History

 

African National Congress and Uconn join hands March 8, 1999

The University of Connecticut and the African National Congress on March 1st signed an historic agreement that forms a partnership to archive and share with scholars materials from the ANC's Struggle for human rights in South Africa, to chronicle the struggle through an oral history, and to link UCONN and the University of Fort Hare on the Eastern Cape of South Africa to focus on comparative human rights. The agreement means that UConn will be a major repository for ANC materials in North America, and that the University of Fort Hare will exchange faculty, staff and students, conduct an annual conference on comparative human rights to take place in alternate years in South Africa and the United States, and produce a journal twice a year on comparative human rights, the first of its type.

"This partnership is another step in UConn's transformation into one of the best public universities in the nation," said Chancellor Mark Emmert. "This important linkage will allow us to establish a center of excellence in comparative human rights and to build on the human rights reputation the University has already established with the nationally ranked Department of History and the Thomas Dodd Research Center."

The project is especially important because the ANC, founded in 1911, was the first national party in world history to have a vision of a non-racist society where all people are respected equally, said Amii Omara-Otunnu, associate professor of history and executive director of the partnership. The party's vision was what Martin Luther King articulated in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, he added.

"The ANC represents something terribly special in the history of human rights," Omara-Otunnu said."The ANC had a clear vision for a society that would practice racial justice. This partnership is a strategic decision because of a commonalties in the history of race relations in the U.S. and in South Africa. We can learn a lot from them, and they can learn a lot from us."

This project will ensure that the history of South Africa will be told not only from the perspective of the apartheid regime, Omara-Otunnu said.

Frene Ginwala, speaker of the South African National Assembly and chairwoman of the ANC Archives Committee, said during the signing ceremony that the agreement "needs to be seen in a broader context that technical assistance. History is always and everywhere an area of contestation, nowhere more so than in societies that are undergoing rapid change and fundamental transformation, as in South Africa," she said.

"Sharing information on the history of the conflicts of the 20th century will guide us as we collectively seek strategies to ensure that we do not repeat the errors of the past, but learn from them to secure the peace we seek," Ginwala added.

UConn was selected in a competition that included several top American universities for the partnership with South Africans chiefly because of its first rate archival facilities at the Dodd Center, publicity surrounding the human rights events at the University during the Dodd Year, and ties between UConn and Narissa Ramdhani, director of the ANC historical archives project. Ramdhani received a master's degree in history with a concentration in archival management from UConn in 1990.

The University of Fort Hare, where archival records from ANC offices in 33 countries will be held, is the oldest traditionally black university in South Africa and alma mater of many African leaders, including South African President Nelson Mandela.

The agreement was signed by Emmert and Ginwala, in a ceremony during a meeting of the National Assembly in Cape Town. Emmert, Robert Smith, vice provost for research and graduate education, Omara- Otunnu, and Thomas Wilsted, director of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, all attended the ceremony. Also attending were James Joseph, American Ambassador to South Africa, and the leader of the ANC party, "Terror" Lekota.

The UConn ANC partnership includes plans for the Center for Oral History, headed by Bruce Stave, professor of history, to interview more than 200 ANC leaders, including such ANC officials as Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president; Thabo Mbeki, the current president of South Africa; Lindiwe Mabuza, South African ambassador to Germany and former ANC shadow ambassador to Washington; and Walter Sisulu, a longtime ANC leader.

The oral histories are critical to chronicling the ANC's history, as many leaders sought to limit written records in order to protect the participants from apartheid law. Many ANC leaders are aging and it is important to preserve their stories, Omara-Otunnu said.

Even so, more than 5,000 boxes of materials in the ANC archives and materials are being gathered to supplement the records, he said. The archive part of the partnership between the ANC and UConn will be headed by Wilsted, and will include copying the materials, organizing and cataloguing the materials, and sharing some of the materials on the Web.

"This project expands our collections in areas that deal with the issue of international justice and human rights," said Wilsted. It may take up to a year before the first materials arrive at Uconn, he added.

The Dodd Center will also train South Africans to work as archivists. The first black South African ever to be trained as an archivist, Xolani Malawana, arrived at UConn last month to spend six weeks at the Dodd Center.

Without the training component of the program, given the current lack of trained archivists and the level of staffing in South Africa at the ANC archives, it would take more than 15 years to completely organize the materials, Ramdhani said. UConn's participation will allow the materials to be catalouged in a more timely fashion.

Omara-Otunnu has been involved in human rights struggles as a scholar and an activist for more than 25 years. While at Harvard in the late 1970s, he led the movement to dives the university's investment in South Africa; at the London School of Economics in the early 1980s, he worked for Mandela's release from prison. Omara-Otunnu's work focuses on comparative human rights and conflict resolution in Africa. In 1997, he was selected to study conflict in Africa for the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway.

South Africa's human rights struggle focused on the struggle for racial equality in a nation whose 1948 constitution prevented non-whites-the majority population-from holding office, voting, working in certain occupations, and intermarrying with whites. All state institutions, such as educational programs, were segregated by law. That ended in the early 1990s when apartheid was overturned and the path was cleared for the democratic election in 1994 of Mandela as president.