The University of Pretoria (UP) and South African Heritage Publishers are collaborating on a preservation project to translate a treasure trove of old manuscripts written in various indigenous languages, and which reveal fascinating detail about the lives of South Africa’s ancestral people, into English for a series of books to bring this heritage to a broader readership.
In 2018 the publishing company approached UP Special Collections about using manuscripts, particularly the Van Warmelo Collection, as source material for a series of illustrated history sbooks known as Our Story. The series focuses on the history of traditional South African cultures and is written in English, specifically for first additional language learners.
Dr Nicolaas Jacobus van Warmelo (1904-1989), an internationally recognised anthropologist, served as state ethnologist for the Republic of South Africa from 1930 to1969 and on the language councils for Venda, Northern Sotho and Tsonga, as well as on the National Council for Place Names.
The Van Warmelo Collection was donated to the University after the doctor’s death, and comprises 540 manuscripts concerning various South African indigenous groups: Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, Tsonga, Southern Sotho (Sesotho), Tswana, Northern Sotho (Sepedi) and Venda (Tshivenḓa).
These manuscripts include detailed information about the history, traditions, way of life, dress, laws, warfare and religion of the groups, as well as the traditional life stages from birth to death. Dr Van Warmelo collected this information over 30 to 40 years and it forms part of his unpublished legacy. The collection also includes several photographs, albums and cultural samples.
The collection is currently being digitised, with almost 600 manuscripts available on UPSpace. One of the main challenges of the UP-SA Heritage Publishers project is that the material in the collection is in various indigenous languages and is fairly idiomatic for the period in which it was written, which, of course, limits access to the information. As part of the collaboration, SA Heritage Publishers has been working to translate the available manuscripts and has already brought amazing stories to light.
City Press has been running a series on this work throughout Heritage Month, and a call has been made for assistance in finding the relatives of the original authors of the manuscripts. SA Heritage Publishers has identified a few of the authors, whose details are listed on the SA Heritage Ancestral Voices webpage. The publishing company is asking anyone who could be related to or has any information about any of the original authors to contact them at [email protected].
To view the Van Warmelo Collection, click here.
For more information on the Ancestral Voices Project, click here.