The importance of dusty boxes, by Jade Nair

25 Nov 2015 - 13:15
Jade Nair, project manager under Dr Siona O’Connell at the Centre for Curating the Archive, was very involved in the production of O’Connell’s documentaries, The Wynberg 7 and An Impossible Return and the digitisation of the archive of Zubeida Vallie’s photographs . In the following text, Nair reflects on the parallels between the archival images she had been working with, and the scenes witnessed in the Fees Must Fall movement. She comments on why she chose to work on the documentary projects through the period of protest action. 

The importance of dusty boxes

Tear gas, water canons and burning tyres – these are scenes from the archives I have been working on for the past three years, in particular the archive of Zubeida Vallie’s photographs. At the time most of these photographs were taken, Vallie was a student herself who happened to be in the wrong places at the right times.

Vallie’s images first came to me in the form of dusty negatives in dusty boxes that had been stored under beds and atop cupboards for the past two decades. As I scanned hundreds of neg strips, scenes of protest, solidarity and youth movement revealed themselves to me. I began seeing reoccurring faces, the parents of some of my peers, and places that I walked by regularly, like St George’s Cathedral.

They were difficult images to work with. Teenagers in school uniforms gagging on teargas and students my own age running from rubber bullets. Whilst they were difficult to absorb, the violence these images contained was dulled, somewhat, by the distance of time. The scratch marks and dust reassured me that these scenes were safely in the past, a past that I was honoured to be involved in memorializing in the form of a digital archive.

Zubeida Vallie, Barricades at youth protest, Athlone       Protests at UWC Vallie

This archive is closely linked to the emerging field of the digital humanities and created with university staff and students to use both as a teaching and research resource. Whilst loading strip after strip of negatives, I imagined the academics and scholars who would use this archive to tie in with their own research interests – history, sociology, and photography. What I never imagined, however, is that those academics and scholars would, months later, be involved in scenes reminiscent of those images.

Whilst watching footage of the Fees Must Fall protests, I was taken back to the research stage of the Wynberg 7 documentary project. Watching footage of the events of 15 October 1985 allowed me to truly understand the trauma of the experience as teenagers were arrested and sentenced to varying terms in Cape Town’s notorious Pollsmoor Prison. Thirty years later, almost to the day, I watched as fellow members of the university community were handled like criminals.

I made the choice to continue to work through the protest action. Out of respect for the movement I moved off campus, but could not abandon the cause that I had been a part of for the past three years. Archives do not only serve to preserve, but they also bring to surface what has been stored in dusty boxes for far too long. I have watched as grandparents proudly showed their grandchildren a glimpse of their lives prior to forced removals through our Movie Snaps and Impossible Return projects. I have listened to these people who thought their stories would stay in those dusty boxes, and seen the immense joy that merely retelling and sharing those stories has brought them and their families.

On 29 October 2015, I stood in Baxter Theatre’s Concert Hall and watched the gasps, cries and laughter of those people and their families. They no longer had to carry those dusty boxes around with them; their bravery and resilience were both brought to life and retold through the films, Impossible Return and Wynberg 7. I salute my peers who successfully employed mass protest action and continue to do so. I also salute my colleagues at the Centre for Curating the Archive who ensure that no history goes untold. To quote Dr Siona O’Connell, “There are many paths to freedom”, and ours is through the dusty boxes and archives.

Image captions, from left to right:

1. Zubeida Vallie, Barricades at youth protest, Athlone. Description: Barricades erected during a youth protest as a defence against police brutality, Belgravia Road, Athlone, Cape Town, 1985.

2. Zubeida Vallie, Student protest, UWC. Description: Student protesters overwhelmed by teargas on the UWC (University of the Western Cape) campus, Bellville, Cape Town.