African history is a discipline on the rise — and one that raises many questions


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Afrocentric history emerged strongly during the post-colonial 1960s.
Shutterstock

Glen Ncube, University of Pretoria

African history has gone through many incarnations as an academic discipline. The Conversation

Most recently, there’s been a global turn in African historiography. This shift has been prompted by a greater awareness of the powerful forces of globalisation and the need to provide an African historical perspective on this phenomenon. This has helped to place the continent at the centre of global – and human – history.

It’s important to explain the role of Africa in the world’s global past. This helps assert its position in the gradual making of global affairs. As an approach, it’s a radical departure from colonial views of Africa. It also complements the radical post-colonial histories that appeared from the 1950s and 1960s. And it may offer another framework for thinking through the curriculum reform and decolonisation debate that’s emerged in South Africa’s universities over the past few years.

The history of African history

Afrocentric history emerged strongly during the 1950s and 1960s, in tandem with Africa’s emergence from colonial rule. Newly emerging histories served as an antidote to the pernicious views of imperial and colonial historiography. These had dismissed Africa as a dark continent without history.

But demonstrating that Africa has a long, complex history was only one step in an intellectual journey with many successes, frustrations and failures.

The long 20th century ended. A new one beckoned. It brought new sets of challenges. South Africa euphorically defeated apartheid. The decolonisation project that started during the 1950s in west and north Africa was completed. These achievements were overshadowed by a horrific post-colonial genocide in Rwanda. Another genocide loomed in the Sudan. Coups, civil wars and human rights abuses stained the canvas on which a new Africa was gradually being painted.

Africa’s woes were deepened by the emerging HIV/AIDS pandemic. State-driven, pro-poor policies and programmes founded during the early post-colonial period atrophied. This decay was driven by hegemonic global neoliberal economic policies.

And the study of history on the continent took a knock. Student numbers declined as post-colonial governments shifted their priorities. Global funding bodies focused their attention on applied social sciences and science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

Nearly two decades into the new century there’s been another shift. The subject of history, alongside other humanities disciplines, is attracting growing attention aimed at averting their further decline. This can be explained in part by the subject’s own residual internal resilience and innovative research in newer areas of historical curiosity. There’s an emerging interest in history as a complementary discipline. Students of law, education, and political science are taking history as an additional option.

In South Africa in particular, history cannot be easily ignored, although it is contested. The country is still redefining itself and charting its new course after decades of apartheid and colonialism. However, a great deal of newer interest in history as a subject can be ascribed to university student movements. These movements have garnered greater public attention for ongoing debates about decoloniality and decolonised curricula.

Decoloniality is a radical concept. Its main aim is to degrade the coloniality of knowledge. In South Africa, the decolonisation movement has been tied to bread and butter issues: tuition fees and access to higher education. Decoloniality affords both the language and the reason for seeking to dismantle what are regarded as western and colonial systems and structures of knowledge production and dissemination.

Rethinking decolonisation

But while decolonisation is riding a wave of academic interest, the histories of precolonial Africa are receding as an area of primary research focus. The histories of resistance to colonialism continue to resonate with current struggles for transformation and decolonisation. They have long been popular among historians in and of Africa. Indeed, several social and political movements have used decolonial interpretations of African history as their currency.

However, questions continue to be asked about the kind of history curriculum that should be studied at university level at this moment. And what are the purposes of such curricula? Is an African history module a necessarily transformed one? What new conceptual and methodological tools should be deployed to describe and explain colonial encounters from a decolonial lens? What modes of ethics should inform such approaches?

The challenges go beyond the conceptual aspects of decolonisation in the domain of African history. There are historical structural formations, hierarchies and tendencies within academia that are rooted in coloniality. These make it a huge challenge to articulate newer forms of knowledge. At the same time, decoloniality should operate through other forms and frameworks. This will allow it to find application beyond its own self-defined frames.

In addition, new approaches should challenge received wisdom and develop new kinds of curiosity. Newer curriculum should, for instance, grapple with the fact that there is no single Africa. A unitary model of Africa is a colonial invention. Ordinary people’s identities form and evolve via multiple networks and knowledge forms. An Africa approached from its diverse histories and identities could help forge new, purposeful solidarities and futures.

Author’s note: These were some of the issues discussed during a postgraduate seminar I convened in the Themes in African History module offered by the University of Pretoria’s Department of Historical & Heritage Studies. The insights offered here are my students’: Jane Mampane, Kudzai Mhere, Nobungcwele Mbem, Genis Stephanus Gabriel Du Toit, Laura Sophie Schnieders, Nicole Sithole and Tanyaradzwa Muranda.

