV/Aids and South Africa’s response to it in visual culture.

Ingrid de KokImpossible MourningThe first part of the evening commenced with a welcome for the well-known and highly regarded poet Ingrid de Kok. Thomas acknowledged and thanked her for her generous support over many years. De Kok read a series of powerful and disturbing poems, some of which were written during the worst time of the Mbeki era. “Compassion Leave” explored those who travel across the country to bury their Aids dead.

“Child at the Lights” brought to awareness the plight of the Aids orphans and their “clamourous hands” grasping toward those who might throw them a coin. The next poem shone light on the plight of child-headed households. “Women and Children First” narrates the “first to be hurt/last to be nursed” nature of violence against women and children and the devastating course wrought by the disease on them.

De Kok praised Thomas’ courage in writing the book, and her persistence in staying with the story. “She always making things purer and more complicated,” she said. Her final poem, “Body Maps”, was De Kok’s own response to the Visual Body Maps project, which she described as evoking complex responses. She hoped it still resonated despite the critique that developed around it.

Kylie Thomas and Keguro MachariaMacharia read a short extract from the work, which was a harrowing expression of the significance of mourning the loss of the dead. The act of mourning constitutes the self as one recognises one’s indebtedness to the other. The death of others is experienced potentially as a loss of oneself. Failing to mourn the death of the other means that the death goes unmarked, neglects to recognise the value of their life; it is also to disavow the relation between self and other and the recognition of how that life and death is bound to one’s own.

Thomas reflected on the length of the project, which took more than 10 years to appear in print. “That makes it hard to sum it up in a sentence or two,” she said. “At one point I thought the moment for the book had passed, as it was written in an intense fury. People living with HIV and dying of Aids were dying without treatment. Yet, I took comfort when I was told that the book is timely because so much about this topic has become invisible and forgotten. It’s important that the discussion of this topic is brought back into circulation.”

Thomas spoke of the various ways that mourning occurs, in private and as a collective encounter, taking place and creating communities. “However, the collective experience can’t happen properly in the South African context now, because of the divisions and separations that remain in post-apartheid South Africa. There’s been a massive disavowal and denial of the losses of Aids. That’s led to many terrible things for individuals who are cast out of their homes and left to die alone.”

She hoped that the book would enable a more human response and discussed her understanding of the challenges inherent in that. The evening finished with a potent performance by Siphokazi Jonas of her own daring poetry that addresses the issues raised by the discussions of the evening.

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Liesl Jobson (@liesljobson) tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks:


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Join Alex Schoeman for the Launch of Forgotten World in Nelspruit

Forgotten World launch

Forgotten World: The Stone Walled Settlements of the Mpumalanga EscarpmentWits University Press and Exclusive Books Nelspruit would like to invite you to the launch of Forgotten World: The Stone Walled Settlements of the Mpumalanga Escarpment.

Alex Schoeman, one of the book’s authors, will be speaking about the book.

The launch will be at Exclusive Books Nelspruit on Tuesday, 9 December, at 5:30 for 6 PM.

Don’t miss it!

Event Details

  • Date: Tuesday, 9 December 2014
  • Time: 5:30 PM for 6 PM
  • Venue: Exclusive Books Nelspruit, Riverside Mall
    White River Road
    Nelspruit | Map
  • RSVP:, 013 757 0352

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Major Achievement in Documenting Africa’s Precolonial History: Forgotten World Launched at Wits Origins Centre

Book sales

Forgotten WorldThe beautiful tapestry room at the Origins Centre at Wits was jam-packed for the launch of Alex Schoeman, Peter Delius and Tim Maggs’ fascinating book Forgotten World: The Stone Walled Settlements of the Mpumalanga Escarpment. Extra chairs had to be brought in to accommodate the eager crowd.

