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Oral history project on anti-apartheid struggle completed

by Michael Kirk - October 15, 2007

A substantial, wide-ranging oral history of the African National Congress (ANC) and the lives of its leading figures during South Africa’s apartheid years has been donated to the University by the ANC.

The ANC was established in 1912 to provide a political avenue for the struggle for racial equality in South Africa. After apartheid became official policy in 1948, it became the leading anti-apartheid organization.

Interviews with 133 ANC leaders conducted in South Africa between 2000 and 2006 have been transcribed and donated to UConn as part of the University’s partnership with the ANC and the University of Fort Hare in South Africa. Fort Hare also holds a copy  of the transcripts.

The transcripts, ranging in length from seven to 135 pages, will be permanently housed at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center and will be available to scholars, students, and the public.

“The ANC oral histories add a significant dimension to the Dodd Center’s growing collection of human rights materials,” says Thomas Wilsted, director of the Dodd Center.

“The oral histories offer valuable insight into the impact of apartheid on the lives of South Africans and will be a significant resource to faculty and students researching and teaching history and human rights. We also hope to make copies of the oral history transcripts available online for wider access to their content.”

The collection features South Africans being interviewed by other South Africans, a number of whom were trained in the collection of oral histories by Bruce Stave, director of the oral history office at UConn, and his staff.

“Training the South African interviewers proved to be an exciting and stimulating oral history experience for me and my associates,” says Stave, professor emeritus of history.

After an intensive two-week workshop in Cape Town, teams of interviewers fanned out throughout the country to conduct the initial interviews of the project.

They returned to evaluate this work before conducting more taped conversations. Two of the interviewers came to Storrs to earn their M.A. degrees in history.

The topics of the interviews range from the educational system in South Africa, to prison conditions and life under house arrest, life in exile, and the 1994 democratic elections.

“The uniqueness of the ANC transcripts here at UConn is their ability to shed light on the experiences and daily lives of those who actively dismantled the apartheid system,” says Valerie Love, curator for human rights collections at the Dodd Center.

“The oral histories not only give voice to the experiences of black South Africans whose history and experiences went for the most part unrecorded under the apartheid system, they also include interviews with members of the ANC who had been classified as Indians, “coloreds,” and whites so as to illuminate the spectrum of experiences that South African activists endured as a result of their race.”

Amii Omara-Otunnu, executive director of the UConn-ANC Partnership who holds the UNESCO Chair in Comparative Human Rights, says, “The ANC represents something terribly special in the history of human rights. It was the first national party in world history to have a vision of a non-racist society where all people are respected equally.”

The oral histories are particularly important because many ANC leaders limited their written communications for security reasons during the anti-apartheid struggle.

Between 1960 and 1990, many members of the ANC, forced into exile because of their activism, continued their political work against apartheid from outside the country.

After apartheid was ended, the ANC won the country’s first democratic elections in 1994.

In an effort to preserve its history, the party established archives at the University of Fort Hare, a historically black institution, with the goal of collecting historical materials from 33 different countries.

In March 1999, UConn signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the ANC establishing a partnership to foster training, assistance, and cooperation in developing oral histories and archival records of the ANC, and to develop comparative studies in human rights.

As part of the project, Thomas J. Dodd Research Center staff provided archival planning and training for ANC staff. During the period 2000 to 2006, ANC archivists organized more than 3,000 cubic feet of archival collections created during the apartheid years, with support from the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

Those records are now housed at the University of Fort Hare.

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