Glen Ncube, Lecturer: History; Humanities, University of Pretoria

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Today in History: May 13



The long history, and short future, of the password



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An artist’s depiction of the ‘shibboleth incident.’
Detail from art by H. de Blois, from The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, vol. 3, edited by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Bewer, 1908

Brian Lennon, Pennsylvania State University

In Western history, the concept of the password can be traced as far back as the so-called “shibboleth incident” in the 12th chapter of the biblical Book of Judges. In the chaos of battle between the tribes of Gilead and Ephraim, Gileadite soldiers used the word “shibboleth” to detect their enemies, knowing that the Ephraimites pronounced it slightly differently in their dialect. The stakes were life and death, we’re told, in a confrontation between Gileadites and a possible Ephraimite fugitive: The Conversation

“Then said they unto him, ‘Say now Shibboleth’; and he said ‘Sibboleth’; for he could not frame to pronounce it right; then they laid hold on him, and slew him at the fords of the Jordan.”

The literary history of the password also includes the classic tale “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” invented in the 18th century by the French Orientalist Antoine Galland. Used in the tale to open a magically sealed cave, the invocation “Open, Sesame!” enjoys broad currency as a catchphrase today, not only in other literary, cinematic and television adaptations of the tale itself, but in many other contexts as well.

Ali Baba uses a fictional password.

Password security was introduced to computing in the Compatible Time-Sharing System and Unics (Unix) systems developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Bell Laboratories in the 1960s. Today we use passwords to restrict access to our personal computers and computing devices, and to access remote computing services of all kinds. But a password is not a physical barrier or obstacle, like a lock on a gate. Rather, it is a unit of text: that is to say, written language. As an important part of the linguistic history of computers, password security links my research in the history of writing to my interest in the early history of computing. But it is an episode in that history that may now be coming to an end.

In the earliest civilizations, writing was used to record financial and other administrative transactions, ensuring that records could be consulted in the case of disputes over debt, land ownership or taxation. Soon, there was another use for writing: what we now call mail. Writing made it possible to communicate without being physically present, because a written message could stand in the writer’s place.

When I use a password, it also stands in my place. The password represents me within a virtual or nonphysical system, regardless of whether I am physically present, entering a passcode on a smartphone or a PIN code at an ATM, or physically absent, connecting remotely to my bank with a web browser. Anyone else who knows my password can also use it this way.

This characteristic of password security, which has its roots in writing’s (necessary and useful) dissociation from the writer’s physical presence, is also the root of its problems. Poorly chosen and repeatedly used passwords are easy to guess, either through computational techniques (such as the “dictionary attack,” which might test all known words and word combinations in a particular language) or so-called social engineering (that is, tricking someone into disclosing a password).

Once it has been guessed, there isn’t much to prevent a password from being used for unauthorized purposes, at least until the theft is discovered. But even the strongest password, a sequence of alphanumeric and punctuation characters utterly devoid of linguistic meaning and long enough to defeat automated password guessing by software running on the fastest processor hardware available to a professional criminal (these days, that means international organized crime), can be used anywhere and at any time once it has been separated from its assigned user.

It is for this reason that both security professionals and knowledgeable users have been calling for the abandonment of password security altogether.

Looking to introduce new methods of authentication, device manufacturers are moving toward biometrics, from the fingerprint sensors on any recent smartphone to Android 4.0’s Face Unlock feature, iris or retina scanning and others. It seems unlikely that password security will last anywhere near another half-century.

Brian Lennon, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature; Director, Digital Culture and Media Initiative, Pennsylvania State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Today in History: May 12



Today in History: May 11



Humane and intimate, how the Red Cross helped families trace the fates of WW2 soldiers



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Australians shelter from Japanese snipers in Borneo, 1945.
Australian War Memorial collection/Flickr

Fiona Ross, University of Melbourne

Private Rawson’s mother first contacted the Red Cross in early April 1942, six weeks after her son was captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore. For her, and thousands of other Australian mothers, fathers, wives, sisters and brothers, this began three and half years of longing and fear, and above all, silence. The Conversation

For the duration of the war, Mrs Rawson’s only news of her son’s fate were the snippets received and sent on to her by the Red Cross Bureau for Wounded, Missing and Prisoners of War.

In the Spring Street premises, lent to the Red Cross by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, volunteers received Mrs Rawson’s enquiry, made a file for her son and added a card to a rapidly growing system:

Surname: RAWSON

Rank: PTE. [Private]

Reg No. VX43216

Unit: 2/29th. Btn. H.Q. COY.

9/4/42 Enq. From Vic. – Unof. Msg. [unofficially missing] MALAYA

Over the next 18 months they retrieved and updated the card as numbered lists of missing and captured servicemen reached the Red Cross:

19-8-42: Cas.[casualty] List V.319 rep. [reported] Missing.

27-5-43: List AC 494 adv.[advice] Tokio cables interned Malai Camp.

