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UCT’s digital archive collates isiXhosa literature

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 10 Nov 2022

Dr Jacques de Wet of the Department of Sociology at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is leading a team establishing a digital archive to make early isiXhosa literature authored by African intellectuals easily available online.

Dr De Wet, who is also head of the isiXhosa Sociological Concepts and Intellectual Traditions Research Group, in collaboration with Amandla Ngwendu, from African Languages at UCT, is working with a team of isiXhosa-speaking students to digitise isiXhosa newspapers and literature from the late-1800s and early-1900s.

According to the higher learning institution, the goal of the digital archive is to make the writings of African intellectuals available online and “research-ready” for contemporary study.

The IsiXhosa Intellectual Traditions (IsiXIT) Digital Archive, already available on the iBali platform, hosted by UCT Libraries’ Digital Library Service, was born out of a conversation between De Wet and a colleague who was researching the writings of African intellectuals.

It includes PDFs and text files of early isiXhosa newspapers and books, as well as metadata about each publication and its contents.

Working with Ngwendu and his former student, Dr Jonathan Schoots from Stellenbosch University, De Wet secured funding and recruited a team of isiXhosa-speaking students to build the digital archive.

“Part of the challenge of researching the writings of African intellectuals, published at the turn of the 20th century, is accessing their work. These texts are scattered across numerous libraries in South Africa, and they are in varying conditions,” explains De Wet.

“The books are easier to access, but isiXhosa newspapers from the 1800s are very fragile and often damaged; for that reason, many are not available to the public. It is therefore incredibly important that our team of students are fluent in isiXhosa and engage carefully with the content because sometimes words are illegible, and they would have to read it in context to figure out what the word is supposed to be.”

De Wet explains the idea was also prompted by the challenge of trying to access and convert these writings for his own research work. This concept, he adds, gained considerable urgency after the devastating fires at UCT in 2021, which destroyed many primary collections.

According to De Wet, most sociology students will be familiar with names such as Max Weber and Émile Durkheim, who were influential European sociologists who lived and wrote in the late-1800s and early-1900s.

However, far fewer in SA would have heard the names Mpilo Walter Benson Rubusana and Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi – African intellectuals and social commentators from the same period who published their work in isiXhosa.

De Wet elaborates: “Their writings significantly influenced African ideological and intellectual projects of the period, which culminated in 1912 with the launching of the South African Native National Congress, later known as the Africa National Congress.

The website is accessible to the public and allows users to download and read the content they require online. There are currently a few books uploaded and over 2 000 newspaper articles are available.

“Once we have sufficient sociological concepts in isiXhosa, we can progress to archive indigenous theories,” he concludes.