On the liberation movements archive at Fort hare

Posted on April 18, 2011
Vuyani BooiIn 1992, the Centre for Cultural Studies which started as a Centre for Xhosa Literature, attached to the faculty of Arts at University of Fort Hare, took the initiative through the office of the Vice Chancellor of the time Professor Bengu to approach the Liberation Movements and their leaders about a possibility of the liberation movements to deposit their liberation archival material to University of Fort Hare. The Liberation Movements of South Africa including the ANC, PAC, AZAPO/BCM, NUM were approached with the objective to engage them on the idea of seeing University of Fort Hare as a 'rightful custodian of the Liberation Movements Archives...' ( S.M.E. Bengu, 1992)

It would be interesting to read the thinking of various people and including leaders of Liberation Movements on the question to lodge the archives at University of Fort Hare. For instance some of them felt strongly that Fort Hare was a 'rightful custodian of the Liberation Movements Archives'. Brian Williams and Williams Wallach argued 'they [liberation movements leaders] recognized the central role that the University played in nurturing black African leaders and rewarded Fort Hare with what could be as part of the founding papers of the new South Africa in the post-apartheid period...[and they further argued that]...certainly their decisions to locate the archives at Fort Hare in a research center focusing on the study of cultural heritage of black South Africans was also an attempt to memorialize the liberation struggle and create a monument to those who participated in the conflict' (Brian Williams and Williams Wallach....)

Professor Sirayi former director of the then Centre for Cultural Studies wrote 'the historical anti-apartheid role of Fort Hare's student body, which included President Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, and other leaders of the National Struggle for Liberation justify locating this important Archive on the Alice campus.' ( T.G. Sirayi, 1992) Professor Sirayi strongly argued that 'the archive will function, not only as a major resource for writing the history of South Africa, but will be a monument and a record to all who lost their lives in the struggle. Former President Nelson Mandela in his speech emphasized that 'the archives become a place not only to document South Africa's 'untold history,' (NR Mandela, 1992) but also a center to support a more inclusive writing of the nation's history as it moves from a society that priviledged one group over another to a 'non-racial, non-sexist democracy.'

This highly political charged initiative was well received by all Liberation Movements of South Africa and amongst them it was ANC, PAC, AZAPO, BCM and New Unity Movement. On the 26 October 1992, all Liberation Movements and University of Fort Hare gathered at the Devonshire Hotel in Johannesburg to sign a memorandum of agreement. In this ceremony the Liberation Movements were represented by their presidents. It is in this ceremony where Professor Bengu, former vice chancellor of Fort Hare stated that 'we welcome your recognition of the University of Fort Hare as the rightful custodian of the Liberation Movements archives'( S.E.M. Bengu, 1992).

Professor Bengu reminded the leaders of the Liberation Movements by imposing the following questions that 'who does not know in South Africa that the history of the struggle for liberation cannot be written without a sustentative reference to the University of Fort Hare, which has served as the cradle of the various stalwarts of the Liberation Movement?....needless to say the University of Fort Hare shaped and nurtured the political thinking of our leaders of the liberation struggle. It is indeed the logical home of the archives, which reflect the democratic thinking which our University helped to generate.' (S.E.M. Bengu, 1992)

Professor Bengu created an environment and context in which the presidents of the Liberation Movements of South Africa had to respond with the purpose to commit their Liberation Archives to the cause of creating one nation's memory about the black public past in South Africa. For instance, President of the PAC made it clear that 'the PAC is grateful to the University of Fort Hare for having agreed to house its accumulated materials and artifacts. Fort Hare is more qualified to undertake this task because of its 76-year old history of high education and enlightment among the African people...if so protected then they become available and accessible to those concerned for many years to come. Thus the educational, scientific and cultural significance of archives is great indeed.'( Clarence Makwethu, 1992)

The lodging and establishment of Liberation Archives repository at University of Fort Hare has become a strategy to justify the role played by Fort Hare in the liberation and a way to reflect to the nation's progress and a commitment of the institution to the total democratic transformation of the South African society. On his turn the President of AZAPO, Pandelani Nefolovhodwe further reiterated that 'this event serves to indicate the importance of collecting and recording a history of the liberation struggle in its significant form and content....the archives will form the centrality of the struggle including the ideas as developed by the participants from the Liberation Movements'(Pandelani Nefolovhodwe, 1992)