21-6-43: Cas list V467 prev. rept. [previously reported] Missing now rpt.[reported] P.O.W.[prisoner of war]

10-9-43: List WC 13 adv. Card rec. Washington POW [prisoner of war] Jap.[Japanese] Hands.

28-10-43: List JB. 213 adv. Singapore Radio Allege POW.

Then the reports cease. Nothing more, for two years.

Private Rawson’s card is now the first one in box 45 of the archival records series “Missing, Wounded and Prisoner of War Enquiry Cards”. This series was transferred to the University of Melbourne Archives in 2016 as part of the Red Cross’s Gift to the Nation – the records of its first 100 years in Australia. Digitised copies of cards from the second world war are now available to researchers online.

Cards from the Red Cross’s enquiry bureau.
University of Melbourne Archives

In an era before vision statements and key performance indicators, the Red Cross Enquiry Bureau expressed its ethos as a “Golden Rule”:

No definite information that would be of solace to relatives should be allowed to remain in the office over-night.

The Red Cross saw this work as a “humane and intimate administration”. Speed and accuracy were the essence of the service, which during WWII helped over 58,000 Australian families to learn the fate of loved ones displaced by the war. The vast majority of these enquiries concerned personnel in the Australian Imperial Force.

Typically families first received missing, wounded, killed or captured notification from the armed services. They then turned to the Red Cross to learn more about their loved one’s fate. However the Red Cross also attempted to trace the whereabouts of civilians – both Australian and foreign citizens – living overseas who were caught up in the war in Europe or the Pacific.

The index cards were the administrative cornerstone of the bureau’s enquiry service. For such a harrowing and solemn business, the cards are a marvel of clerical efficiency and precision. Entries are heavily abbreviated and the volunteer typists rarely missed a capital letter or full stop.

There are no back-stories, no narrative, in most cases not even first names, just the barest facts about a missing person’s fate, ultimately summarised in one word at the top of each card; “repatriated”, “safe”, “recovered”, “liberated”, “located”, “missing”, “POW” (prisoner of war), “deceased”.

The Geneva Bureau in Switzerland which performed a similar service to the Red Cross in Australia.
University of Melbourne Archives

Yet the staccato shorthand belies both the complexity and compassion of this wartime service. Most of the bureau volunteers were themselves next-of-kin of POWs. They somehow managed to channel their anxiety into the myriad of clerical tasks that enabled information to flow between state, national and overseas Red Cross bureaus, searchers in military hospitals and the armed services. Cards, files, lists, letters and cables in the face of fearful waiting.

Bureaucracy and heartbreak often make for peculiar companions in the Red Cross archive. Within the Red Cross’s administrative file titled Bureau 1943 we find a few stray copies of letters to family members, laden with sympathy and sadness:

Dear Mrs Bould

We have, as you know, been making enquiries to try and obtain news of your son…and we have now had an unofficial report from a member of the Battalion who has returned to Australia.

His account of what happened when the Japanese attacked Kokoda toward the end of July is a sad one… According to our witness, [Private] Bould was busy on a job, ahead of the Unit’s defence position, when he was hit by a bullet which killed him instantly. The witness spoke as though he had known your son well… and added: “He was a particularly well-liked chap and a game soldier”. This is a tribute of which any soldier might be very proud, and we trust that it may bring you some slight comfort in your distress.

Please believe that our heartfelt sympathy goes out to you and that we will continue to do our utmost to find further witnesses who may be able to confirm or deny what we have so far learned.

Good relations with the Australian armed services were crucial to the bureau’s information gathering work, but the relationship was often strained. A few pages away from the bureau’s gentle letter to Mrs Bould we find the army threatening to withdraw cooperation because, in its opinion, the bureau was too hasty in providing information to next of kin. From the army:

It is not the policy of this Department to declare the death of a soldier as the result of hearsay information …

The sheer volume of these cards is hard to fathom; 59 archive boxes each containing around 1,000 cards, each card bearing witness to a family’s trauma and tragedy. They are uniform, ordered and monochrome. The lack of colour suits them. Emotions are suppressed beneath precision and procedure.

There is no nuance or commentary, just the cold, hard, abbreviated facts of war. Seventy years on, the sombre silence of these cards is a testament to the lives of those who went to war, and those who waited at home, longing for their return.

For Mrs Rawson, the silence about her son ended in October 1945 after the Red Cross volunteers updated her son’s card one more time:

Army Cas. 5231 adv. a/n [above named] died of disease whilst POW Siam Dysentry 31-10-43.


University of Melbourne Archives Series 2016.0049: Missing, Wounded and Prisoner of War Enquiry Cards will be available online to researchers from May 2017. Further information, and a name-based search option is available from the University of Melbourne Archives digitised items catalogue. Private Rawson’s card is item 2016.0049.44698. Read more about the Enquiry Cards.

Fiona Ross, Senior Archivist at the University of Melbourne Archives, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Today in History: May 10



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