This book is a study of the fragments of buildings in stone and sections of stone walling in circles, maze-like structures with long stone linking passages, that can be seen alongside the route from Ohrigstad to Carolina. Travellers on this road, many of them on their way to the Kruger National Park, usually drive past without noticing these remarkable stone formations, and there are no heritage signs to alert them to anything interesting in the area, known as Bokoni in oral tradition. Unknown, deserted and largely ignored today, these structures defy the usual stereotypes about “backward” African farming methods and shows these settlements at their peak between 1500 and 1820, displaying extraordinary levels of agricultural innovation and productivity. The area’s people were part of a trading system linked to the coast of Mozambique and the wider world of Indian Ocean trade and beyond.

Peter DeliusSekibakiba Lekgoathu, Associate Professor in History, WitsForgotten World is the result of rigorous historical and archaeological research, a collaboration between historian Delius and archaeologists Maggs and Schoeman. Delius introduced the guest speakers, the first of whom was Sekibakiba Lekgoathu, just appointed to take over from Delius as head of the Wits History Department. Lekgoathu witnessed the development of this project, which he described at a major achievement in documenting part of the precolonial history of African societies. It challenges the simplistic myths of the history of the area and the negative perceptions that “nothing goes right with black people unless white people are involved”. The authors do not attribute these stone strongholds to any particular ethnic group, but credit the interaction and cooperation between different cultures in complex ways. They describe the trade networks and ironworks with amazing visual images and accessible writing. Lekgoathu said that we need positive stories like this about South Africa’s technical innovations from ancient times. He also hopes that the book will help to bring to an end the lack of heritage recognition and resources that should be directed at these discoveries and encouraged an interdisciplinary focus between history and archaeology in teaching at universities.

Alex SchoemanSchoeman is a senior lecturer in the Archaeology Department at Wits, but originally comes from the area studied in the book. “Who were the people who built these structures?” she asked. They were not “the Bokoni” but “the people of Bokoni” – not a single tribe but fluid populations moving through these areas. What made them different and unique was their specific approach to agriculture. Schoeman stressed the need for everyone to play a role in ensuring the preservation of this important part of South Africa’s heritage.

Tim MaggsMaggs was one of the first people to record the importance of these sites as part of the “500 Year Initiative”. He paid tribute to the sterling fundraising and administration work done by Delius and the History Department at Wits, together with their Swedish counterparts who helped with work on the agricultural systems.

Filmmaker Harriet GavshonFilmmaker Harriet Gavshon of Quizzical Pictures produced a documentary about the stone walled sites and the audience was treated to a short extract which showed aerial views of the structures, which are quite mesmerising. They show stone circles built to hold livestock, with an outer ring where homesteads were built. A vast area of the countryside is also full of stone terraces for agriculture which were cleverly designed to prevent soil erosion.

Thabang Makwetla, Deputy Minister of Correctional ServicesThe last word was given to the Deputy Minister of Correctional Services, Thabang Makwetla, who was the Premier of Mpumalanga in South Africa’s first democratic government in 1994. Delius said that in many ways Makwetla started the ball rolling on the project. He was also instrumental in ensuring that funding was available to get the project off the ground and was always supportive, although he never interfered. Makwetla told how in 2004 he was describing to a family member a book by Delius written in the mid-1970s. His niece happened to overhear him and told him that Delius was her history lecturer at Wits. Makwetla was interested in commissioning research on the history of Mpumalanga and thought such a study would promote the province and tourism. His office then made contact with Delius, “and the rest is history”, he said. He described a visit to China where he was inspired by their emphasis on their history and cultural identity. “It is the responsibility of our government to provide leadership in preserving the heritage of the area as time is running out,” he said.

There was a Makwetla who inhabited the Bokoni region at the time when these structures were used. Little could he have known that many years later his great-great-great-grandson would be describing his way of life to a fascinated crowd at a university in Johannesburg!

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Iziko Announces Time and Again, the First Retrospective Exhibition by Penny Siopis

Penny Siopis: Time and AgainTo coincide with the publication of Penny Siopis: Time and Again by Gerrit Olivier, the South African National Gallery has announced the first retrospective exhibition by Penny Siopis, also titled Time and Again.

The exhibition, which opens to the public on 18 December, will contain work from collections in the Johannesburg Art Gallery; the Rupert Art Foundation; Wits Art Museum; William Humphreys Museum and numerous private collectors.

