Over the past five-years my teaching and scholarship have been pre-occupied with the role of digital archives in post-conflict societies across sub-Saharan Africa. Much of my work focuses on the intersections between architecture, social justice, and human rights on the Internet. I have been working with the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, a small community-based museum in Soweto, South Africa, to help build a multi-media digital archive of their holdings, Soweto ’76 (http://www.soweto76archive.org). This work seeks to redress the role of women in the struggle against apartheid – particularly those women about whose historical agency we know so little.
There is the promise of new digital technologies, in particular the Internet, to promote a social justice and human rights agenda when coupled with the conservation of historic sites and heritage resources. The web allows marginalized groups to harness media rich tools for the retelling of traumatic events while promoting dialogue on pressing social issues. Through the creation of new community-based multimedia archives, the much needed documentation and preservation of these long silenced histories is becoming more widely available to a global audience.
The connection between archives and social justice is nowhere more apparent than in post-apartheid South Africa. Memory-keeping and archival practice remain highly contested despite the last decade-and-a-half of democracy and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). For many, the TRC failed to adequately address the social, political and economic needs of its citizenry and instead sought to advance a more sanitized history of past events for the emerging “rainbow nation.” Archivist Verne Harris best describes the difficult transition (occurring between 1948 to 1994) from apartheid to democracy in Archives and Justice (2007). Harris writes, “Under apartheid, the terrain of social memory, as with all social space, was a site of struggle … in the crudest sense it was a struggle of remembering against forgetting, of oppositional memory fighting a life-and-death struggle against a systematic forgetting engineered by the government.” In Soweto, growing concern over the preservation of documents related to the liberation struggle of the 1970’s against apartheid has spurred new theoretical, methodological, and pedagogical questions over the making of web-based archives for local community-based township museums. I maintain that African digital archives can help to interrogate the conditions where life histories of human rights violations circulate, by examining those conditions for their “emancipatory potential and their capacity for instituting dialogical forms of historical consciousness between the testimony donors and possible communities of witness” on the World Wide Web (Feldman 2004). In developing a theoretical framework, Anna Everett’s recent work, Digital Diasporas (2009), is suggestive of the emancipatory potential existing in digital technologies. Digital technologies can act as mediators for those “other” communities of knowledge that have remained marginalized as the result of South Africa’s failed truth-telling policies, particularly for women.
Through an “ICT for liberation” I am seeking to understand the values and assumptions embedded in both the technology, and the community served by the technology (ie. the digital tools being developed, the use of interactive multimedia websites, etc.). Here I draw on the work of Michael L. Best, who has developed an interactive website for Liberia’s Truth Reconciliation Commission coupled with a model of community-based work with members of the Liberian diaspora in Atlanta.
Soweto ’76 seeks to address the ways in which the creation of new digital tools and archives can help to foster a social justice-based agenda for marginalized communities, particularly those in South Africa’s former all-Black townships. Soweto ’76 is a dynamic multi-media extensible web interface and toolset for the detailed study and conservation of historic resources in South Africa, using electronic multimedia to collect, preserve, and represent the stories and digital records of those students who took part in the Uprisings of 1976. Unlike other projects, Soweto ’76 seeks to link those struggle narratives with the physical spaces and places of under-recognized historic sites. The proposed interface may be used by other archives to help create a larger cultural heritage platform for historic resources across South Africa. We have already developed a “proof-of-concept” for a geospatial interface for Soweto ’76 and are currently in the midst of developing a three-dimensional, historically authentic model of the protest march route whereby users can access archival resources from its database. Soweto ’76 challenges our understanding of memory and the role that virtual heritage can play in providing justice and reconciliation. In the near future, we hope to develop Soweto ’76 into a collaboratively edited, peer reviewed, online database of historic sites related to the anti-apartheid movement.
Questions to consider:
Can digital technologies on the internet promote a truth and reconciliation process in post-conflict societies?
Can “websites of conscience” effectively promote a social justice and human rights agenda? How is that measured?
Is it even possible to portray the lived experiences of others through the Internet in a manner that is truly respectful of their personal narratives while also advancing a true reconciliation process?
What constitutes archival and memory-keeping practices in post-conflict societies?
How do we engage community in the archival process in post-conflict societies?
How do we develop new archival practices, research, and education that embrace diverse and/or long marginalized communities?