The African Activist Archive

Singer in exile Miriam Makeba addresses
the United Nations General Assembly in
1976. The occasion was the debate on
apartheid, and Makeba was a delegate of
the Republic of Guinea.

A boycott of South African musical Ipi
Ntombi in 1977 led to the show’s
premature closing.

A T-shirt saluting South African women.

(All images: African Activist Archive)

Janine Erasmus

A new online resource aims to preserve an important slice of shared African and American history covering 50 years of activism in the US against apartheid and colonialism. The African Activist Archive project has so far collected over 1 300 documents and artefacts, which are now available for perusal on its website.

Spanning the latter half of the 20th century, the project collects records of various forms related to activities undertaken in solidarity with the freedom struggle of Africans.

These include historical materials such as pamphlets, newsletters, leaflets, political buttons, posters, T-shirts, photographs, and audio and video recordings. The archive is also putting together a collection of interviews with activists involved in the movement, and will accept written personal recollections too.

The African Activist Archive (AAA) is calling for any relevant material to be donated, archived and made available to the public.

Besides the hundreds of historical items, the AAA also maintains an extensive directory of similar archives held by libraries and historical societies worldwide.

African focus

The AAA has a particular geographical focus on activist action in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Namibia (then South West Africa), South Africa, and Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) – although not exclusively.

While the project is primarily an online resource, it is encouraging people in possession of archival material to preserve these priceless records by depositing them in public repositories such as its own. To this end, it will assist groups and individuals as much as possible.

Initiated in 2003, the AAA has received support from the Ford Foundation, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, educational non-profit organisation Our Developing World, the Normandie and Samuel Rubin foundations, which focus on humanitarian and social causes, individual donors and churches, and a number of others.

AAA is run with the help of the Michigan State University library, which keeps all material in its Special Collections section. Said Cliff Haka, library director, “These collections of documents, posters, photographs, T-shirts, and audio and video tapes are building on two of the library’s nationally-recognised areas of strength – in African studies and American radicalism.”

Priceless records

The earliest documents in the collection date back to 1962 and concern the American Negro Leadership Conference on Africa held in that year. Present at the conference were Martin Luther King, Jr and other key civil rights leaders of that time.

The collection also features invitations to various significant events such as a dinner commemorating the eighth anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, and information regarding the Patrice Lumumba Coalition, the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement, Winnie Mandela Solidarity Coalition, and the Pan-African Liberation Committee and Southern Africa Relief Fund organised by students at Harvard University.

History buffs will be fascinated by candid photographs of struggle stalwarts Miriam Makeba, Albert Lutuli, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, and others. The AAA also features visual documentation of protests against the 1964 Rivonia Trial, a 1977 boycott against the South African stage show Ipi Ntombi, which resulted in its premature closure, South African participation in the 1978 Davis Cup tennis tournament, and the sale of Krugerrands across the US, among many others.

There is much more – material such as politically-themed pamphlets, buttons and T-shirts make up a part of this absorbing collection. Recorded interviews with the likes of former Minister of Education Kader Asmal and distinguished sociologist/academic Ben Magubane, conducted during their time of exile, are available.

The struggle for freedom in other countries such as Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Angola is also documented, although according to project manager Christine Root, it is the forgotten materials that people may have in their garages and attics that are of particular interest to AAA. “We are eager to add materials and interviews from more activists to more fully represent this diverse movement,” she said.

Fighting for justice

The American civil rights movement was born long before colonialism and apartheid came to Africa, as there were slaves in the US before the first settlers set foot on South African soil. The first documented instance of slavery in the US dates back to 1619 whilst settlers came to the Cape in 1652. However, activities in the 20th century thrust the moment into international prominence.

From the 1950s through to the end of the century, the civil rights movement in the US was strong and vocal, and key events such as the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 brought figures such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr to prominence. At the time the young Baptist minister was president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organisation that directed the boycott.

Many activists were also involved in the struggle of African people against colonialism, apartheid and social injustice through individual efforts and organised movements. Among these were the Free South Africa Movement and the Southern Africa Support Project, which assisted people in Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa in their struggle for freedom. Archival records of the latter movement are held at Howard University in Washington, DC.

People of all races joined anti-apartheid demonstrations in their individual capacity or as members of organisations that sprang up across the US. Through campus, union and community demonstrations, sit-ins, corporate boycotts and disinvestment, and media and music campaigns, activists took a stand against injustice.

Promotional material such as newsletters, pamphlets, leaflets, posters, buttons, T-shirts, photos, and slideshows have taken their place in history, as have policy and strategy documents, various items of correspondence, minutes of meetings, and media reports and interviews. Although many organisations may have since faded away, these vital records remain.

The US-African solidarity initiative was an important part of the broader struggle against the racism that also pervaded America at the time. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, the foundation of which was laid during the presidency of John F Kennedy, although it was enacted only after his assassination in 1963, was good news for freedom fighters as it legally outlawed racial segregation and discrimination.

The activism movement was unprecedented in the influence it came to wield, and it culminated in the enactment of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986.

Overruling then-president Ronald Reagan’s veto – the first time in the 20th century that a president had a foreign policy veto overridden – the Act imposed sanctions against South Africa, and also barred any direct flights to and from the US.

It was the first anti-apartheid legislation passed in the US, and it further crippled the South African economy that was tottering after US banks had pulled out the year before. A strike in 1987 by 250 000 mineworkers did more damage to the economy.

It was the combined pressures of international sanctions and internal strife that saw the apartheid regime finally crumble. In 1990 the government unbanned the South African Communist Party, the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress. A number of racist Acts were repealed, among them the 1913 and 1936 Land Acts, the Population Registration Act, and the Separate Amenities Act.

Nelson Mandela stepped forth from Victor Verster prison, a free man, in 1990, and four years later took office as South Africa’s first democratically-elected president.

“We are collecting the evidence of a unique historical movement,” commented US sociologist David Wiley. “Without this movement, the US Congress would not have passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which finally signalled the end of American support for the South African apartheid government.”

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