The power of networks

Owen Kinahan could not shed any light on my inquiries.  Instead, he introduced me to his network of contacts from which more progressively unfolded like pieces of origami.

Howard Phillips, a professor of Historical Studies at UCT and author of The History of the University of Cape Town 1928-1948: The Formative Years, suggested that I visit the Western Cape Archives in Cape Town to see if they held a death notice and will for Harris, adding that this presumed that he had died in Cape Town or nearby.

Owen had also copied Lesley Hart, Manager of Special Collections at the UCT Library, in correspondence.

The mention of “Special Collections” jogged my memory.  As a student in the 1970’s, I had spent many hours reading and copying texts from this part of the library, generously assisted by one of its senior librarians, Tanya Simons, whose sister, Mary, had also taught one of the undergraduate courses I took in African studies.

The Simons sisters come from an illustrious South African political family.  Their father, Professor Jack Simons, lectured in African studies at UCT from 1937 until 1965, making generations of students aware not only of African society and government, but also of the inequities of the apartheid system.  His wife, Ray Alexander was active in the trade union movement, and both were closely associated with the South African Communist Party.  Ray stood for and was elected to one of three native representative seats in the white parliament in 1954, but was prevented from taking her seat due to a banning order served on the day.  A succession of banning orders culminated in their exile in 1965 and they spent the next 25 years mostly in Zambia, returning in 1990 to a South Africa in the process of dismantling apartheid.

During their period of absence, their daughters had remained in Cape Town.  Both were  subject to banning orders which restricted their movements and places they could visit.  At the time this seemed a rather unfair treatment of the Simons’ sisters, having less to do with how they went about their daily lives and more to do with who their parents were.  An example of a banning order is here.

Lesley Hart had some interesting news for me.  In the library’s Manuscripts and Archives, she had found evidence that Harris had graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1898.  This was published in the calendar of the University of the Cape of Good Hope which was the examining body.  At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate the distinction between this body and the South African College; that would come later.

Lesley had also copied Lionel Smidt, head of the University’s Administrative Archives, where student records for this period were kept.  She gave an undertaking that he would reply to me directly with further details.  I instinctively knew that those records contained information that would be important to my search.  But engaging Lionel in conservation would prove to take longer than I had anticipated.


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