100 years old and still making history: The centenary of the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town

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South African Historical Journal

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University of Cape Town

Observing institutional birthdays is not something academic historians readily undertake nowadays – their training makes them habitually wary of the constructed nature of such events and of the self-preening which usually accompanies them. All too often such occasions become part of a celebration of an invented tradition of origins, in which founders’ days are ‘seized on with alacrity for displays of pageantry, where, with high-ranking officials ever present, the narrative inevitably extol[s] … supposed progress and virtues’.1 However, commemorating a centenary is perhaps in a different category, for doing so has long roots in Western culture, dating back to the Biblical Jubilee, the Roman Catholic Church’s first Holy Year in 1300 and the veneration of the decimal system by the European Enlightenment. This makes marking a centenary seem quite natural, so easing the discomfort of historians with such an occasion. Moreover, when, as in the case of the centenary of the foundation of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) chair of history in 2003, the original event also signalled the inception of history as a university discipline in its own right in subSaharan Africa, the inducement to commemorate this step is difficult to resist. Added to this, 100 years is a meaningful timespan for reflecting on an institution, being long enough for a degree of historical perspective but short enough to permit the voices of some of the actors to be clearly heard too, perhaps once and – thanks to the tape recorder and video camera – forever. In a centenary year, therefore, both a microscope and telescope can be employed to good effect. It was with such ideas in mind that in 2002 UCT’s Department of Historical Studies contemplated its coming centenary and decided not to let it pass unnoticed.