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16 August 2023

The Wentworth Book Project: Capturing community histories

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

Written by Latoya Newman for IOL.

TWELVE years ago, a social history project was started to capture the histories of historically white, black African, Indian and coloured communities in South Africa.

Led by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), one of the products of this research is The Wentworth Book Project. It is based on the histories of this community in the south Durban basin.

Dr Gregory Houston, the chief research specialist at the HSRC, made a presentation on the project at the Durban International Book Fair on August 13.

“The Wentworth Book project is an offshoot of the Wentworth Social History Project that was initially conceived in 2011 to be the first of at least four social history projects that were to be conducted in one historically white, black African, Indian and coloured urban residential areas in the country.

“The objective was two-fold: to deconstruct misunderstandings of the racial ‘other’ (white, black African, Indian and coloured) prevalent in racial stereotypes.

“This was done by exploring the wide diversity in terms of geographical origin, ancestry, life experience, class, educational qualifications, achievements, political outlook, self-identification, primary concerns, political activism, contribution to society, social impediments suffered, etc, of the residents of each of these communities.

“The second was to examine transformations in social, economic and political circumstances and the impact of these changes on residents of the township during particular historical periods from apartheid to the present democratic era.

“The social history projects took off when funding was provided for phases one and two of the Wentworth Social History Project by HSRC in 2021 and 2022, and phase one of the Langa Social History Project in 2022.”

Houston said the projects arose in response to evidence in the HSRC and other research of an increasing trend towards race consciousness.

“That is individuals identifying increasingly with the opportunities and challenges that exist for people identified during apartheid as similar to them; of increasing racial discrimination and racism; and of the differences in which the change from apartheid to democracy have impacted individuals that originate from the same apartheid era racially-defined residential areas.

“The primary long-term objectives are to increase understanding of people defined as the racial ‘other’ in South Africa by people belonging to what were different apartheid era race-groups; and to increase the understanding of the factors that account for different outcomes during the democratic era for individuals who grew up in the same apartheid-era residential areas and of the continuing marginalisation of some sectors of our society.

“A secondary objective is to come to an understanding of the root causes of the challenges facing some sectors of the communities under study,” said Houston.

He said the Wentworth Social History Project was initiated in 2021, and over 100 current and past residents of Wentworth have been interviewed to date.

“Use was made of the life history approach, which focuses on the life of the individuals interviewed from birth to the date of the interview. The interviews were based on a set of core themes, such as place of birth, ancestry, migration to Wentworth, early childhood memories, educational experiences, and recollections of sport, business, labour, political activities, prevalent social ills, and contributions of residents to the broader society, among other things.

“The book is envisaged to be a collection of a select number of the interviews that will be edited into chapters. A Facebook group page, Wentworth Social History Project, has been created, and regular posts are made on the Wentworth (South Africa) Represent! Facebook group page,” he said.

Houston said his presentation would broadly outline progress with the project and future steps.

“The public is welcome to engage with the research team putting together the book because their insights will be helpful.”

He said social history projects that utilised the life history approach, such as the one being conducted in Wentworth and Langa for the social history projects, provided useful insights into the trajectory of change in individuals’ lives and, therefore, of the community that they are part of.

“It thus becomes possible to identify the key factors that account for the current circumstances in such communities. In particular, Wentworth and many similar communities around the country, faces a range of challenges, including widespread poverty, unemployment, substance abuse and risky sexual behaviour. There are also high levels of crime and gender-based violence, and a high incidence of HIV and Aids, a significant school drop-out rate, and high levels of insecurity due to gangsterism and a war over control of the drug trade.

“Developing an understanding of the roots and nature of these challenges is a starting point for discovering solutions to them.”

For more information see the Facebook page: Wentworth Social History Project.

This article was first published by IOL.

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

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