Heritage: Researcher Profile - Dr Siona O'Connell

21 September 2020

Dr Siona O’Connell is based in the University of Pretoria’s School of the Arts and is a founding member of the Critical African Studies project at UP (CAST UP).  She was the recipient of the prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of the Humanities in Africana and Latin American Studies, Art and Art History and Film and Media Studies at Colgate University in the USA. She has published widely, curated numerous exhibitions, and directed and produced seven films that consider ways of life after racial oppression in South Africa. These include two on forced removals and restitution: An Impossible Return and Uitgesmyt, as well as a film on South Africa’s post-apartheid governing party, the African National Congress, titled Promises and Lies: Fault Lines of the ANC. Her latest film, In Gods Naam, considers the long reach of a colonial and slave history and confronts the schisms that remain unreconciled between the Nederduitse Gereformeerder Kerk (NGK) and The Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA).

Dr O’Connell co-edited Hanging on a Wire: Photographs by Sophia Klaase, which won the 2018 Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) Award for Best Non-Fiction Edited Volume.

Her work pivots on ideas of place, belonging and freedom, with a specific focus on land restitution and restorative justice. Her research interests centre on ‘colouredness’, memory and trauma, and how to think about freedom after apartheid.

What has influenced your research interests?

I am a self-acknowledged late developer! I credit the shaping of my academic career to being  schooled at Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa in Swaziland and my postgraduate studies with the late Professor Harry Garuba of UCT, Professor Nick Shepherd (UP and Aarhus University), and Professor Anthony Bogues of Brown University in the USA.

Where did you learn filmmaking?

I have never studied film production, but knew it was a powerful medium that has broad appeal and impact. I started off by learning instead from award-winning directors and creative teams and building a team with whom I have worked for years. I ask questions, believe in a dialogic approach, and establish relationships long before a camera is used. I also don’t use a script or storyboard.

How has your background influenced your work?

I was raised in a politically aware family, living on the edge of District Six, in walking distance to my paternal grandparents’ home in the iconic area. A love of reading and learning was drilled into the entire extended family. Also, ‘sitting on the fence’ was never an option. The forced removal of my grandparents, uncles and aunt to Hanover Park and Mitchell’s Plain on the Cape Flats is pivotal in the work to which I am committed. Seeing my grandfather diminish, becoming a shadow of his former, looming self, has never gone away.

What drives you to do this work?

My drive is not only to document the past as a nostalgic project. Rather, I contend that South Africa’s past plays out every moment in a deeply unequal society, and that those who are committed to the project of freedom are duty-bound to do difficult but necessary work. I am acutely aware of the privileges afforded to some on the basis of skin colour and gender – far too many have to work twice as hard to get half as far. It is my daily drive to chip away at the edges of privilege.

What are your goals at UP?

I am focused on developing a new generation of critical and imaginative young scholars at UP, to ask those unsettling questions of who we are and what freedom can look like.

What should young South Africans do to document their own family’s struggles?

Be involved in documenting the experiences of their families, ask questions, track down objects, photographs, and reach out to others to speak about shared experiences. Consider studies that focus on reimagining Africa!

How can people who have a story to tell (from the Cape Flats or other forced removals) share their experiences and stories with you for curation? 

Please contact me on email or through castup.co.za.

As a scholar and a practitioner who sees the lasting effects of apartheid in everyday South Africa, what is the most devastating legacy of apartheid?

Poverty and inequality. And that women, especially black women, continue to pay an unconscionable price for a debt that’s due as a result of the past. This is why I the do the work that I do.

Dr Siona O'Connell