Our Story

A series collects and retells the story of the ancestors of all South Africans.

Ancestral Voices

A recently discovered collection of writing of South African culture and history.

891 Indigenous Language Writings by 187 Authors

These documents, written between 1930 and 1950 by mother tongue speakers of our indigenous languages are an entirely unique way of finding out about the past. At the time they were written, isiNdebele and Siswati were not written languages. Writings about the various amaNdebele groups can be found in Setswana, Sesotho sa Leboa and isiZulu while works on amaSwati clans are written in isiZulu.

Their importance, as the earliest written records by southern Africans in their mother tongue, cannot be overestimated. They provide an entirely new perspective on the events described and will become, and remain, essential reading for all South Africans who have an interest in their heritage for generations to come.

Not only do they cover events of the past, many previously unknown, but they are also a unique record of a range of aspects of the way of life and cultural practices of the ancestors of many South Africans. These include making and administering traditional medicine, wood carving and building techniques, traditional games, agriculture, cosmology, divination, place names, the origin of clan names and more. Rites of passage procedures and practices – birth, coming of age, marriage and burial practices – are included in many of the writings.

For these reasons, South African Heritage Publishers believe the Ancestral Voices project to be the most important heritage preservation project undertaken in South Africa. These voices have been silent since the time of writing between 80 and 90 years ago. It is time for them to be heard.

The majority of these writings currently exist as handwritten manuscripts and typewritten (on a typewriter) transcripts in old orthography. At the time of writing this announcement 130 works have been transcribed into MS Word in current orthography, and translated into English by SA Heritage. A further 50 are in the process of transcription and translation. We have decided to make these available on our website, prior even to final editing and cross referencing, on a view-only annual subscription basis for just R345,00 incl. VAT – this will allow access to all the initially uploaded works plus all those added during the period of the subscription. Each writing will have a folder which will contain the following PDF files:

  • Handwritten manuscript.
  • Contemporary typescript
  • New orthography transcription by SAH.
  • English translation by SAH.

We will invite subscribers, be they individuals, schools or tertiary institutions, to do the following:

  • Check that all the text in the handwritten manuscript has been typed into the new Word pdf.
  • Comment on the accuracy of the transcriptions: the texts have been transcribed in the latest orthography, which means that some of the texts may have changed from the original.
  • Comment on the accuracy of the English translations: the texts have also been translated into English, by modern translators working with as many linguistic tools as they have available. Even so, there are some words that were difficult or even impossible to translate. Where this is the case, the word remains in the text as it was found in the original, and we invite anyone with knowledge about these words to contact us.
  • Go through a list of unknown indigenous language words and see if they know their meaning. We will work with the National Lexicography Units, language academics and other specialists to establish the meaning of these words. They will then be included in revised versions of the official dictionaries of Government.
  • Help trace descendants of the authors. We would like to produce a mini-biography on each author and establish where they are buried.

Please note:

  • The documents have not yet been fully proofed, meaning that there will be errors in both the indigenous languages and English.
  • Names in the documents are spelled differently. The people speaking and writing the languages we now recognise in the constitution had not yet decided on the way to write down the sounds to represent their speech. As such, there are variations in spelling from what you might expect.
  • A dedicated email address will be set up for Ancestral Voices communications.