South African history through new ears

Is the future of podcasting a show featuring isiZulu retellings of 19th-century African life combined with an original soundscape composed with a revolutionary ethos?

Reconstructed amaQhugwane near the main entrance of uMgungundlovu. Image credit JMK via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.

We’re now three months into 2021 and while the dawn of a new year and the global rollout of COVID-19 vaccine provided a much-needed preview of a new era in the pandemic, for many very little has changed. For those of us based outside the continent, this “new normal” means that it is unclear when we will be able to return to our research sites, our second homes, our families. There is no way to know how long it will be before travel restrictions are lifted or when we will feel safe enough to venture beyond the confines of our socially distanced pandemic bubbles. While the warm embrace of streaming services have provided much-needed escape for many from the quotidian coronavirus struggles that wear us all down, for others podcasts represent a welcome alternative that combines information and entertainment. And the listening options available for those interested in the Diaspora are substantial.

From podcasts focused on current events/news to Afro-Diasporic music to African Studies, the options available for Africanists are plentiful but they also tend towards the contemporary. They also tend towards the informational, which is true of the format broadly. But what is the next phase in podcasting generally, and specifically in an African Diasporic context?

In the early 1900s, amateur historian, James Stuart recorded accounts of life in the Zulu capital uMgungundlovu. While his recordings were not aural, a new project from the University of Cape Town’s Archive and Public Culture (APC) research initiative attempts to imagine what the mid-19th century would sound like. uMgungundlovu: through the eyes of the izinceku demonstrates the possibility of this experiential approach. Directed and produced by Dan Corder and combining an original musical score by Thokozani Mhlambi and recitations of firsthand accounts of precolonial KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) history, uMgungundlovu immerses the listener in a highly localized soundscape in the former Zulu capital of the same name.

Launched in September 2020, this project represents the first of a series of podcasts based on materials contained within the APC’s 500 Year Archive, a digital research project designed to allow interested parties “to dive into the southern African past up to five centuries before colonialism.” The podcast project is also geared towards recovering “South Africa’s past before colonialism,” according to Carolyn Hamilton, NRF Chair of the APC project and a noted historian/anthropologist. “We are sharply aware of the dearth of accessible, publicly appealing, historical materials concerning South Africa’s past before colonialism . . . especially in local African languages,” Hamilton explained in an interview earlier this year:

Remedying this situation is challenging. For a start, very few researchers work in this area. You might well ask why that is the case. One of the reasons is that there seems to be very little source material and a lot of what there is, is scattered and firmly stitched up in colonial thinking and categorizations. Actually there is quite a lot of material but it is tricky to mobilize in publicly accessible ways.

The two-part podcast offers a sonic interpretation of life at Zulu king Dingane’s capital of uMgungundlovu in the 1830s. In particular, the podcast centers on accounts of life in the Zulu capital recorded in the early 1900s by amateur historian, James Stuart and recited in isiZulu for the production by historian Mbongiseni Buthelezi. Testimonies by Lunguza kaMpukaneThununu kaNonjiya , Ngidi kaMcikaziswa, and Sivivi kaMaqungo each appeared in a school reader, uKulumetule, in 1925 and, later, in volumes of the James Stuart Archive, the multi-volume project collecting interviews with Stuart’s informants. Although the pieces presented in this podcast are mediated by Stuart (a fact that has garnered considerable historiographical debate over the years), Hamilton explains that the accounts do not “stand as authoritative incontrovertible history but as pieces from the archive.”:

We cannot, and do not, claim that these are exact versions of what they said, but the accounts come some way down that road. On the “do not” claim: we want these pieces not to stand as authoritative incontrovertible history but as pieces from the archive. Thus, when you encounter the podcasts you are continually directed into the archive yourself. Even if these pieces could somehow be shown to be verbatim what these men said, unmediated by anything, these would be their particular views, their particular memories. Others might have seen things differently.

Even the musical score of the podcast continually directs the listener into the archive. The musical excerpts are from cellist and composer Thokozani Mhlambi‘s “Ukudibana kwezimpondo (The meeting of the tusks).” In the spirit of the project, Mhlambi approached the composition process as an opportunity to disentangle the historical site of uMgungundlovu from the oversight of European oversight; he believes that “creative methodologies are the ones best posed to re-shape our understanding of the site based on African perspectives.”

There are already plans in place to expand on this project, including commissioning translations of the uKulumtele excerpts into seSotho and English “to foster multilingual experiments, experiences and engagements.” (You can stay up-to-date with the project’s progress on the 500 Year Archive Website.)

Is the future of podcasting a show featuring exclusively isiZulu retellings of 19th-century African life combined with an original soundscape composed with a revolutionary ethos? I certainly hope so. In this era of travel restrictions and social distancing, perhaps the next evolution of the podcast format will be towards experiential podcasts that combat wanderlust and homesickness by depositing the listener in a different place and time. uMgungundlovu: through the eyes of the izinceku charts an exciting path forward.

Further Reading