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Digital Imaging Project of South Africa

University of Natal

Reviewed by:
Benedict Carton and Robert Edgar
George Mason University, Howard University
Feburary 2003

The Digital Imaging Project of South Africa (DISA) has digitized 43 anti-apartheid periodicals covering the period 1960 to 1994. These years were pivotal for South Africa’s liberation struggle against the apartheid system. In 1960, the white-ruled National Party government banned major opposition groups such as the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), jailing members and forcing organizers underground. By 1963, a celebrated ANC leader, Nelson Mandela, had been captured, tried for treason, and sentenced to life in prison. In 1990, after decades of crackdowns and resurgent protests, the apartheid state legalized the ANC and PAC, released Mandela and other political prisoners, and began negotiations for elections in 1994 that brought democracy to South Africa.

For many years, scholars and activists have documented South Africa’s path to freedom. In 2001 the ANC-led South African government’s Road to Democracy project was established to collect oral and written sources on anti-apartheid campaigns. An important component of this effort is DISA. Funded by the U.S.-based Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, DISA brought together a group of South African historians and archivists to identify and retrieve relevant periodicals for public access. The DISA documents, many of them published in the 1970s and 1980s, are written primarily in English, but include some documents in Afrikaans, isiZulu, seTswana and siXhosa.

While this website presents compelling perspectives, users must be patient. There are a series of time-consuming steps prior to accessing selected information. For example, a user must click on the category “journals” then designate a specific journal and, its year and issue before reaching a table of contents. However, the search mode covers all of the publications and operates more efficiently by listing citations to a subject in the periodicals. For instance, a user can search for material on prominent anti-apartheid activists such as Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko.

Although the white minority regime created sophisticated mechanisms to monitor and suppress dissent, anti-apartheid organizations continued to disseminate their message through publications—among them newsletters, pamphlets, bulletins, and newspapers—that expressed different political orientations. Users should be aware of the competing views represented by DISA periodicals. For instance, some leaders of groups banned in 1960 (ANC and PAC) went into exile, where they supported guerilla strikes against apartheid institutions. However, opposition movements inside South Africa advocated nonviolent change. Some political writings promoted socialist ideals, while others embraced capitalism.

Notions of race also divided opinion. The ANC and its allies such as the South African Communist Party (SACP) and UDF (Sechaba, African Communist, Umbebenzi, Dawn, Isizwe) favored nonracialism or a broad alliance of whites, Africans, Indians, and Coloureds (people of mixed racial descent)— the four “populations” classified by apartheid legislators (for more on this complex issue see the ANC website). By contrast, the PAC decided to mobilize Africans and exclude whites. Later, in the 1970s an ascendant Black Consciousness movement (Black Review, Frank Talk, SASO Newsletter) redefined what it meant to be black to include all people targeted for oppression by apartheid laws, calling on Africans, Coloureds, and Indians to unify against white supremacists.

One of the strengths of this website is the collection of lesser-known periodicals, for example, APDUSA Review, Congress Resister, and Inqaba ya Basebenzi. In addition, community-based organizations feature prominently along with their publications focusing on local religious activism (Pro Veritate, Crisis News, Journal of Black Theology), public health concerns, human rights (Sash), land disputes (Afra and Trac Newsletter), union organizing (FOSATU Workers News, NUM News and COSATU News), education (SASPU News and SASPU National Focus), and gender and cultural concerns (Rixaka).

It must also be noted that not all publications voice antigovernment platforms. A striking example is Clarion Call, published by Inkatha, a Zulu-based cultural nationalist organization led by Chief Gatsha Buthelezi and linked to apartheid homeland policies. Clarion Call will allow users to contrast starkly the positions of African groups in the closing decades of white minority rule. Finally, an independent academic journal, Work in Progress, provides analytical assessments of sundry issues.

The DISA website enables school classes to engage in a valuable civics lesson, comparing the emergence of more inclusive contemporary societies with histories of racial segregation, in South Africa and the United States, respectively. Teachers will find excerpts in the periodicals that show how complex racial and ethnic identities shaped similar struggles for civil rights in both countries. For example, students might be asked to reference documents in the DISA site pertaining to the (1970s) Black Consciousness movement (Black Review, etc.) and compare these writings with pronouncements made by leaders of (late 1960s and early 1970s) Black Power movements in the United States. Did these movements always share similar views of racial solidarity? When did their views diverge and why? Moreover, students might consider why more and more ministers in both South Africa and the United States incorporated messages of civil rights into their religious teachings. By showing how broader freedoms are won through a variety of political approaches, teachers will be able to demonstrate that the fabric of multiracial democracy contains a patchwork of dissenting views.

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