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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 was a two-year project generously funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York (Nov. 2021 – Dec. 2023). The project aimed 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 through the creation of a dedicated digital collection relating to southern Africa.

The material selected for digitisation was informed by conversations with researchers and practitioners in southern Africa. Several key themes emerged, including the need to draw out African voices and experiences wherever possible. Over 7000 images have been added to the collection page, selected from 23 archive collections and more than 40 print items. 

Highlights include:

Godfrey Lagden’s presentation copy of the South African Native Affairs Commission (SANAC) report

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 initiative to encourage the sharing of digital resources and to promote curatorial and digital experimentation. For some suggested ways into the SANAC volumes, see the blog post 'Voices from SANAC'.

The historical significance of SANAC:

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, Mpumalanga, 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: John Tengo JabavuHarriette ColensoReverend Elijah MdolombaReverend Pambani Jeremiah MzimbaArthur Jesse ShepstoneTheophilus ShepstoneJames StuartReverend Edward Tsewu


What happened after SANAC

A selection of material to take the narrative forward from the publication of the 1905 report, in particular to explore the relationship and imbalance of power between colonisers and settlers in southern Africa and the African population in the course of the 20th century. In the terminology of the day this was referred to as ‘the native question’ or ‘the native problem’. This includes:

  • Files documenting the Blackspot Removal Campaign in Natal [now KwaZulu-Natal] collected by John Aitchison in his capacity as secretary for the Natal branch of the Liberal Party of South Africa in 1964-5. Further material gathered by John Aitchison relating to the blackspot removals is held at the Alan Paton Centre & Struggle Archives in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, with digitised material available via Digital Innovation South Africa.
  • Papers collected by Alexander Hepple (1904-1983) on the history of trade unions in South Africa, and issues of race and employment.
  • A small collection of mostly 19th century newspaper cuttings recording debates around the so-called ‘native question’ in Natal.

Vernacular language material

A selection of print and pamphlet material relating to southern Africa, representing just a fraction of the vast holdings of the RCS library collection. Among the material digitised is:


One of the strengths of the RCS collection is a particularly rich photographic record. Among the material digitised is:

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. 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.