The word documentation, according to the Oxford Dictionary, means the collection, recording, journaling, chronologizing of, especially, information about events which have occurred in history. “I hate it when they tell us how far we came to be as if our people’s history started with slavery”. Those are the lyrics of Felipe Coronel better known in hip hop circles as Immortal Technique. And when one takes stock of Immortal’s sentiments the one thing that resonates is the fact that by virtue of a lack of documentation, in its literal form, a lot of people’s past achievements end up being tempered with by those with the means and power and the end result is that societies are left with mythological history at the very least. Documentation is the umbilical cord that connects humanity and their yester years. It’s through the continued recording of everyday experiences of past events no matter how small or grand that civilizations’ ways of being are known and at times set a bench mark for succeeding generations to assess critically and choose to build on what’s already been forged or strip and destruct them and seek to formulate fresher ones. I shall attempt to look at documentation in the following sub topics:
It’s well known and generally accepted that paper originates from Africa. It’s recorded that it was the people of modern day Egypt who discovered means of making paper. But before that era humans had to pass their stories through word of mouth and what academics call oral tradition. In the region that has been labeled the ‘sub-Sahara’, for a long time, oral tradition was the order of the day. It was the duties of the village poets or griots, as they are known in some parts of West Africa; to use their memory as archives and museums for their different communities and make sure that the traditions and cultures which culminate in heritage never loses its link with the people. Africa’s ties with oral traditions are very strong because the majority of some parts of Africa’s history have been constructed from that particular tradition. And when I say recent history it’s in a context that is of the periods dating from the late 1300s until the meeting with the missionaries and eventual colonialists. A lot in the African life was based on oral tradition because at that point certain Africans did not write, literally that is. The most detrimental aspect of African religions, when compared with other mainstream religions such Islam, Judea and Christianity, is that it didn’t and does not involve scripture as a form of reference. The unfortunate outcome was that it made it easier for the missionaries for cast doubts in the minds of the natives and to convince them to believe their foreign religion and denounce their own.
DOCUMENTATION IN MUSEUMS
Museums are by far the grandest expression of preservation of a people’s past. But as bona fide as they purport to be, they are also selective in their approach because the curators are granted authority to decide what will qualify to be included as part of what is eventually public memory. Some of the most important things used is the criteria of what will or will not form part of public memory, such criteria must be continually revised and measured against the objectives that a museum ought to fulfill as it seeks to, not only preserve the past, but also equally mirror the present as it plays itself out in experience. The relationship between museums and power is so closely linked that it, in some instances, sets the tone for who shall be covered and have access to the privileges of the museums. Such class-centric tendencies must be dug out root by root in order to insure that even those without economical and political influence are also documented and thereby their angst and plight informs the public memory.
NAME CHANGING AS A MEANS OF DOCUMENTATION
Arguably the most admirable aspect about the Constitution of South Africa is that it strives for equal society, but in the same breath recognizes the injustices of yesteryear and seeks to redress them whether gradually or radically. With regards redress no subject has been as fiercely contested as the land question, affirmative action and the name changing. But I will focus on the latter. There have been debates about whether name changing is truly a must and its legitimacy has been under constant scrutiny especially when it is measured against the sub-human living conditions many South Africans find themselves under. Those whose stance is of opposition have blatantly accused the present government of trying to vaporize the white community’s contribution to the country’s well being. The name changing project is, according to those who defend it, a bona fide process of restoration of the dignity which was forcibly displaced and relegated to the epicenter of insignificance. The government says at the heart of this project is the desire to include the previously displaced and disadvantaged majority in the mainstream public memory. It’s also an idea to re-‘Africanize’ the republic because for a long time through street, town, city and provincial naming this country has had the lust to dislocate itself culturally and otherwise from the continent and only remain African by that which it can’t change: geography.
The name changing projects have been, at least, fanatically opposed by the national’s minority claiming that it’s a waste of time and money, but if truth be told the only reason or perhaps the real reason for opposition is the fact that they know all too well the value and meaning that is carried by changing of names and the outcomes it has on historical documentation and immortalization of contributions of those whose names have been used. What is the importance of having a place in this country, on this continent named Queenstown, King Williamstown, Grahamstown, Natal, Pretoria? Whose interests and heritage do such names serve and does it reflect the national majority? Some have claimed that the money ought to be used to minimize poverty in the republic because they say “what the use of transformation if it does not alleviate destitution”? But they do not understand that the money which is used is not from or as a result of compromising the Social Development and Education ministries to which the greater poverty reduction mechanisms and strategies are located. Essentially name changes are not about erasing our horrific history, but to accommodate everyone who has contributed to the success of or lack of it in this country.
DOCUMENTATION BEYOND POLITICAL HISTORY
For a long time there’s been a tendency to use a blanket approach when it comes to recording the lives of native Africans and it’s an approach that has preferred to make politics of freedom the only history the aboriginal people have. It’s through such narrow documentation that the very indigenous people tended to have negative perception of their past because it was grim and grey, with little contributions beyond being slaves and commodities of Euro-American imperialism. Another much needed distinction has to be made between Afrikaner culture and apartheid. Because historically the two have had an intercourse that’s made it harder for other South Africans to differentiate between a people’s culture and a racist political policy that was formulated and practiced by those people. Documentation, as we’ve seen, is a sensitive and necessary duty for everyone. It allows for the measuring of the achievements of our fore-parents with our own in order for the living assess whether has been any progress made, but above everything it is to learn not to repeat the same mistake that predecessors have made and to prune from the garden of traditions those plants that are unable to bear fruit anymore and offer more attention to those that continue to blossom modernity.