Sandra Swart on presidency of SA Historical Society

Professor Sandra Swart of the Department of History at Stellenbosch University was recently appointed President of the Southern African Historical Society.Stephanie Nieuwoudt asked her a few questions:

What does this appointment mean for you?

Prof Sandra Swart

Prof Sandra Swart

The SAHS is the professional body for our discipline in the region (Southern Africa). The Society promotes professional historical research, the teaching of history at university level, the monitoring of public history and both the preservation of and access to historical materials.

I was voted in as President, after a two year term as vice-president, at an excellent international conference in Botswana – where (I am pleased to report) one of my PhD students, Wesley Mwatwara who is studying at Stellenbosch University on a an African Doctoral Academy/Postgraduate School Scholarship, won the award for Best Post-Graduate Article.

Southern Africa has very few historians and a lot of history! It is an honour to serve our discipline in this capacity … but I have a hell of a lot of work to do.

What are your goals as President of this body for the next two years?

In 2015 we will be bringing a huge international historical conference to Stellenbosch University – brace yourself. I will also organize a history film festival and several smaller academic colloquia. In addition, I want to organise some post-graduate workshops on academic publishing. Finally, our biggest worry as historians at the moment is the horrifying state of the national archives – this requires strategic liaison with government.

As an editor of the South African Historical Journal, I have just finished a Special Edition on the ‘State of the Archives’ and my next specific project is a Special Edition on ‘Sex and History. We plan to wrap it in brown paper and put it on the highest shelves of libraries.

What are your fields of speciality as an academic?

I am an Oxford-trained social and environmental historian. In the last few years I have written on subjects as diverse as laughter, livestock and land – I am not constrained by the fetters of specialisation, although I suppose all those themes are contained in a socio-environmental paradigm. I simply research the things that interest me. I agree with Pliny the Elder: “Life is my subject.”

I am very lucky to be in a department filled with kind, funny, supportive humans. And it is a great privilege to be surrounded by my wonderful post-graduate students from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Malawi in the research group called “History Friday Mornings”.

Together we are approaching the histories of southern Africa in new ways, with a great deal of research still ahead of us. Which is a Good Thing. After all, as the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork once observed “History changes all the time. It is constantly being re-examined and re-evaluated, otherwise how would we be able to keep historians occupied? We can’t possibly allow people with their sort of minds to walk around with time on their hands”.

Why do you think teaching and studying History is relevant today?

I could give you some banal quote about learning from the past – especially that truly annoying one about “those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat history”. Actually, only my first years who discover Tollies (the pub where students hang out) are doomed to repeat History. Of course one learns from history – but it mainly offers lessons like “Do not invade Russia in the winter”. Instead, I think the real value of learning about the past is to defamiliarise the present. To know that it was not always so is amazingly powerful. It can empower humans to challenge a status quo that they are otherwise taught to believe is “natural”, “biological” and “incontrovertible”. My job is to to expose that it has a history. Thus if it has changed, it can be further changed.

Anything else exciting happening in your life at the moment?

As we speak I am packing for my next trip which is to Outer Mongolia, a country whose own – frankly colourful – history was long suppressed by the Soviets. I will be effecting oral history interviews with nomadic families, live-stock owning men and women, for a comparative historical ethnography of horse-based societies. My fieldwork will be conducted on horseback  (so some of my rapier-witted post-grads are already calling me “Gender Khan”…) I’ll  be camping mostly or staying in gers with families, pastoralists who live in a state of near autarky.  Hopefully – on the steppes – I will see the last remaining species of wild horse, the takhi, known as Przewalski’s horse.  

I love my job.