Research and Policy Brief: Muriel Horrell: Apartheid’s Chronicler and Archivist - 22nd December 2011.

Early next year the South African Institute of Race Relations will publish the 2010/2011 edition of its world-renowned South Africa Survey. The Survey has been in print every year since 1946. Its reputation was established by Muriel Horrell, who joined the Institute shortly after the Second World War, in which she saw active service. Almost single-handedly, Miss Horrell wrote the Survey for the next 30 years, and after her retirement continued to contribute to it. The attached tribute was written by Sue Krige.

"I’m so intensely grateful for these 5 yrs. Firstly, for the wonderful friendships & and the lovely comradeship …. Secondly, for the chance of taking responsibility & having odds to battle against. Thirdly, for the wonderful experiences & interesting places I’ve visited." (Muriel Horrell‘s Journal IX, ‘Winding Up’. April 30, 1946.)

In the early 1980s, in a small back room of a set of offices in De Korte Street in Braamfontein, a grey-haired woman is bent over her typewriter. The light is fading, but the woman hardly notices. Beside her is an ashtray containing still smoking stump of a cigarette. A nearly empty pack of cigarettes lies next to the ashtray. The woman reaches for the pack, slides a cigarette out and lights up, hardly looking up from the work at hand. Apart from the detritus of the day’s smoking, the room is immaculately organised, with books and newspaper cuttings carefully filed and indexed. In one of the bookcases which surround her, are publications which will form her life’s work. In a systematic and almost neutral manner, they chronicle the worst depredations of apartheid, from partially formed legislation to its inhuman impact on ordinary people. Over many decades, thousands of people consult them without noticing her name.

Almost forty years earlier, the same woman stands on the deck of a houseboat on the Nile, her military uniform crisp and beautifully ironed. The wings sewn onto her uniform indicate that she is part of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force of the South African air force, serving in Egypt, as the desert war rages between the eighth Army of the allies and Rommel’s Afrika Corps​. She is frustrated that, as a woman, she is not allowed to fly combat even though she is a qualified pilot. She draws thoughtfully on a cigarette, checking in her pocket that she is not running out of her ‘fuel’. Here in Cairo, she is not anonymous. Her assertiveness and her talent for order and organisation are universally recognised though she has upset some of her male colleagues. She has been awarded the rank of major, which she regards as some compensation for not being able to fly. She enters the houseboat and picks up a sheaf of notes which are tentatively entitled ‘WAAF standing orders.’ Exemplifying military precision organisation, but with a sense of the complex context in which orders might to be applied, they are the first public indication that she will become that underappreciated but extraordinary systematic chronicler of apartheid. Later she produces reports of research into such diverse topics as laws governing marriage in war zones, and, shortly after the war, the shortage of African nurses. They clearly prefigure her work from 1949. She proudly pastes these reports into her journals. But she is never asked to research an issue close to her heart, the fate of single women who, once the war is over, do not wish to go back and live with their fathers or husbands; who would like to support themselves, using the skills they have learned during the war.

Another more private indication of her capacity for research, analysis and the cataloguing of information is the set of journals which she has been keeping since 1940, when the WAAF was formed, and she arrived in Cairo. Almost every night for eight years, she writes in blue ink in her fine hand, the letters tiny and measured with no mistakes.

By the end of 1948, she will have kept 11 journals. And 50 years later, Muriel Horrell’s journals will be passed on to me, by her nephew John who inherited them after her death in May 1994. When he hands them over (along with a small collection of letters), he says, ‘I hope you can use these to find a way of honouring Muriel and her work. Put them in a suitable archive when you’re done.’ So, somewhat selfishly, I’ve kept them in my possession, partly because each time I go back to them, their richness astounds me. I’m not done with them yet.

The form of the journals is consistent. They are meticulous in their attention to detail on a number of levels – personal life, work, and the political and military context. There are tantalizingly short snippets of a deeply personal nature. However, these are not separated out as distinct categories. Daily or weekly news of family and friends flows almost seamlessly into accounts of Horrell’s work in the WAAF, the progress of the War on various fronts and South African politics. Passages of quite deep self-reflection and embryonic political analysis also punctuate these narratives. The only definite divisions in the written text are the dates. On the opposite page there are newspaper cuttings, maps, tables of election results, souvenir pamphlets, letters, and Mess songs. Often they serve to confirm and elucidate her written observations. In this sense they are scrapbooks as much as journals, and have a very strong visual component. There are also a number of photograph albums neatly and lovingly labelled for posterity.

In December 1948 she wrote in her final diary, ‘lately [I]have been feeling more and more that my future is in some way going to be tied up with racial questions.’ That same month a post opened up in the South African Institute of Race Relations. She applied, though she did not expect to get it. From 1949 to 1977 she, Horrell, was employed as a Research Officer. In that time she compiled 27 issues of the annual Survey of Race Relations. She also wrote 46 monographs for the Institute, covering such areas as forced removals, the African Reserves/Bantustans and Bantu Education. She kept a journal briefly in 1964 when she visited the USA. In general however, it appears that the all consuming work at the SAIRR precluded in any further journal keeping.

As can be seen from the initial paragraphs in this article, the temptation to create fiction from such wonderful and textured material, is always present. Tim Couzens, author of a number of historical biographies, noted that biography is an attractive form of historical writing because it represents an intersection between literature and history; it allows for the narrative freedom associated with the novel, but is bounded by the confines of the evidence. And, as a good historian, I had been trained to keep an eye on the evidence, though the inevitable gaps that emerge are an invitation to the creation of what I would call informed fictions. It is important to insert caveats to that effect when writing.

As novelist Anne Michaels so beautifully put it in Fugitive Pieces​, ‘the hindsight of biography is as elusive and deductive as long range forecasting. Guesswork, a hunch. Monitoring probabilities. Assessing the influence of information we’ll never have, that has never been recorded.’

My archive is the envy of my fellow PhD students, its contents begging to be more than a dry doctorate. They ask to be the backbone of a book that honours Muriel by telling a fascinating story of adventure, compassion, perseverance and dedication. How I would have liked to meet her!


- Sue Krige

Sue Krige is an historian and heritage consultant.

This article was first published on the Archival Platform website on 7th September 2011.