Nordic Documentation on the Liberation Struggle in Southern Africa

10 September 2004, Uppsala, Sweden

"Without archives, we would all be orphans of the past, deprived of personality and knowledge and condemned to repeat ourselves." Jean Pierre Wallot, former President of the International Council on Archives (quoted by Narissa Ramdhani in her opening speech of the workshop).

Dance class. Photo by Karolina Winbo

In February 2003 the Nordic Africa Institute initiated a project of identifying archives in the Nordic countries that cover documentation on anti-apartheid resistance and the liberation struggle in Southern Africa, mainly South Africa and Namibia, during the years 1960-1990. There were a large number of organisations in the Nordic countries that took part in this struggle in different ways, e.g. government bodies, youth organisations, political parties and churches. A vast bilateral co-operation emerged and many well documented conferences and meetings were held in the Nordic countries during this period. Several visits to refugee camps in Africa and encounters with different leaders are also documented on videos, tapes and in pictures. So far the project has produced indexes in English and many archives have been catalogued. Documents totalling more than 30,000 pages at the Institute have been digitalized and the project is intending to digitalize sound and images for the database in the year to come. The database is available on the Internet and includes archive indexes, organisational history, interesting links and personal stories (www.

The project held a workshop in September to present its work and bring together people from the Nordic countries and Southern Africa who were active in the anti-apartheid and liberation struggles up until 1994. Thirty participants, representing 23 organisations and groups from eight countries discussed the role of archives in the writing of history and remembrance for future generations.

During the workshop, it became evident that Namibia and South Africa have come a long way in initiating archive projects and highlighting the importance of archives in the redress of history after independence.

When it comes to Namibia, Norway and Finland stand out in the Nordic region with their long-term contacts. This is perhaps most clearly visible in the little village of Elverum where more than 80 percent of the villagers in one way or another had been involved with Namibia, mainly through The Namibia Association of Norway in Elverum.

The workshop participants were informed of the history and archive project of SWAPO at the SWAPO Archive and Research Center. The purpose is to make sure that the documentation of the liberation struggle is not lost but becomes known. Making history known and archives available was an issue raised during the workshop and in the case of SWAPO the project involves mobile units that will visit remote areas. An estimated 2.8 million documents in addition to movies, photographs and sound will be catalogued and to some extent digitalized. SWAPO Archive and Research Center is currently co-operating with the Namibia National Archives in sharing premises and equipment. Representatives from the Namibia National Archives visited the Nordic Africa Institute and other organisations in Sweden and Norway two years ago in order to identify important material and complement missing information within the project 'Effort to Recover the Namibian Heritage of Resistance and the Liberation Struggle'. Finland is currently collaborating with the Namibia National Archives.

Participants from South Africa told us of the number of archiving initiatives in the country. One major project for the digitalisation of archives is the Digital Imaging Project of South Africa at Campbell House of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. Former anti-apartheid periodicals are being made available on-line as well as images and documents related to the liberation struggle.

The ANC documents are based at Fort Hare and offer the prospect of exploring the many aspects of co-operation and links between the Nordic states and the ANC during 1978-1992 . The Somafco archives, for example, can be found here. The collection covers 14 years in 719 boxes and 21.4 linear metres of audio-visual material in addition to artefacts. Archives are becoming increasingly important in South Africa and useful in the work on the redressing of history in general and work on a new history curriculum in schools within the South African History Project in particular. Here, it is emphasised that oral history needs to be archived along with more traditional documents. Several volunteers were present at the workshop and contributed with their personal stories and experiences, thus giving life to the documents found in archives.

Current Minister of Justice and Constitutional Reform of South Africa, Brigitte Sylvia Mabandla, talked about the necessary redress taking place within South African history writing. She mentioned the importance of memorial sites and manifestations, such as the Freedom Park, which will assist in shedding light on the history from a different perspective, and will not completely change history. Her strong interest in the matter provides opportunities to facilitate co-operation between archival initiatives.

Representatives in Sweden from NGOs, the church and Sida presented their work within the project. The grass-root movement and political leadership were particularly united in Sweden in their solidarity with the anti-apartheid struggles in Southern Africa and paved the way for international contacts with the liberation leaders.

The workshop spoke of the importance of archives as part of nation-building. As new generations grow up, they are taking their freedom for granted and failing to understand the struggle - national and international - that laid the foundation for today's independence.
This report was also published in News from the Nordic Africa Institute, no. 1/2005.

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Updated 22 January 2010, 13:40

Basadi Women of Jazz. Photo by Nina Frödin

Inez Padayachy, University of Pretoria and Narissa Ramdhani, University of KwaZulu Natal. Photo by Nina Frödin

The Minister of Justice and Constitutional Reform of South Africa, Ms. Brigitte Sylvia Mabandla. Photo by Nina Frödin