From campus cleaner to master of UCT’s administrative historical records

29 March 2021 | Story Niémah Davids. Photo Je’nine May. Voice Neliswa Sosibo. Read time 6 min.
Archivist Lionel Smidt (right) said the UCT Archives are his happy place.
Archivist Lionel Smidt (right) said the UCT Archives are his happy place.
 

If you were to describe University of Cape Town (UCT) archivist, Lionel Smidt, as the collector, organiser and preserver of UCT’s administrative historical records, you’d hit the nail right on the head.

And his job is no mean feat. Walking into Meulenhof – the home of UCT’s Administrative Archives – is like stepping into a time machine. The large office is bursting at the seams with more than a century’s worth of UCT records. If it dates back to 1829 and directly involves the university or a member of staff, the archives will have a record of it – and Smidt will have access to it.

Fascinating? I think so …

“I’ve been doing this job since 1992 – I’ve grown in and with this place,” Smidt said with a chuckle.

But his journey at UCT started eight years prior to that, in 1984. He was just a young boy, fresh out of school and “still wet behind the ears” when he was offered a job as a cleaner in Bremner Building, the university’s administration headquarters.

“Of course I took the job!” he said. “Some people asked me why I chose a job as a cleaner. After all, I had passed matric. But the opportunity came my way when I was sitting at home, and I needed a job.”

Admin afternoons

After more than a year at Bremner Building, Smidt said, he was moved to UCT’s Department of Student Affairs (DSA). While his role remained largely the same, he also started helping with administrative tasks in the department.

For three years he spent his mornings cleaning the DSA offices. In the afternoons he would change focus and help out with administrative tasks in the department. Filing, collecting and distributing mail from the post room was part of his role, as well as working in the printing room when required.

 

“Let’s just say all of us knew the smell of tear gas very well.”

He also supported the vehicle maintenance staff with logging vehicles and ensuring services were conducted timeously. In addition to that, Smidt was responsible for generating receipts on behalf of the student health service department for all medical consultations.

“I have to say, my time at student affairs was something else. It was during the height of apartheid, and there was so much happening on campus at the time,” he said.

“The apartheid police would come onto campus. The special branch would tell us to stop what we were doing, and we were not allowed to move while they conducted a search. It was crazy. Let’s just say all of us knew the smell of tear gas very well.”

Archival assistant

With a bit of administration experience, thanks to his stint at the DSA, Smidt applied for the position of archival assistant – and he got the job. Part of the contract agreement was that he’d continue his daily office cleaning for an hour in the morning, and for the remainder of the day he would concentrate on his archival tasks.

When then-archivist John Drew retired, Smidt applied for his job, but his application was unsuccessful. However, Smidt said, former UCT registrar Hugh Amoore offered him some sound advice: to obtain his qualification in archival studies.

 

“This job was part of my destiny – written for me long before I was even born.”

He started his archival studies programme at Technikon South Africa, and when the institution no longer offered the course, he moved to the University of South Africa to complete it.

“Studying while working was no joke; it was tough. I’d often sit up till midnight or later to complete my assignments. But it needed to be done, and that’s what I did,” he said.

In February 2003 he was appointed the UCT archivist. By then he had been running the show for more than a year, while archivist Susan Sayers was away on sick leave. Sayers later passed away.

“This job was part of my destiny – written for me long before I was even born. And Hugh Amoore played a very big part in all of this. He’s part of the reason that I am here today,” Smidt said.

Happy place

Smidt said that he will always be thankful to the university for providing him with the opportunity to further his studies, and to grow in a field that he has learned to love. He’s also grateful to his colleagues for their continuous support and motivation over the years.

Eighteen years after he was officially appointed as the university’s archivist, Smidt said, he has developed a passion for the job. He enjoys trawling the archives, sourcing information for academics and support staff, and sitting in a little quiet corner and simply getting on with the business of the day.

“This is my happy place. Don’t get me wrong – there are many challenges, and sometimes things can get very busy in here. But irrespective, my heart’s always full when I leave work in the afternoon, and that means it was a good day,” he said.


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