Sophiatown, Triomf and now Sophiatown again – this suburb on the very toes of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) has a turbulent history and an interesting present and Professor Natasha Erlank, head of the Department of Historical Studies at UJ, knows all about it.
“Yes, Sophiatown has a history, but it is not the history of Sophiatown,” she emphasises, talking about a research project which spans five years, which she describes as “exhausting, but satisfying”.
Erlank has spent last 12 years lecturing and researching at UJ (until 2005, the Rand Afrikaans University). From 2007 to 2010 she directed the Centre for Culture and Languages in Africa, a research unit in the Faculty of Humanities. In 2011 she moved to head up Historical Studies at UJ.
“I was always interested in archaeology as a child, and when I went to university I registered to study archaeology. My history lecturers at the University of Cape Town were so fabulous that I decided to switch majors and become an historian. The archaeology fitted right in. I have always enjoyed and been fascinated by how people lived in the past, what their motivations were, and how they thought. I’m interested in understanding the historical development of current phenomena. This is why I like working on history projects like the Sophiatown project, where people get to reflect upon and discuss why history is important to them.”
The whole project, which has even lead to a book, Experiencing Sophiatown: Conversations among residents about the past, present and future of a community, published by Jacana Media and available in all major bookstores, came out of an oral history project which the UJ history department began in 2009.
“The project focused on the Western areas of Johannesburg and in the course of doing that we realisd there is a real interest in Sophiatown – people were interested in knowing more about the area and finding out about the history of Sophiatown. At the time we had a visiting professor from the USA, David Thelen, who had done a lot of work on public history. So, we talked about the project to see if he and I could take it any further. We were both keen to see what we could do with our ideas about history and civic engagement.”
Erlank, who is very proud of the book, says UJ can also be proud of the whole project as it is unique in South Africa. “We hoped there would be a book about the project, but we did not anticipate THIS book. This is not an academic book. Of course it is useful to academics but it’s a co-authored book by people from community and all the people in the book were involved in what went in. So, it was not just academics who chose the content, the residents had input.”
She says at the start of the project many residents were sceptical that the researchers would actually do something for them. “This project has broken down the binary between the university and the community. The book made it clear that we were not there to get information and go back to the university. The book is part of project which would stay behind with the residents. Our book deal included 300 free copies to the residents. As academics we have to disseminate our results, and well, this is our way to disseminate our results.”