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The role of history in knowledge production

- Wits University

"History, more than any other discipline played a key role in imagining a new South Africa", says Professor Noor Nieftagodien.

History has played a pivotal role in shaping the face of our country and in the production of knowledge. The subject, according to Professor Noor Nieftagodien, should have gained more popularity in schools after the dawn of democracy.

“After all, history, more than any other discipline played a key role in imagining a new South Africa, by drawing on the past and contributing to the anti-apartheid struggle, but the opposite happened,” says Nieftagodien.

Nieftagodien, a historian and acclaimed author of several books on the histories of our past and South Africa, was talking at the Principals Function on 27 July 2017, which this year highlighted the work and essence of the Faculty of Humanities.

His talk illuminated the role of history in knowledge production and how history is perceived and imagined, as well as the anxieties around history in schools.

According to Nieftagodien, it is important to understand the evolution of history as a means to understand the production of critical knowledges about different pasts.

“There is always a dialectical relationship between the context in which we operate and the way the knowledges about the past are produced,” says Nieftagodien.

Nieftagodien added that it is important to think about where we are as a country and globally, and how that position has “shaped our thinking as producers of knowledge and the people whom we work with -ordinary citizens and how they imagine history, and what they want history to do”.

South Africa’s political climate in recent years has been gloomy, one with many changes which South Africans were not agreeing with. Despite this, the country is in its most interesting time of contemporary history because “we are at the crux of change”, said Nieftagodien with great enthusiasm.

 “One of the defining features about this moment is that we understand and we recognise that we are disagreeing and sometimes disagreeing fundamentally. For me, that is hugely positive and it has an enormous consequence for the production of knowledge.”

Nieftagodien is the Head of the History Workshop at Wits, which celebrates 40 years since its existence this year and South African Research Chair in Local Histories, Present Realities.

“The emergence of history workshop was firmly located within the idea of an emerging movement against apartheid, of workers, of students, and of black people asserting themselves against white monopoly rule,”says Nieftagodien.

The history workshop, through their numerous projects has played an important role in the rewriting of history.

The Principals Function is hosted annually by the Wits School’s Liaison and Marketing in an effort to strengthen relationships with top performing schools.