Reading between the lives

The exhibition Treasure House of Knowledge marks 200 years of the National Library of South Africa. Curated by Andrew Lamprecht, it is a project in which the library challenges and complicates its own history, and the country’s, with a small but careful selection of works.

It is worth a look for the curiosity factor alone — there’s a certain excitement in viewing a famous book that’s been around for five times the lifespan of an inordinately healthy human, and is still in pretty good shape. It also digs a little deeper into South African history than one would expect.

Some of the visual statements are necessarily obvious, so any outsider can grasp how histories that glorify imperialists are being challenged. A painting of Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival is hung upside down, literally inverting the colonial moment. Some shelves in the exhibition have been left empty, a stark reminder of what’s been lost by neglecting to document and preserve many of South Africa’s marginalised histories.

Elsewhere, some humour comes through in the charm, the creepiness and the curiosity of various publications: cheerful cigarette ads in Huisgenoot, a headline on a 1966 copy of “men’s lifestyle” magazine Scope asking: “What is being done about SA’s drought menace?”, various beauty queens championing skin-lightening cream in Drum.

On just about every page is proof that the apartheid years were a time when the personal was more political than ever: copies of Zonk! magazine present an idealised vision of style and culture to the black consumer, seemingly unaware that their reader would one day be represented as one side of the era’s struggle rather than living, breathing, thinking, shopping human beings.

The exhibition holds plenty that is genuinely remarkable.

Few are probably aware that deep in a well-hidden building at the foot of the Company’s Garden lurks a Shakespeare first folio — believed to be one of only 14 still in 
well-preserved condition today.

There are also historic works of natural history, and meticulously hand-embroidered book covers. There’s a Bible from 1275 and a 16th-century Qur’an.

Closer to home, there are early works from Olive Schreiner (under her pseudonym, Ralph Iron), Noni Jabavu, Nadine Gordimer and James Percy FitzPatrick.

Then, importantly, an overlap becomes evident: in one display case, a 1758 edition of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress sits alongside an 1889 isiXhosa translation of the same title, and an 1873 edition translated into Namibia’s Otjiherero. There’s also a 1937 edition of Sol Plaatjie’s Setswana translation of Julius Caesar. These literary landmarks form a reminder that those empty shelves aren’t just bare of what history has neglected or not bothered about: what’s also missing is everything that has been wilfully omitted or wiped away.

The existence of a black intellectual tradition in South Africa’s history is not a revelation — those are, after all, the roots of the country’s ruling party. But we’re often quick to forget that apartheid didn’t merely neglect the stories of those it aimed to keep oppressed: it wilfully suppressed them and, in some cases, succeeded in erasing them.

Its education system wasn’t designed simply to prioritise the education of white people, or even the simple purpose of keeping 
a black labour force uneducated. 
No, it was put in place to create a world in which the translation of classic works of Western literature into indigenous languages seems remarkable.

Black intellect was a menace to white South Africa’s economy, and had to be addressed, decisively.

As we’ve seen in the weeks since Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s death, there are stories from South Africa’s history that languish in an unclear state simply because few have taken the time to re-examine them.

The everyday history displayed here is a good place to start: the sports pages, the election posters, the religious texts and the books read for pleasure in the decades before the worst excesses of apartheid.

This exhibition is impressive in that, instead of using new texts to disturb existing perceptions, it 
uses old texts to create new ones 
with unusual juxtapositions and by generally disrespecting established narratives.

The effect is to conjure alternative histories and potential futures; books we failed to write but might yet.

Treasure House of Knowledge 
is at the National Library of 
South Africa, 5 Queen Victoria Street, Cape Town, from Monday 
to Friday, 8am-6pm. The exhibition runs until March 2019 and entrance is free

Open secrets

Curator Andrew Lamprecht picks four remarkable finds from the exhibition Treasure House of Knowledge.

Mighty Man and Tiger Ingwe

Mighty Man and Tiger Ingwe were two black superhero comic series from the early 1970s, both edited by black people. Very few copies are known to exist but the National Library of South Africa has a full set. When South African comics expert Moray Rhoda saw the collection, he nearly cried. He had seen photos of both comic books but had never come across a copy of either.

Dear Mahatma …

Researcher Simon Spender discovered a letter from Olive Schreiner to her friend Mahatma Gandhi, criticising him for supporting the British cause in World War I. Schreiner expresses her surprise that Gandhi “and other Indian friends had offered to serve this the English government in this evil war in any way they might demand of you … Surely you, who would not take up arms even in the cause of your own oppressed people, cannot be willing to shed blood in this wicked cause.”

The Baartman File

This week, artist Laura Wind-
vogel, aka Lady $kollie, had a look at a portfolio of cartoons of Sarah Baartman, which hasn’t been catalogued by the library. They were collected at about the time Baartman was being exhibited in Europe, possibly by the London Anti-Slavery Society (the initials LSS appear on the binding), which fought to have her freed. We took the decision to exhibit the portfolio closed — because the cartoons are offensive — but with an explanation of its contents. Lady $kollie will make an artistic intervention in response to them.


Cape Town’s Muslim community in the mid-19th century was fiercely debating Muslim religious practice and dietary laws. The community leaders wrote to Queen Victoria asking for help, who in turn asked her ambassador to the Ottoman Empire to send a serious scholar to help to resolve the issues. They sent Abu Bakr Effendi, who wrote Die Uiteenstelling van die Godsdiens, a religious guide that was translated into Afrikaans but printed in Arabic script.

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Cayleigh Bright
Cayleigh Bright
Journalist, author, copywriter. Full-time freelance.

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