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Southern African Collections: a co-curation

Ingoma yenu ngiqale ngayizwa, ngayizwa ngayeya ngokungaz, namuhla sengiyayiqonda ngiyayithobela. (When first I heard our tribal songs, they seemed to me of little worth; but now their message echoes in my heart)"


B.W. Vilakazi, Ngizw' Ingoma ('I hear a singing ...') (1935)


Creating new connections: shared digital curation of the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) southern African collections at Cambridge University Library is a two-year project generously funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York. The project aims to consider and develop approaches to co-production and co-curation using the holdings of the RCS relating to southern Africa.

This material encompasses a diverse range of content and format from personal papers, manuscripts, diaries, drawings, watercolours, photographs, pamphlets, cartoons, newspapers and maps to directories, monographs, official publications and journals. There is good coverage of nineteenth and twentieth century South Africa, including material relating to the predecessor colonies of the Cape, Natal, Transvaal and Orange River, as well as material relating to Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia), Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia), Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland Protectorate), Lesotho (formerly Basutoland) and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland). The bulk of the southern African collections are currently accessible only to those physically able to visit Cambridge University Library. In their current state, the collections are effectively set apart from the communities they document.

The project represents a first step in opening up the collections to communities and researchers in southern Africa, where the material originated in the first place, and globally. The creation of a dedicated digital collection relating to southern Africa, drawing on local and personal knowledge, will allow more robust interrogation and interpretation of the collections than has previously been possible. A programme of conservation, digitisation and enhanced cataloguing based on a considered collaborative approach will secure continued access, both physical and digital, to the material for future generations.

By creating and developing new connections with southern African communities, it is hoped the project will facilitate a better overall understanding of the collections and inform decision-making about the future care of this material. In particular, the selection of material for digitisation and the prioritisation of workflows will be actively informed by these new relationships and partnerships.

South African Native Affairs Commission

In partnership with the University of Cape Town, fully searchable PDF files, and associated metadata relating to SANAC, are now available to consult on EMANDULO, a platform established by the Five Hundred Year Archive (FHYA) research intitiative to encourage the sharing of digital resources and to promote curatorial and digital experimentation.

Godfrey Lagden’s presentation copy of the South African Native Affairs Commission (SANAC) report. The commission, chaired by Sir Godfrey Lagden (1851-1934), later a vice-president of the Royal Colonial Institute (an earlier iteration of the RCS), took evidence from settlers and Africans across the four colonies, then known as The Cape (Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, parts of North West province); Transvaal (Limpopo, Mpumalana, North West province, Gauteng, parts of KwaZulu-Natal); Natal (KwaZulu-Natal); and Orange River (Free State province), and across the territories then known as Rhodesia (Zimbabwe); Bechuanaland (Botswana); and Basutoland (Lesotho) between 1903 and 1905. The commission was appointed by the British High Commissioner for South Africa, Alfred Milner, to examine and provide recommendations for “the Native question”. The volumes of evidence give some access to the African voice which is so often silent or simply absent in official documents. The report, published in February 1905, advocated for, amongst other things, territorial and political separation along racial grounds, the industrial and manual education (as opposed to literary education) of Africans, and the importance of Christianity. Notable interlocutors include:


Recent additions (August 2023)

A selection of print and pamphlet material relating to southern Africa has been added to the digital library. The selection, which represents just a fraction of the RCS library material, broadly covers the following themes:

  • vernacular language material: including works of the philologist Wilhelm Bleek and his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd, and early orthographies of Tswana and Xhosa;
  • publications of the Lovedale Press, 2023 being the 200th anniversary of printing activities at Lovedale Mission: including a play by Herbert I.E. Dhlomo and essays by the Xhosa educationist, Davidson Jabavu;
  • further material relating to 'the native questions' in its historic context in southern Africa, taking the narrative forward from the publication of the SANAC report;
  • material relating to the early history of the colony of Natal [KwaZulu-Natal] and the Zulu Kingdom, including publications by Hariette Emily Colenso.

For more details about the project, including regular blogposts about the collections and the project’s engagement activities, see the Southern African collections: a co-curation project webpage. Newly digitised material, with accompanying enhanced metadata, will be added to the Digital Library throughout the second year of the project (2023). To get involved or to learn more about the RCS material relating to southern Africa please contact

Cambridge University Library is grateful for the support of Carnegie Corporation of New York which has made this project and this digital collection possible.