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Historian wins ministerial award

Dr Anton Ehlers, a senior lecturer in the History Department at Stellenbosch University, recently received a Ministerial Award from Anroux Marais, provincial minister of Cultural Affairs and Sport, at the 18th annual Cultural Affairs Awards ceremony held at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town.

Ehlers, a resident of Somerset West, received the prestigious award for his outstanding contribution to research in archival heritage. The Cultural Affairs Awards have been held since 1999 and acknowledge those “individuals and organisations that have made a significant impact in the Western Cape”.

“At the Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport, we strive to promote, advocate for and preserve cultural affairs,” said Marais.

“We cannot do so successfully and, more importantly, sustainably, without honouring those who ardently drive this very vision, mindful of all who call the Western Cape home.”

She thanked the nominees for “their proactive efforts to enhance the lives of others through cultural affairs.

“Our cultural heritage and their expressions motivate unity, understanding and tolerance, while simultaneously inspiring hope at a time when it is most needed. I wholeheartedly thank each nominee for selflessly reigniting optimism and encouragement in our communities through cultural engagements. Their special ability to bridge diversity and nurture tolerance has indeed contributed to greater insight into our nuances, and allows us to embrace our variety while fostering cultural inclusivity and integration.”

Ehlers has done extensive research on South African economic history, focusing on business history in particular. Last year he published a book on the Cape Helpmekaar, a student loan bank that celebrated its centenary in 2016. He has also focused on research into the development of trust companies and board of executors and their evolution into general banks in South Africa, the history of clothing retailing in South Africa with a focus on Pep Stores, non-profit financial institutions such as the Cape Helpmekaar, and micro-lending and banking institutions such as Capitec Bank. Ehlers is currently involved in a project that focuses on the early development of capitalism in the Cape Colony.

He teaches wealth and poverty as historical factors in European history, the methodology of history, and business and economic history.

Asked whether he expected to be honoured in this manner by provincial government, Ehlers said: “I was informed beforehand that I was the winner in that specific category. I was not aware of the existence of this award before, so it was completely out of the blue and my first thought was: what the hell did I do to deserve the award?”

He has, however, made a huge contribution to research in archival heritage. This entails his involvement in the Methodology of History component of the History Honours Programme over a number of years and collaborations with archivists of the Cape Archives Depot and librarians of the National Library in Cape Town to introduce students to the archives and facilitate archival-based research projects.

“Archives are the laboratories of historians,” he said. “Archival preservation on the other hand is our life blood and crucial to the unlocking and preservation of our diverse heritage and history from a cultural, social and economic perspective.

“Our departmental postgraduate focus is therefore to deliver archival alert and heritage sensitive students. We cannot make the students sleep in the archival stack rooms – but we try to make them dream about them at least and appreciate the wealth of information contained in that space that is still relevant today. So for me the award is in recognition of our sustained efforts over many years to produce students that not only share these ideals but also practise them.”

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