SOUTH AFRICA: Antarctic Legacy Project takes shape

The considerable role South African researchers have played in scientific, biological and meteorological discoveries in the sub-Antarctic Ocean lacks full recognition. But memories that lay scattered in national archives, personal diaries and mementos will now be accessible through a project to identify, digitise and archive this historical heritage online.

More than 100,000 pages of records - including an estimated 30,000 maps, drawings, photographs, slides and oral history interviews - will become accessible in the global public domain when the Antarctic Legacy Project becomes fully operational by the end of 2012.

The history of South African research endeavours in the Southern Ocean and Antarctic territories will stretch over the past six decades.

The Antarctic Legacy Project is funded by the Department of Science and Technology-National Research Foundation (DST-NRF), and run in association with the department of historical studies and the Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town, and the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology (CIB) based at Stellenbosch University.

The funding for both projects started in 2008 and runs until the end of this year. It totals R2.8 million (US$400,000), according to Candice Steele, programme director in knowledge fields development at the NRF, which administers the funds.

"This funding investment has been explicitly made to further stimulate and develop research in the social sciences, law and humanities fields within the context of the South African National Antarctic Programme," Steele said.

But how did the Antarctic Legacy Project actually start?

Steven Chown, Director of the CIB and a professor in the department of botany and zoology at Stellenbosch University, told University World News that the realisation in 2005 that social sciences and humanities were under-subscribed led to the project. It was identified as an initiative that could bring out interest and expertise in people.

"The 60-year South African history [in Antarctica] was poorly understood and documented. There were people who were alive and not being engaged. We took this opportunity to come up with this platform," said Chown. "The whole point was to have a set of resources in which support for researchers would be made available."

South Africa, the only African country with involvement in the Antarctic region, does not claim territory in Antarctica, but was one of the original signatories of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959. Through the South African National Antarctic Programme, SANAP, the country manages research bases in Antarctica, and on Gough and Marion Islands.

The Antarctic Legacy Project milestones were revealed last month during the first-ever gathering in Africa of historians and archaeologists from around the world who focus on the Antarctic region. The 7th International Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR) history workshop, held at Stellenbosch, was attended by researchers from some 10 countries.

According to a press release about the workshop, SCAR has been involved with scientific research in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions since 1958.

South Africa's Antarctic Legacy Project is already proving a valuable addition to the pool of historical material contained in similar databases in Australia, the UK and the US.

"This is a project that will add value on how literature on Antarctica is viewed, and it will provide new insights," Dr Cornelia Lüdecke, who chairs the SCAR history committee, told University World News.

"The early researchers did not think that at one time what they were doing would become history, but today we are globalising that history. The opportunity is now there for South African and international academics to discuss and critically evaluate how researchers with Antarctic interests can fruitfully use the growing accessibility of diverse source material to further research," said Lüdecke, a natural scientist at the University of Munich.

Researchers at the CIB at Stellenbosch are in the process of collating the private records of South Africans who have been involved in the annual re-supply and scientific research done in Antarctica and on Gough and Marion islands.

When a call for anecdotes, reports and photographs was made in 2010 to scientists, mariners, engineers, doctors and artisans who have been involved, the response was overwhelming, according to Dora Scott, a researcher at CIB. She praised South Africa for being truly an "Antarctic nation" for its extensive period of involvement in the region, but lamented the shortage of available and easily accessible information.

"The same sources, articles and books are used over and over when any writing is done on the history, heritage and geopolitical aspects, and it is time for these sources of information to be supplemented and updated so that more comprehensive information is available.

"Furthermore, there are very few records of the personal experiences of individuals in these inhospitable environments, particularly before 1985," said Scott. "We have received support from people who have worked in the region, and who are more than willing to share the photographs and memories of their experiences with us. The response has been tremendous.

"The project has already begun to stimulate and facilitate law, humanities and social science research into SANAP, both nationally and internationally," she added.

The historical studies department and Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town have been responsible for digitising more than 70,000 pages of relevant public records from various South African archives, and more pages are being added.

"The project has broken 'national monopolisation' of South Africa-Antarctica history," said Professor Lance van Sittert, an African environmental historian at UCT. "The removal of the tyranny of distance and non-accessibility of information has been achieved by the project," Van Sittert, who coordinates the initiative at UCT, told University World News.

The National Archives in South Africa are located in Pretoria. Accessing archives has been time consuming and logistically challenging.

"What we have is the reinterpretation of South African history. It means the end of parochialisation of existing South Africa-Antarctica history. We will have a professional and modern resource of information," he said. Universities will be major beneficiaries of the resource, which makes access for students easy while being cost effective.