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Bishops and prophets: Former deputy vice-chancellor and vice-principal Emer Prof Martin West at the opening in the Centre for African Studies of his exhibition, Amabandla Ama-Afrika: The independent churches of Soweto, 1969-71.
Emeritus Professor Martin West’s evocative collection of photographs, taken of the Africa Independent Churches in Soweto between 1969 and 1971 and showing a segment of society hidden to most South Africans, went on exhibition at the Centre for African Studies on 7 June.
West, who will receive an honorary doctorate from UCT on Friday, 10 June, took the black and white pictures while conducting fieldwork for his PhD in social anthropology.
By the end of the 19th century, two streams of Christianity emerged in South Africa and became the focus of West’s research: the Ethiopian and Zionist movements. This research culminated in his book, Bishops and Prophets in a Black City, published in the 1970s.
The young social scientist took hundreds of images, capturing baptisms, sacrificial slaughters, prayer meetings, healing services, and vignettes of everyday life in Soweto.
The collection, now part of the UCT Libraries’ Special Collections, documents what curator Paul Weinberg describes as a “window on the world that dances between indigenous values and Christianity brought by the colonial and settler communities”.
Working around the apartheid laws, which limited white people’s access to townships, West relied on cleric and anti-apartheid activist Beyers Naudé for a contact in the Non-European Affairs department who arranged for a pass allowing him to legally enter the rambling township.
Shuttered from a broader view by apartheid, the pictures revealed the “real people behind the data” West had collected, said guest speaker Emeritus Professor Francis Wilson, who was then a lecturer and mentor to West. At the time of his research, the largest concentration of these churches was based in Soweto, and, as West observed, they reached out to the poor and marginalised.
Keeping to the back roads and adopting a low profile, West gradually established a relationship with these followers. He recalls, “They were very sensitive to being looked down on. When I came to talk to them openly and honestly, they responded. So it was in that way, through talking and sharing, that I gained their trust.”
Speaking at the opening Wilson said: “The Soweto Collection on display here for the first time in 40 years – some [photographs]never seen before – was clearly a major milestone in the developing South African synergy between, for want of a better shorthand, academic and the arts; between the work of dusty scholars in their ivory towers and the rich, juicy insights of painters and musicians. The kind of synergy exemplified in another context by Pippa Skotnes, Stephen Watson, John Parkington and Nigel Worden in their amazing collaborative work on the San.”
As a preface to the evening, executive director of UCT Libraries, Joan Rapp, said: “For many years Martin had executive responsibility for Libraries. He guided us with a vision which included not only adopting forward looking technologies, but also enriching, strengthening, and making internationally available what is unique in UCT’s collections: the rich textual, sound and visual archives which reflect South Africa’s cultural, political, and social context, and its heritage. These are held in our special collections, which are the home of the photographs we see tonight. We are honoured that Martin has allowed us to inaugurate a new era of special collections with his photographs.”
This exhibition, Rapp said, is the first public event to mark the new “big picture” of the Libraries’ archives. That big picture, added Rapp, is not only about increasing the collections that trace the country’s heritage.
But [it is] also about re-imagining, reshaping, contextualising, and reworking physical material into exhibitions such as this; it is about providing digital accessibility and digital shaping of these valuable materials worldwide, and about virtual exhibitions; it is about a newly renovated library in which exhibitions of archival materials become part of the world of library users and the broader public.”
The exhibition, titled Amabandla Ama-Afrika: The independent churches of Soweto 1969-71, will run until 3 August.
Poverty war: DVC Prof Crain Soudien is leading a planning group that strives to help fight poverty and inequality. .
It’s probably among South Africa’s most burning questions: why, in a country of rich resources, are poverty and inequality persisting and even deepening? With countless groups and individuals striving to address the matter, it remains at the centre of national debate.
UCT plans to tackle the issues through the newly-established Poverty and Inequality Planning Group (PIPG), which hopes to get to the core issues and define poverty and inequality more broadly than merely meeting people’s basic needs.
“We are trying to generate an understanding of poverty that is not just about economic survival,” explained group chair, Professor Crain Soudien. “We are talking about citizenship, about why people are not able to flourish and realise their talents.” This view, Soudien believes, makes the project stand out from other poverty alleviation initiatives.
Vice-chancellor Dr Max Price committed himself to appointing experts to lead and co-ordinate intellectual projects to enhance the university’s impact in addressing problems of public schooling, climate change and sustainable development, crime, poverty and unemployment. Initiatives have been launched in other areas, but the university has been struggling to conceptualise a focus on poverty, Soudien noted.
After Price met with the university’s Social Responsiveness Committee and several other academics late last year, it was decided that a planning group could address the issue. The PIPG comprises high-profile members from diverse disciplines. It aims to identify all major role players inside and outside the university, including academics, research groups and NGOs who are doing poverty alleviation-related work, be it in policy or at intervention levels. Then they will be invited to a forum, planned for the end of 2012, to present their work and discuss underlying factors for the persisting poverty and inequality.
“We don’t want to simply present the information, we need to get to the core of what these issues are all about,” said Soudien (pictured left).
The group’s work could have a profound effect on the university, particularly on teaching. “Hopefully, this will precipitate a university-wide awareness of how crucial it is to be clear about how central is poverty to the nature of our society,” added Soudien, “and how the kind of leaders that we should be producing ought to be deeply aware of this context. Our teaching, therefore, should be directly relevant and pertinent to this, and be more emphatic than it may have been in the past.”
The group recently met Minister Trevor Manuel of the National Planning Commission to present its ideas, and to discuss possible synergies with government. (One of the members of Soudien’s team, Associate Professor Vivien Taylor, is also a member of the commission).
In the meeting, Manuel pointed out that there are linkages between the government’s work and that of universities. He challenged the university to mobilise its resources and to engage urgently with the pressing social issues, and to make their research socially relevant.
Currently, the group is designing a web-based tool that will be used to invite UCT members to provide information on how they were engaging with the challenge of poverty and inequality through their research, teaching and social responsiveness initiatives. The purpose, according to Soudien, is three-fold: to compile information on poverty and inequality-related activities at UCT to share among colleagues also working in this area, and to promote collaborative opportunities; to facilitate opportunities for engaging with the commission and, thus, enabling the translation of research into the development of key national policies; and to provide the basis for invitations to the main forum.
Anyone who would like to receive the survey instrument should contact Sonwabo Ngcelwane at 021 650 2103.
The due date for submissions of responses is 30 June.