The University of Fort Hare and the archives of the African National Congress in South Africa

In our latest installment on archival research, Emma Lundin, a PhD candidate at Birkbeck College, discusses the ANC archives at the University of Fort Hare:

Records from the African National Congress’ struggle against apartheid can be found in two main locations in South Africa: the UWC-Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives[i] at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, and the Liberation Movement archives of the National Heritage and Cultural Studies Centre (NAHECS) at the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape.

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University of Fort Hare © Emma Lundin

I spent a month in each location last year, finding evidence and material for my research on women’s liberation within the ANC and the Swedish Social Democratic Party. The two archives partially overlap and some researchers might find that it is enough to travel to one or the other (in which case most seem to choose Mayibuye as it is easier to reach for those flying long-distance). The key difference, however, is that while Mayibuye holds papers from the ANC’s Lusaka and London Missions, and other personal and organisational records (including the for me indispensable Women’s National Coalition [WNC] archive) up to 1990 or 1994, NAHECS has records from all ANC missions abroad as well as other archives, many of which cover the period until 1996 or even later.

Having started my South African archival research at Mayibuye, I soon realised that there were gaps in the repository that only Fort Hare could fill. Nevertheless, neither archive is complete: records from the ANC’s first decade in exile – 1960-1970 – are particularly patchy, due to relocations, threats and violence meted out against the organisation. But material is also missing for another reason: the ANC has taken a fairly controversial approach to its archive, vetting every single page in the folders made available. The whereabouts of the still-secret material is unknown to me and, it would seem, the archivists – it certainly is not stored on the premises. I was also told that the Liberation Movement archive has not been sent material covering the last decade, and they are not sure whether such material will be arriving in the future. On top of that, some personal archives are not accessible: that of Frene Ginwala, the ANC and WNC activist who is a very important person in my research, is but one.

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The National Heritage and Cultural Studies Centre (NAHECS) © Emma Lundin

What is available, however, is well worth the trip – though the journey there can be exhausting even before you get on an airplane. I started my search on the internet, which took me down many one-way routes past websites that are no longer maintained, and complete dead ends in the shape of 404 error messages. The finding aids for the ANC archive at Fort Hare are currently available online[ii] and give a glimpse of the vastness of this repository. But, again, that list is not complete: it neglects to mention the part of the archive I found the most useful – that of the ANC Women’s Section from 1954-1994. Your best option for finding out what you can expect before you go is to speak to the very helpful archivists – Mosanku Maamoe and Vuyolwethu Feni-Fete – before your visit, either via email or by telephone[iii]. Once you arrive, you will find the reading room and archivists’ offices located on the top floor of the NAHECS building. The big desks, comfortable chairs, real windows and actual daylight are rare things in the archive business and make for a nice – albeit often solitary – working environment. The archive fee is R100 per day (about £5), which allows you to take as many photos and make as many notes as you could possibly want to. Opening hours are 8:30am-16:30pm Monday-Thursday; and 8:30am-15:30pm on Fridays. The archive is closed on public holidays.

The journey to Alice, the small Eastern Cape town where the University of Fort Hare is located, is a liberation pilgrimage. Fort Hare is the alma mater of a great number of anti-apartheid activists: Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki, Robert Sobukwe and Chris Hani all studied there. Driving in from the nearest airport in East London, you will pass King William’s Town, where Steve Biko is buried. Fort Hare is a university proud of its connection with apartheid resistance and NAHECS is also the custodian of the archives of the Pan African Congress (PAC) and various Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) organisations. But it is also a university with simmering student dissent: sit-ins and student occupations have hampered colleagues’ access to the archive, and the latest violent clashes on campus took place on 1 August. Although it is a predominantly calm and friendly place where any anger is directed towards university management (which fellow students of the University of London have also experienced over the last year), it is something to bear in mind as you might need to be ready to change your plans during times of protest.

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The town of Alice © Emma Lundin

The question of where to stay and how to travel was more important here than on any of my previous archive trips, as this is a remote, rural corner of South Africa. Used as a dumping ground for the poor and unemployed in the apartheid era when large parts of the area made up the bantustan of Ciskei, local communities remain impoverished and the area neglected even after two decades of ANC rule. Alice is on a string of small, countryside towns that dot the landscape along the Regional Routes 102 and 63, connecting it to East London where flights to Johannesburg depart several times every day. Sangweni Lodge is a good B&B within walking distance of the university, where a room costs R350 (about £19) per night. But, as there is no internet access at Sangweni, those in need of a reliable connection should consider staying further away, at the excellent Peppertree House in Fort Beaufort. A B&B and self-catering inn run by a retired member of the Fort Hare law faculty, Peppertree is about a 30-minute drive from Fort Hare and costs about R370/£20 per night. As in Alice, there is not much to do in Fort Beaufort, but there is a SPAR supermarket, and a KFC. According to Mr Maamoe, many researchers stay in backpacker B&Bs in nearby Hogsback instead, a village on top of the Amathole Mountains about a 35-minute drive away (e.g. Away With The Fairies). Hogsback is on the Baz Bus shuttle from East London, which makes it easy to reach without a car, but it is a place that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the region as its predominately white inhabitants live in a comfort hardly seen at the foot of the mountain and beyond. A trip here can be an eye-opening encounter with one of the apartheid era’s many legacies: the continued segregation of South African communities.

Minibus taxis connect all of these small towns, but you might find – as I did – that the best bet is to allow for the expense of a rental car in your trip budget. I was there in November, when the sun bleached the landscape and young shepherds struggled to keep goats off the roads. Boiling tarmac made potholes appear only for them to be fixed the next day, and driving to and from the archive in the mornings and afternoons soon became my favourite hobby. If you have access to a car, you can also spend weekends exploring the Amathole region; travelling to nearby Grahamstown – home to Rhodes University and Fables Bookshop – and spotting wildlife in the countryside (Addo Elephant National Park is just three hours away). It might not be the type of activities you would put in your funding application but taking the time to explore the impact of history on current realities outside the confines of an archive – which in this case includes reflecting on why it is easier for someone from northern Europe to access ANC sources in the Eastern Cape than it is for many of the people who live in the neighbouring villages – can never be a bad idea.

Notes

[i]               http://ancarchives.africamediaonline.com/?page_id=298; many other pages on this site are no longer working.

[ii]              The website is currently not working, but should hopefully be back soon.

[iii]               +27 (0)40 602 2011 will take you to the Alice campus’ main switchboard

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