Alumna gathering South Africa's stories

Canon Collins alumna, Shehnaz Cassim Moosa, was awarded a Nelson Mandela Scholarship to study at SOAS, graduating with an MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development. The experience of being a “South African abroad” made Shehnaz realise how much she had still to learn about her own country, her history and her people. Inspired by this curiosity, she initiated an oral history project called “1001 South African Stories”, which seeks to document how people have been, and still are, shaped by the socio-economic and political landscape of South Africa.  The primary purpose of the programme is to improve South Africans’ understandings of their diverse histories, and to close the wide gaps in their knowledge of each other, which in turn impacts on how they interact and relate to societal challenges.

1001 SA Stories aims to connect South Africans by promoting a more inclusive understanding of South Africa’s history. Is there a deliberately therapeutic intention to the project?

The main aim of the project is to help us have a better understanding of history although a few speakers who were imprisoned during apartheid have mentioned that talking about their past was therapeutic and felt that the project could assist with healing. I also enjoy hearing feedback from the people who attend, and observing how the audience relate to the stories.

Do you feel that you have become more in touch with your national identity through the project?

I began this project the same week that I was confronted by the infamous racist tweet written by Penny Sparrow. Earlier that week I had heard an old man recount his experience of being arrested during the apartheid era for violating the pass laws and being sent to a farm to work off his “time”. I was unaware that people had been sent from prisons to work on farms but, more importantly, what struck me was that if all of our nation’s citizens had a true understanding of our own history, there could be no space for such a repulsive, loathsome tweet in modern day South Africa.

In terms of my identity, the constitution says that South Africa belongs to all who live in it. The idea of the rainbow nation has lost favour in recent years and black consciousness, which shaped my thinking and was very much part of my identity at university, is also something which nowadays is being challenged and is seen as unpalatable due to the great discrepancies that exist within our society.

I believe that listening to people share their stories is a celebration of diversity and I for one love that. If anything, this project has just reinforced how varied people’s experiences are. And yet we all call South Africa our home. The project has highlighted just how much more there is for me to learn about, and so I think my identity as a South African is continually being shaped by the different stories which I see as building blocks that help me to grow and appreciate the society that has shaped me.

You have given a platform to some fascinating speakers, including fellow Canon Collins alumnus Derrick Grootboom who was involved in the liberation struggle during the 1980’s. For you, what has been the most inspiring or surprising story you have encountered?

Every story is fascinating and illuminating in it’s own way but I think Marlene le Roux, who overcame polio, poverty and Apartheid to become the CEO of the Artscape in Cape Town, and Dinga Sikwebu, a member of the interim National Working Committee (NWC) who discussed the segregation of Cape Town, were two of my favourite story tellers thus far. Marlene just because of her inspiring spunk and Dinga because it was such an interesting, well-articulated story that provided a fantastic insight into life at that time.

How do you envision South Africa in 10 years’ time? What are your hopes for the country?

Right now I think we are in a very tough space, in both South Africa and globally. Our institutions in our nascent democracy continue to be strong and I hope that in 10 years our democracy will have further matured.

My hopes are for a country where young people have opportunities and where their potential can be realised, a country that is at peace with itself, with ethical leadership, a country that is diverse and open, and a caring country in which it truly does belong to all who live in it. What I hope this project will do is allow us to track our progress. Much has changed in South Africa and we need to understand, appreciate, and even celebrate that, but never take our eye off the ultimate goal, which is to build an inclusive, South Africa that is non racist, non-sexist and democratic.

How has your membership of the Canon Collins network influenced your thinking about social justice issues and activism?

For me the best part is belonging to a community of smart, passionate young southern Africans who wish to use their skills and knowledge to contribute to building a vibrant, dynamic Africa.