Oliver Tambo, former Chancellor of University of Fort Hare had to respond on behalf of the University and he said [t]he 'signing ceremony symbolizes the triumph of progressive ideas against those of regression...the long and complex path of the liberatory effort, captured as it were, in the volumes of documents to be deposited with our university, is not a mere record of history... It is an encapsulation of our rich heritage in the fields of culture, politics, academia, and above all our vision of a just socio-economic order'
( Oliver Tambo, 1992)

Cde Tambo went on saying archives should be used as more than a source of research. It must be used as well for cleaning knowledge that must help mould a better, more sensitive and patriotic South African. Nelson Mandela, the former president of the ANC and republic of South Africa stated that 'these archives are the single most complete record of the ANC, especially in the period after its unbanning in 1960. They are instrumental in documenting the untold history of South Africa....The organization further recognizes that the archival material contains the seeds of our new democratic order....' (N.R. Mandela, 1992)

In a sense these statements by the leaders of the Liberation Movements marked the ceremony as a historic and reflection moment for leaders of South African Liberation Movements and University of Fort Hare. It provided them with 'a window into [the] significant period of our country and [filled] the vaccum in historical continuity.' This was a moment to reconstruct a new image and direction for the University and to think about ways in which education, archives and heritage as a sub-text of culture can be combined to 'build a new University of Fort Hare'.

One could argue that Fort Hare created a platform from which it could be seen as an institution of higher learning that wanted to further entrench the role of liberation education in society which Professor Vizikhungu Mzamane perceived as 'to give people knowledge about their world: how world shapes them and how they, in turn, can shape the world.' (V.M. Mzamane, Undated paper). It was a moment of reflection on the side of University and to look at it as repository of alternative knowledge about the public past of South Africa in particular the history of the struggle.

The University wanted to present an alternative thinking about archives in South Africa. This comes into play mainly because in the past 'in South Africa, the state archives helped legitimize and sustain apartheid rule through 'silences' and 'systematic forgetting.' For instance Don Nkadimeng, former Secretary General of AZAPO further suggested that the Liberation Archives will make it 'imperative to rewrite the history of the struggle.' In this context the rewriting of the history of the struggle will be an attempt to counter act a history which promoted white supremacy and that portrayed African people as subject and objects that have no past, history, culture and heritage.

However the project of rewriting such history will be characterized by contestations around issues of silence and systematic amnesia. And be that as it may, Don Nkadimeng is correct when he said '[its] imperative to rewrite the history of the struggle' that will challenge the myths, stereotypes about history of African people in South Africa. Having taken a clue from what the various leaders had articulated one assumes that it is clear that the way in which this project was conceptualized, was in such a way it be a project that knows no political boundaries and cuts across political ideologies which have polarized the South African Liberation Movements for almost thirty decades.

It is a project of national significance and which deserves national support in terms of its political, intellectual direction and its agenda which wants to be inclusive rather than being exclusive. In a sense this is a process to construct a Liberation Archives repository that will be national heritage based on principles for democratic culture, heritage and archives policy. Those principles range from human rights to freedom of expression, access, redress, conservation, diversity, achievement and nation building. This project will have to be understood within a broader context of Fort Hare repositioning itself, transformation and democratizing of arts and culture policy and construction of one shared South African past. This is true especially when you begin to consider the significance of the Fort Hare's history and a flagship of historic collection of unique African art, indigenous artifacts, rare manuscripts, which are part of these declared collections which are housed at NAHECS.

These are nation's resources which present themselves as a continuation of debates and discussions about ways of constructing a new nation of South Africa. It is all not lost for the liberation archives to be deposited at Fort Hare because that is where they will be complementing a unique collection of black African art, rare indigenous artifacts that continue to make a bold statement about African shared past. The major question that can be asked is how can we use the liberation archives to deepen and entrench democracy without being exclusive on whose liberation archives are fit enough to deepen democracy ?

I raise that question in the context of human nature when it comes to selection and choosing whatever is convenient for their circumstances. In a sense as we strive for utilization of the liberation archives to deepen democracy we need to take it into cognizance that all the archives of liberation movements in South African can have an explicit and unprecedented contribution in the national project to deepen democracy in South Africa.

Vuyani Booi, Archival Platform Correspondent. He writes in his personal capacity.