Janette Deacon – the xainki, or mother, of archival research

15 June 2016 | Story by Newsroom
Last night (14 June) alumnus and archaeologist Dr Janette Deacon received an honorary Doctor of Literature at the third of four Humanities ceremonies.
Last night (14 June) alumnus and archaeologist Dr Janette Deacon received an honorary Doctor of Literature at the third of four Humanities ceremonies.

Last night's graduation, the third of four Humanities ceremonies in this extended, mid-year graduation season, saw two special awards conferred: an honorary doctorate to Dr Janette Deacon and a Distinguished Teacher Award to Dr Azila Reisenberger (in absentia). The ceremony also saw some 207 of the faculty's honours, master's and PhD graduands capped (with the exception of education, music and fine art).

In his welcome, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Danie Visser reminded the congregation that unversities had their origins in the humanities and that the study of humanities remains critical in today's world.

“The humanities matter because we cannot understand the world without understanding the forces − language, history, culture − that shape society. The humanities matter because living an ethical life matters. Humanities matter because we can only be good citizens in a democracy if we are capable of critical reasoning. The humanities matter because to live a fully human life you must understand creativity and the creative process. The humanities matter because we must all be able to imagine the future.”

Rock star

At the ceremony, UCT conferred an honorary Doctor of Literature on acclaimed archaeologist Dr Janette Deacon.

Deacon graduated from UCT with a BA (1960), MA (1969) and PhD (1982). Her award-winning work contributed significantly to the Bleek and Lloyd archive at UCT, a rich collection of material on the indigenous xam, !kun and Korana peoples, which achieved recognition by UNESCO as a site of the Memory of the World.

Her PhD study analysed later Stone Age assemblages dating to the last 20 000 years from Nelson Bay Cave, Boomplaas Cave and Kangkara shelter, correlating the scale and timing of changes in stone artefact traditions with changes in various environmental parameters.

She was editor of the South African Archaeological Bulletin from 1976 to 1993. When Jalmar Rudner retired as archaeologist at the National Monuments Council in 1989, Deacon took the post, working until her retirement in 1999.

In her citation, orator Professor Joan Hambidge noted:

“Her scholarship in the human origins in South Africa, rock art research and other activities – as Professor Pippa Skotnes [UCT] has pointed out – has largely been carried out at the intersection of scholarship and public life. She has helped to facilitate new understandings of the indigenous past, shape legislation for the protection of the archaelogical and visual heritage of the San people, and profile South African archeaology and rock art research in a global context.”

“In 1991 Deacon convened the first conference around the Bleek and Lloyd Collection with a handful of scholars. By 2011 a third conference on Bleek and Lloyd, held at the University of Cape Town, brought together several hundred participants from around the world.”

The digitisation of the collection has been “a dramatic development from rock art to the digital space”, and is part of the Lucy Lloyd Archive, Resource and Exhibition Centre (Llarec) project to digitise, research and publish the rich Bleek and Lloyd Archive.

“The initial 'Digital Bleek and Lloyd' accompanied the publication Claim to the Country: The Archive of Wilhelm Bleek and Lucy Lloyd by Pippa Skotnes (2007),” she continued. “Subsequently, Jemima Bleek's and Dorothea Bleek's notebooks have been added, as well as the 'Digital Stow', featuring the rock art copies of George Stow. The search index and summaries have also been extended and currently the Bleek and Lloyd dictionaries are being digitised.”

Hambidge said that the projects would not have been possible without the ground work of scholars like Deacon.

“In N|uu she is the xainki, or mother, of archival research in our diverse country.”

“From rock art to paper and now the internet: different spaces and different ideologies, Janette Deacon has made a major contribution in this complex arena. The significance of Deacon in the academic community speaks for itself.”

Distinguished Teacher Award

The ceremony also honoured (in absentia) one of four 2015 Distinguished Teacher Award winners, Dr Azila (Tzili) Reisenberger, Head of Hebrew in the School of Languages, Literature and Linguistics. Reisenberger teaches Hebrew language and literature as well as gender and sexuality, and gender and religions.

The citation reads: “The passion that Dr Azila Reisenberger displays for the Hebrew language, as well as the craft of teaching, is evident to all who cross her path. Azila, an accomplished academic and feminist theologian, has consistently over the years, as is evident by her six Distinguished Teacher Award nominations, inspired the love of this subject among her students.”

It continues: “She has students from undergraduate to PhD levels and plays a significant role in curriculum design. Moreso, Azila successfully encourages a community ethos in the class, which often comprises a diverse range of students of different religious and cultural backgrounds, and in this way allows for open engagement and student contribution.”

Season of silent protest

The extended June graduation season, which ends today (15 June), has also been marked by silent protests by several graduands against gender injustice and sexual violence on the campus and in society.

Speaking at the end of last night's ceremony, which saw three graduands in a silent protest, Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price reiterated UCT's commitment to social justice and the right of students to peaceful protest.

Story Helen Swingler. Photo Je'nine May.


Watch the recorded ceremony:

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