The untold stories of South Africans who were overlooked in the past and bypassed by history are set to see the light thanks to a new project settled within Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. This project, named the Biography of an Uncharted People, has just received a financial injection of R11.7m, spread out over the next five years, from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The project involves delving into the treasure trove of historical data of South Africans, especially black citizens, transcribing large numbers of historical microdata and is a first attempt to bring to light histories of families that were overlooked in the past.
"The good news is that historical records in digital format are rapidly becoming more available, but the bad news is that the stories these sources can tell remain untold," says project leader and associate professor, Johan Fourie. "Now we have funding to transcribe and analyse these records so as to be able to tell these stories."
According to Fourie, the project will contribute to the expansion of the Digital Humanities. He says Digital Humanities operates at the intersection of the humanities and computing. Scholars using the methods of the Digital Humanities can make use of a variety of tools, from algorithms that help with textual analysis, to image recognition, to big data techniques. They can digitise and transcribe large databases and analyse individuals' characteristics and behaviour. In the absence of other microdata of South Africans, particularly black citizens, who were often excluded from censuses and reports and underrepresented in other types of archival records such as personal collections of letters, individual-level records are a treasure trove of information about the economic, social, demographic, health, labour, genealogical and migration histories of the Cape Colony and South Africa.
Contribute to debates in South African history
Besides transcribing and disseminating these datasets, the project will also begin to analyse the information systematically in order to contribute to debates in South African history. In addition to the research topics to be undertaken by five masters and five honours students, five flagship projects for PhD students have been identified. These sources and the methods of the Digital Humanities will also be introduced into undergraduate and graduate teaching curricula. This will equip a new generation of historians to engage critically with primary sources and large amounts of quantitative and qualitative evidence.
Fourie says because the apartheid system handicapped South Africa by imposing on it a higher education system designed to maintain social and economic inequalities of race, class, gender, region and institution, this project is also an attempt to narrow the methodological divergence that have occurred in the discipline.
"We see historical privilege or disadvantage reflected in students' varying ability to work with large sets of quantitative and qualitative historical evidence using technological tools. This project aims to remove the handicaps and produce young scholars skilled in the Digital Humanities and able to teach the next generation," he says.
Prof Wim de Villiers, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of SU, says the University is grateful for The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's continued support to the development of social science and humanities research and knowledge creation and hope to continue this cooperation in future.
"This initiative clearly addresses our institutional strategy with regard to research in the social sciences and humanities as well as the crucial element of capacity development of young researchers, including those from designated groups. This trans-disciplinary project supports and will contribute significantly to the establishment and development of the Digital Humanities in the Faculty.
"Furthermore, this project will initiate and anchor a new methodology in the Department of History. It will have an impact on teaching, learning and research and open up opportunities for the motivation of future academic appointments in this field of research and teaching," he adds.
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has a longstanding relationship with SU and endeavours to strengthen, promote, and, where necessary, defend the contributions of the humanities and the arts to human flourishing and to the well-being of diverse and democratic societies. To this end, the Foundation supports exemplary institutions of higher education and culture as they renew and provide access to an invaluable heritage of ambitious, path-breaking work.
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Photo: Project leader, Prof Johan Fourie.