Biography in and of an archive : the Shelagh Gastrow Collection and South Africa
This study is about the recent political history of South Africa. It examined the crucial period of late apartheid, through the political transition into democracy. The study was conducted through the lenses of Shelagh Gastrow's work, whose series of publications titled Who’s Who in South African Politics traversed the spectrum of a severely polarised South Africa, and earned her the accolade as a "leading authority" in the biographical enterprise of Who's who. Gastrow had interviewed people in political office, those in opposition, those hiding from political persecution and even those in exile outside South Africa. It involved about 100 personalities for each of her five volumes. The study involved examining archival collections, documentary analysis, desktop research and interviews with Shelagh Gastrow. It also examined the Mayibuye Archives, where the Gastrow collection was eventually transferred, as an archive of resistance to apartheid. The study showed that from its origin as a research project about personalities in South Africa’s resistance and transition history, the Shelagh Gastrow collection was transformed into a heritage resource. The study examined political collections as heritage resources in the process of remaking the nation, and the contributions they make in the national re-engineering process. The study drew on the convergence of two theoretical claims. First, Achille Mbembe, among others, has asserted that there is no state without its archives. An indispensable, symbiotic, socio-political relationship exists between the state, actors in the state, and related archives. The second, posited by the likes of Arjun Appadurai and Igor Kopytoff, is to the effect that objects have social lives, and that they are formed and transformed through interactions with their related societies. Between the objects and their societies, meanings and values are transmitted, exchanged and retained. Thus, a careful analysis of the formation and transformations (a biographical study) of such objects can reveal the obscure about the societies they relate to. Consequently, socio-political collections do reveal much about the individuals, groups, and societies they represent. In the case of South Africa, the analysis showed the corpus of Shelagh Gastrow's collection (the object in this study) which included transcripts of political interviews, manuscripts and Who's who publications, revealed the transition from apartheid into democracy as a critical historical juncture. Political collections constitute important heritage resources, which contribute to the production of national narratives. They may originate in the past, but their analysis in the present has resonance for the collective future of the nation.