We bear enormous responsibility for how we use the past to shape the future … in order to become worthy ancestors to the as yet unborn collective children. The stakes are high: the archive at once produces and destabilises the nation, and the challenge to the worthy ancestor is to proceed in knowledge of the power of archive. The worthy ancestor also bears a responsibility to ensure that the archives which are the storehouses of materials from and about the past are cared for and enhanced.

– Carolyn Hamilton, ‘Why Archive Matters’ in Becoming Worthy Ancestors (2011)

Effective democratisation can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.

– Jacques Derrida (1996)


On 25 September and 26 September 2018 for Grade 10 and 11 learners from Fundulwazi Secondary School and Sacred Heart College participated in a unusual learning experience in the Liliesleaf Archive and National Heritage site. They got a chance to explore artefacts relating to lives of liberation leaders when they were forced to go underground and coordinate the struggle against apartheid in secret.

Learners were literally taken underground into the Liliesleaf archive. They were divided into groups and each given a box of archival material – the evidence! Each box contained artefacts relating to life at Liliesleaf, the police raid and the Rivonia Trial. But each box of evidence was different, limiting learners to a particular perspective on these historical events:

  • Operation Mayibuye and the ANC’s decision to turn to violent protest;

  • Liliesleaf and the creation of the white family façade;

  • Bram Fischer and the defence team;

  • The State’s case against the accused; and

  • Oliver Tambo and the influence of the Anti-Apartheid movement.

The boxes contained extracts from books, legal documents, letters, digital oral history recordings, newspaper clippings, photographs, pictures of archived objects, and a map of Liliesleaf that drew their attention to current exhibitions relevant to their particular perspective.

Groups then had to use what they had to understand, represent and then tell the story of the Rivonia Trial. Listening to each other’s presentations on the same event, they could appreciate how access to different kinds of evidence makes a very different interpretation possible. This led to a discussion on the nature of evidence, how we interpret it, and importance of archives and preserving material from the past.

After making their presentations the learners were shown the real versions of the facsimiles and mock-ups they had been working with, like the pen gun given to Oliver Tambo by representatives of the German Democratic Republic, a copy of Operation Mayibuye, Mandela’s arrest warrant (for leaving South Africa illegally), photographic evidence the police falsified, and letters with tiny handwriting that were smuggled out of prison.

The enthusiastic participation of the learners exceeded all expectations. They received beautiful certificates presented to them by representatives of the US State Department that had sponsored the workshop.

Nic Wolpe, CEO of the Liliesleaf Trust, generously hosted the whole event. Sam Horowitz from Totem Media and André Croucamp from MindBurst Workshop designed and facilitated the unique learning experience with the assistance of Liliesleaf’s own archivist, Ivy Chitambo.