Siopis works within the genres of painting, sculpture, video and multimedia installations, exploring narratives of personal and collective history, and themes of trauma, shame and loss.

From Iziko:

Time and Again is a retrospective look at three and a half decades of Siopis’ creative production and draws on the recurring themes of history, personal and collective memory and trauma. Although Siopis’ artwork is clearly grounded in the present, both past and future are deeply implicated in its content and physical appearance. The processes of change, decay and ageing, (all traces of the passage of time), are integral to her approach and highlight Siopis’ skillful ability to make time tangible through her manipulation of process, chance and materiality.

This exhibition provides the visitor with a unique opportunity to trace the evolution of Penny Siopis’ ideas, themes and techniques and to see their development in the context of the country’s history. This presentation will feature key examples from her seminal bodies of work which include her early Cake paintings that gained the artist international renown; her seminal History paintings through to her Shame and Pinky Pinky series and the more recent ink and glue paintings. Audiences will also be given an opportunity to experience Penny Siopis object filled installations as well as view films which speak to the artist’s personal history and South Africa’s collective history.

This exhibition will have a strong educational component drawing in learners and scholars from schools and tertiary institutions.

A comprehensive book tracing the trajectory of Penny Siopis artistic production is being published by Wits University Press titled Penny Siopis: Time and Again. The book will be made available to purchase at the South African National Gallery throughout the duration of the exhibition. Edited by Gerrit Olivier this book contains essays and interviews by leading artists, critics and cultural commentators that contextualize this prolific artist’s contribution to South African art history.

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Historian Noor Nieftagodien Disagrees with Sadtu’s Proposal to Make History a Compulsory Subject

EkurhuleniOne Hundred Years of the ANCNoor Nieftagodie, historian and co-editor of Ekurhuleni: The Making of an Urban Region and One Hundred Years of the ANC: Liberation Histories and Democracy Today, was quoted in an article by Sheree Bega for The Saturday Star about making history compulsory in school.

According to Bega, the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) wants to make history compulsory in order to “produce patriotic young South Africans, who can appreciate the ‘road we’ve travelled as a nation’ and who are willing to contribute to building the ‘developmental state we envisage’.”

Although Nieftagodien is passionate about history, he does not think that it should be made a compulsory school subject. He fears that forcing it on children might harm their enthusiasm and says that teachers and officials need to work to make the history syllabus relevant and interesting.

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Nieftagodien encounters similar wariness from his first-year university students at Wits University. “What the high school curriculum does is discourage rote learning. It is more about the repetition of content, so they do apartheid in different grades.

“We do get this among students who come to university who, rightly or wrongly, express strongly that one thing they don’t want to do at university is learn about apartheid again.”

That’s one of the reasons that although Nieftagodien professes that “history is the most exciting subject in the world”, he doesn’t believe it should be forced on young people. “I’m worried if we make history compulsory, it may turn them off.”

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Adam Habib Praises Wits’ “Pioneering, Innovative” New Open Online Courses

Wits University is marking out new frontiers with their massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, offered free to students from the African continent.

Ntwa ya Boitseko e Fanyehuweng ya Afrika BorwaSouth Africa's Suspended RevolutionInguqukombuso YeNingizimu Afrika Eyabondwa YashiywaRewolusie op ys

“This is a pioneering, innovative project spearheaded by Wits, which will indeed unlock new opportunities in South Africa and through the rest of the continent,” Prof Adam Habib, vice-chancellor and principal of Wits and author of South Africa’s Suspended Revolution (which is available in four languages) told SAinfo.

Habib says course content is still being finalised, but will include topics from “economics and law to deep-level mining and the palaeosciences”.

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South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand is now able to offer “massive open online courses” – known as MOOCs – to a global learning audience through its partnership with edX, a non-profit online learning provider founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University in the US.
While the total number of students pursuing higher education in Africa had tripled between 1991 and 2006, public investment in education had remained the same, Wits said in a statement on Wednesday.

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