Official archives on Soweto are mainly located in the National Archives, which includes archives of the various municipalities that constituted the so-called Black Local Authorities. Typically, however, these collections rarely contain material on the rich everyday experiences of residents.

Institutions such as universities and NGOs that have engaged with the lives, struggles and the landscape of Soweto, often did not give adequate attention to archives, resulting in valuable research material being scattered and disorganised. This state of affairs persists in spite of the extensive memory and public history work undertaken in various parts of Soweto and Kliptown, which saw the establishment of the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum in 2002, the June 16 1976 Interpretation Centre, the Kliptown Open Air Museum as well as the rehabilitation of Credo Mutwa’s Kwa-Khaya Lendaba Cultural Village in South Western Jabavu, the diverse heritage impact studies undertaken to develop Soweto since 1994 and the City of Johannesburg/Gauteng provincial government’s declaration of a number of sites in Soweto as of historic significance and subject to protection in line with the Heritage Resources Management Act.

Recently, Wits University established the Archives and Research Hub (comprising the Historical and Research Papers Archive, the South African History Archives and the History Workshop). Among the principal aims of this initiative is to partner with communities to create local archives, particularly through a programme of digitisation.

The Role of the History Workshop and in Collaboration with Community Organisations

The History Workshop was an important actor in the growth of People’s History in the 1980s. The important imperatives behind these activities was to popularise histories and to make them accessible to audiences outside the academy.

Since the late 1990s, this area of work has developed as Public History and Heritage, emphasising partnerships with various community groups to co-produce histories. In Soweto, we have worked with several such groups and heritage organisations. Dr Ali Hlongwane has been a pivotal figure in many of these initiatives. We have been working with a number of groups in the township for many years, including Funda Centre, Greater Dobsonville Heritage Foundation, Orlando Heritage Trust, James Mpanza Heritage Foundation and Hector Pieterson Museum.

In undertaking this research, writing and community-based archives development project, the History Workshop will be building on its extensive and ongoing work in social history, local histories, the everyday and public history as well as the production of histories of the liberation struggle through oral histories and the genre of biography. Over the last 15 years the SARChI, which was located in the History Workshop, gave considerable attention to the production of local histories resulting in numerous dissertations and publications. Among the most notable books are Alexandra A History, Ekurhuleni The Making of an Urban Region and A Place of Thorns: Black political protest in Kroonstad since 1976 as well as Ali Hlongwane and Sifiso Ndlovu’s Public History and Culture in South Africa: Memorialisation and Liberation Heritage Sites in Johannesburg and the Township Space.


Objectives of SHAP!

Based on the aforementioned, the Soweto History & Archives Project sets out three primary objectives:

  1. To produce comprehensive histories of SOWETO through academic research (by established academics and postgraduate students) and in partnership with community organisation in various Public History initiatives.
  2. To constitute a community-based archive of SOWETO, comprising oral histories and material collected from organisations, families and individuals. There is a critical need for a systematic process to identify the existing locales of what may constitute the Soweto archives, to collect what may be lying in precarious conditions and most importantly to engage various communities and institutions of Soweto to create community archives.
  3. To make accessible and disseminate histories and archives to the residents of SOWETO and broader publics in general, with a particular emphasis on education institutions.

The aim of the Soweto History and Archives project, in collaboration with community organisations and the Wits History Workshop is to now undertake and advance this work more systematically. The long-term objectives are to produce comprehensive histories of SOWETO (mainly by publishing monographs and edited collections, as well as through exhibitions and documentaries) and to create a substantive and accessible archive. In the short term – 2023-2024 – we aim to establish the foundations to achieve the aforementioned.