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SU Library launches enlightening exhibit reflecting on 30 years of democracy
Author: Corporate Communications and Marketing
Published: 16/05/2024

A priceless exhibition that sheds light on South Africa's turbulent past before and after the dawn of democracy 30 years ago, was opened at the Stellenbosch University (SU) Library and Information Service this week. The exhibition is part of a broader commemoration of South Africa's democratic evolution at SU.

The exhibition, titled 1994–2024 – Democracy in South Africa: A History Told by Unique Library Collections, showcases rare and historically significant items curated by the Special Collections division in the SU Library that chronicle the nation's journey to democracy.

The initiative is a collaboration with the SU Library and Information Service and the SU Museum, with both institutions hosting events and exhibitions to commemorate the 30-year milestone in South Africa's history.

The launch event was attended by academic staff, students and library staff. Ellen Tise, Senior Director: SU Library and Information Service, provided context to the exhibition and highlighted SU Library's role in documenting and preserving South Africa's rich history.

Tise noted that the manuscript collections in the SU Library, curated over the last 55 years, include nearly 500 unique collections. These collections have been diversified in recent years to reflect a more comprehensive view of South Africa's history, focusing on the path to democracy and the pivotal moments that shaped the nation.

Passion for historical research

The University has a responsibility to provide access to knowledge that helps us make sense of history, Tise said. She emphasised the importance of understanding the historical context that led to the establishment of democracy in 1994, especially for the younger generation who did not experience this transformative period.

“Libraries are also about telling stories. Understanding our stories and where we're coming from inform our decisions today." Tise said the exhibition serves as a reminder of South Africa's journey towards a more just, inclusive and democratic society, honouring the resilience and collective spirit that continue to shape the country's future.

“The collections focus on the path to democracy through negotiations to create a climate of change in South Africa," she explained. “We look at some of the organisations and individuals that played a role in the negotiations and preparations to democracy – from the economic pressure to conferences, workshops, voter education to the 1994 voting and the first democratic parliament, as well as the changes and highlights of the democracy in South Africa until 2024."

Additionally, it shows how SU participated in the road to democracy over the years, Tise noted. The exhibition aims to ignite a passion for historical research and a deeper understanding of the nation's journey. “We hope that events such as these will inspire a new generation of researchers to immerse themselves in these collections," Tise said.

Transformative power of knowledge

Prof Nico Koopman, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Social Impact, Transformation and Personnel, opened the exhibition with a message about the role of universities as curators and creators of knowledge. He highlighted the transformative power of knowledge in society.

Koopman also addressed the need for critical reflection on South Africa's democratic journey. “We must foster an attitude of criticism to distinguish between the strengths and weaknesses in society," he stressed. Reflecting on the current state of democracy, Koopman expressed hope that the exhibition would inspire visitors to recognise both the achievements and the challenges that lie ahead, and to work towards a more just and equitable society.

“I hope this exhibition will help us go forward with knowledge that informs and then transforms us; knowledge that also illuminates and clarifies amid so much complexity; and knowledge that somehow brings light amidst all the heaviness we experience," Koopman said.

Some of the unique collections and items include:

  • “A prayer by Beyers Naudé, 1994" – a handwritten note forming part of the Beyers Naudé Collection.
  • A letter from Nelson Mandela indicating that the renegotiation of South African debt overseas in the 1980s played a major role in his liberation – an item from the South African Foreign Debt collection, 1985/1986.
  • In this collection, there is also a letter from Anton Rupert to PW Botha asking for serious consideration for reform.
  • The Frederik van Zyl Slabbert collection with various interesting items including his resignation from Parliament, views on apartheid and the need for reform debate.
  • The IDASA collection with interesting information about voter education before the 1994 election.

The exhibition is open to the public and will run until the end of the year, offering a valuable opportunity for visitors to engage with the history of South Africa's democracy through the lens of the SU Library's special collections.