‘deep wounds… left… in hearts and minds’: South African Public History

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Julia C. Wells


Public history practise in South Africa holds out much promise of further things to come. It can close the gulf between history and heritage. This chapter argues that the role of the public historian should not be conflated with the dynamics of the heritage sector, but suggests how trained academics can indeed put their skills to work in a society that is passionately interested in understanding itself and how its pasts created the present. The student movement sharply raised the image of universities in crisis, requiring a whole new, relevant curriculum and rethinking the ways that universities relate to their publics. Public historians can work towards creating invented spaces for co-production of knowledge, moving beyond the traditional oral history interview. The divide between academia and communities is huge and needs to be constantly tackled, providing access to the secluded information of the professional world. I suggest that due to their privileged place in society, many historians have been unable or unwilling to engage with the recovery agenda – the massive need for affirmation of African identity, capacity and culture. A handful of dedicated public historians do not fit this mould and have been exemplary in rolling up their sleeves and boldly engaging with the messy complications of dealing with non-academic communities to produce new forms of historical knowledge, based on inclusiveness.

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Author Biography

Julia C. Wells, Rhodes University

Head, Isikhumbuzo Applied History Unit Rhodes University