By Lesley Cowling

Researchers from the Wits Centre for Journalism recently met with their French counterparts in the beautiful city of Nancy to discuss research into the journalism (and literary journalism) of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902. The workshop forms part of a French-South Africa project “A Centenary of (Post) Colonial Narrative Literary Journalism in South Africa and France”, funded by the National Research Foundation (SA) and Campus France.

The war has been selected as the first project of the two-year research initiative as it is the first global news event in South African history, attracting numerous journalists, writers and freelance adventurers to the fray, and fuelling a global publishing industry. As researcher Mfuneko Toyana quipped, these publishing efforts with their speedy production, international circulation, wide use of pictures and creation of celebrities, “were the Twitter, Instagram and Facebook of their day”.

The Wits group included Professor Lesley Cowling, doctoral candidate Lesley Mofokeng, and postgraduate researcher Toyana, and were hosted by Professor John Bak, a leading scholar in the field of literary journalism and its history. Other French researchers included doctoral student Indiana Lods and Boer War expert Professor Gilles Teulie.

The workshop focused on which research questions and projects should be prioritised from the range of possible studies. A key focus, from the Wits side, is to consider where the journalism about the war fits into South African media history. Many of the accounts of the war also appear to be important examples of narrative or literary journalism, contributing to the growing scholarship into narrative non-fiction in South Africa. An astonishing number of writers, many of whom would become global public figures, were embroiled in the events of the war, from Sol Plaatje, trapped in Mafeking during the siege, Olive Schreiner, under house arrest in Hanover, to Mahatma Gandhi in the ambulance corps of Natal, Winston Churchill embedded as soldier-correspondent in the British army, and arch-imperialist Arthur Conan Doyle.

Mofokeng, whose doctoral research looks at Plaatje’s contribution to the black press and journalism in South Africa, presented on Plaatje’s Mafeking Diary, which has long been categorised as the only black account of the War, and in fact was never published in his lifetime. As well as considering what the diary shows about Plaatje’s early writing, Mofokeng also explores Plaatje’s pivotal involvement in the flows of journalism and information in and out of the besieged town. Mofokeng also proposed a project that would attempt to find and reclaim black accounts of the war by researching black readership newspapers of the time.

Professors Bak and Cowling proposed a project on Emily Hobhouse, the British activist who reported on the concentration camps in which thousands of Boer women and children died. Hobhouse’s writings were translated and widely circulated in France and Europe, while being censored and restricted in most British newspapers. Wits research associate Kevin Davie, collaborating online, suggested looking at the factors that contributed to making the war an international news event and shaped the journalism and narrative accounts that flowed into the global public sphere.

Toyana and Lods began work on the second focus of the French-SA project, which will examine literary journalism and Afro-futurism in South Africa and France in the post-apartheid era. For more information on the project, see here.