The Ash Heap of History: Reflections on Historical Research in Southern Africa


  • Robert Edgar


When I began conducting research as a graduate student in southern Africa in 1973, I was following in the wake of an intrepid group of American scholars – Gwendolyn Carter, Tom Karis, Dan Johns and Gail Gerhart – who were amassing a remarkable collection of documents on the South African freedom struggle for their From Protest to Challenge (1972-1977) series. They challenged archival/library research that favored government or establishment sources by creating an alternative archive that laid the foundation for reconstructing modern South Africa’s freedom struggle. My own experience with documentary collecting on political and religious movements over the past three decades has been unconventional to say the least – and has even involved sifting through dustbins to retrieve documents. Because of my extended relationships with individuals, groups, and communities, my own efforts at documentary collection and retrieval have yielded totally unexpected and often surprising results. This essay is a reflection on the methodology of documentary collection with a focus on two case studies from the eastern Cape: 1) the discovery and return of the long-lost Ark of the Covenant of the Israelite church group and 2) the search for the burial site of the African woman prophet Nontetha in Pretoria and the return and reburial of her remains at her home.