African Ancestry

One Land: Countless Histories – Ancestral Stories 19 June 2010

Mr. Mbongiseni Buthelezi, who teaches in the English Department at the University of Cape Town, and is working on his PhD, having won a Fullbright scholarship to Columba University in the USA, gave a very interesting talk on archives and ancestral stories or oral tradition and how they should be approached. This arises out of his involvement in the Archival Platform, which is a joint initiative with the Nelson Mandela Foundation and UCT

The Archival Platform was formed last year and acts as an umbrella body for all the various archives, which they take to mean anything that holds some significance or meaning in our history. This is expanded to include such things as significant landscapes, state and private archives, museums, art galleries, and collections of many descriptions – as well as memory archives which have in the past been overlooked.

Users of these archives include not only genealogists, but historians, curators, writers, artists, researchers etc. The primary strategies of the AP are 1) Research 2) Networking and 3) Advocacy. There is a monthly newsletter which interested parties subscribe to – at present over 1000 around the world. The website includes blogs, news, job opportunities, conferences, campaigns and polls etc – recently one on the use (or not) of digital cameras in the Western Cape Archives, a subject close to our hearts! They also operate on the social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. It all came out of a conference in 2007 and was officially launched in November 2009.

Mbongiseni’s main interest is who and how people are doing family history in South Africa, having started by drawing up his own family tree. People and organizations using different approaches can share and learn from one another, and the information gained used for such diverse things as land claims and individual or group histories independent of the larger tribes.
Mbongiseni has a blog on the Archival Platform website, on Facebook : Ancestral Stories or he can be contacted on

Problems in the archival system consist of a lack of skill and disinterest in record keeping. Birth, Marriage and Death records need to be digitized from Home Affairs records – Ancestry24 is also assisting where possible with gravestone records and others. Although worldwide, the LDS records are not strong on South Africa.

When Mbongiseni started on the Buthelezi family history in Vryheid and Ulundi, he looked into the praise names to ancestors, which no-one could explain satisfactorily what they meant. He related the commonly believed history of Shaka Zulu who conquered the Buthelezi chiefdom – the story being that some were incorporated into the Zulu nation, others fled. There was a dispute between the two branches of the family, with one lot subjugated by the other. Mbongiseni published a book on his interpretation of the family history, which caused ructions in the family because the one branch disagreed and wanted to stick to the history as it had been passed down or “reinvented”. He explained how the Shangaans originally came from KZN, and spread to Southern Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania while reinventing their history, even to the extent of banning some praise songs. History was thus reinvented through oral history for various egocentric reasons eg to claim kinship. Mbongiseni in this way demonstrated to us the sometimes unreliability of oral history, and pointed out that even written historical records need to be taken with care, as circumstances might dictate different versions.