05 June 2015

Tracing the unbreakable thread: SAHA's Non-racialism Project

The resilience of our people and their determination to be free defies all odds: it is an unshakeable belief in democracy and non-racialism which motivates them to forge ahead.  

Cover image: The Unbreakable Thread by Julie FrederikseThis quote which appears at the beginning of Julie Frederikse’s book The Unbreakable Thread captures the centrality of non-racialism in the movements and discourses that were concerned with achieving freedom in South Africa during apartheid. Yet twenty one years since the advent of democracy in South Africa, race remains an issue of contention in government, social movements and society as a whole. 

SAHA is the custodian of a rich archival collection that speaks to the struggle for non-racial democracy within Southern Africa. The Julie Frederikse collection (AL2460) which relates directly to the 1990 publication The Unbreakable Thread: non racialism in South Africa, comprises audio recordings and transcripts of interviews conducted with over 200 activists in the late 1980s, along with related textual and visual materials collected by journalist and author Julie Frederikse.

Drawing primarily on the Julie Frederikse collection and The Unbreakable Thread publication, SAHA is in the process of conducting a project that aims to digitise and make accessible this publication, along with two related foundational publications by Frederikse, South Africa: A Different Kind of War and None But Ourselves: Masses vs Media in the Making of Zimbabwe, as well as related archival material. Frederikse researched and wrote None But Ourselves: Masses vs Media in the Making of Zimbabwe following her news coverage of Zimbabwe's transition to independence for National Public Radio (US) in 1979-1980. The book was published in 1982 by South Africa's Ravan Press in an effort to help South African's understand the struggle for non-racial democracy of their northern neighbour, and was also published in the US by Penguin, in the UK by Heinemann, and by Zimbabwe Publishing House. Frederikse's second book, South Africa: A Different Kind of War, was published in 1986 by Ravan Press, South Africa; Beacon Press, US; James Currey, UK; and Mambo Press, Zimbabwe, with a second edition by Ravan in 1987 due to popular demand. The aim of digitising this material is to provide a starting point to introduce young people to the history of non-racialism, and to consider what non-racialism means in South Africa today.

Part of this process is to compile a collection on non-racialism that is grounded in the work done by Frederikse. She uses a number of powerful images in the book which bring to life the words on the pages. Shibu Motimele, junior researcher on the project, has identified some of these images in the SAHA Original Photograph collection (AL2547), a collection compiled by Frederikse when she began researching for The Unbreakable Thread. The photographs are complimented by pamphlets, paintings, posters and newspaper clippings that capture the mood and feeling of the time around issues of struggle premised on common freedom rather than race. Although SAHA has a number of these resources in a various collections, such as the United Democratic Front (UDF) collection (AL2431) some of the newspaper and party publications still need to be sourced.

As part of the research that went into the book, Frederikse conducted over two hundred interviews. In the book, she refers to specificSticker, issued by the P.E. Action Committee, date unknown. Archived as SAHA collection AL2540_D0226 interviews and we are currently in the process of making sure that good quality audio and transcripts exist for all the interviews that are referred to in The Unbreakable Thread. The most exciting aspect of the resultant Non-racialism collection is that it provides accounts from below of how non-racialism was conceptualised and why it was desired. Unfortunately current discussions and debates on non-racialism do not take into account the historical context in which the ideal emerges or the many struggles in which it was invoked during the liberation movement. What the Non-racialism collection will do is provide a rich background on non-racialism in South Africa which can invoke an informed and rigorous discussion amongst young South Africans for whom race remains a significant issue.

The Non-racialism Project will be rolled out in two phases. Firstly, the book, publications and related archival material will be digitised and made available online. The culmination of phase one will be a dialogue forum held at Constitutional Hill in September which will coincide with the 25th commemorative Anniversary of the online edition of The Unbreakable Thread. The online repository of digitised materials will also be launched with the hopes that it will inspire an assessment of the state of non-racialism in South Africa today, bearing in mind the historical context of struggles to achieve it. Lastly, phase one will see the launch of a new short-audiovisual feature on non-racialism which will then be used in phase two of the project as an educational feature to be used in schools to stimulate discussions around non-racialism in 2016.

At the end of this project the following should be achieved: the digitisation of Julie Frederikse’s three publications, the creation of an online repository on non-racialism, the launch of the commemorative online edition of The Unbreakable Thread, the hosting of a dialogue forum and the construction of multimedia educational features using audio and visual materials from the archives. Most importantly, through the use of SAHA’s extensive archival material on non-racialism, resources will be made accessible to young people who may not be aware of the role non-racialism played in forming the current dispensation.

See inventory of the Julie Frederikse collection (AL2460)

See inventory of the SAHA Original Photograph collection (AL2547)

See inventory of the United Democratic Front collection (AL2431)