Recording the voices of struggle
Prof. Amii Omara-Otunnu persuaded his American university to help document and preserve the story of South Africans' uprising against apartheid - and to use it to expand human rights education
STORRS, CONN. — When Nelson Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years, the world cheered. Amii Omara-Otunnu cheered, too - and got right to work.
On that day in 1990, the former political refugee from Uganda started focusing on one goal: to help preserve the story of the prolonged movement he had joined to overturn apartheid in South Africa. What captured his imagination was not simply the need to correct and supplement the official records kept by whites, but to "make a living reality of [the] struggle."
He envisioned an institute where individuals from around the globe could hear one another's stories and better understand issues of oppression and justice. They could draw parallels between apartheid, Jim Crow segregation in the US, and Nazi persecution of Jews.
"What we should be doing in the field of human rights is to allow people from different backgrounds to share experiences and strategies for peaceful resolution of conflict," says Dr. Omara-Otunnu, a professor at the University of Connecticut in Storrs for the past 15 years.
The first step would be to offer funding and expertise to help train black South African archivists and oral historians. But Omara-Otunnu wasn't thinking only about what he and
UConn could do for South Africa. It should be a reciprocal relationship, one in which South Africans could share their expertise in transforming a society's understanding of human rights. His inspiration grew when Mr. Mandela became president in 1994 and the country embarked on its democratic experiment.
"South Africa has got the most robust, liberal constitution anywhere in the world.... It started a new model of human rights based on truth, reconciliation, and forgiveness," says Dr. Omara-Otunnu, surrounded by wooden sculptures and bright textiles in his basement office.
The result is an unusual partnership that has brought some of South Africa's most prominent leaders to a sprawling campus in pastoral Connecticut, just down the road from the local corn maze. Over the past two years, UConn has helped the African National Congress (the political party that has been ruling since blacks started voting in 1994) to develop its archives. At the same time, it has become the North American repository for copies of ANC records. In a closely related project, UConn is exchanging ideas, people, and other resources with South Africa's historically black University of Ft. Hare, which counts among its alumni many African leaders, including Mandela.
It wasn't just Omara-Otunnu's charming smile and African contacts that lent a certain logic to these partnerships. The university already housed papers from the Nuremberg Trials at its Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. (Dodd helped shape policy at the post-World War II trials and later became a US senator.) "The Nuremberg Trials were a particular way of dealing with oppressors, and Truth and Reconciliation was another," says Naledi Pandor, a third-generation member of the ANC and chair of the National Council of Provinces, a chamber of South Africa's Parliament. "We believe this provides ... rich material with which to transmit the message that the experience of oppression is a universal phenomenon."
Laura Zimmerman, a UConn geography major, backs up that view. She heard about the partnership when she enrolled in Omara-Otunnu's human rights class this fall. At first, she was surprised. "It's so far away, it seems removed," she says.
But she was eager to hear the personal accounts of activists this fall, once she started reading the key treaties that outline human rights law. She had her chance during UConn's second annual comparative human rights conference Oct. 16 (see story, below). "It's kind of difficult learning about the documents without hearing the cases behind them," she says.
Getting the archive up to full speed is an immense task. An estimated 2 million documents could take as long as seven years to process, Ms. Pandor says. In addition, newly trained South Africans are interviewing more than 200 people, everyone from formerly exiled ANC leaders to current youth activists. Oral history helps fill in the gaps from the 30 years the ANC operated underground.
The vision of a society where rights are not curtailed because of color stretches back to the ANC's founding in 1912, she says. "We need to capture this essence of our former leaders so that young people have a sense of those values."
Adult South Africans should benefit, too, since many of them were poorly educated in the segregated system. "History as we know it ... doesn't tell the true story about us [black people], but there are artifacts and stories being uncovered that paint a different picture," says Meshack Masuku, a South African ceramic artist who went to school only through 4th grade - until, as an adult, he began studying for a bachelor's degree when apartheid was overturned. He now teaches at a formerly whites-only technical school. Both he and Pandor spoke during last week's conference.
Setting the historical record straight can spark important conversations and help reduce the alienation caused by apartheid, says Derrick Swartz, vice chancellor of the University of Ft. Hare, where original ANC documents are being stored. "I would imagine that that will be the most fascinating part of the project - taking it out of the academic milieu into the popular domain," he says. "Then, truly, we will be able to see the power of memory in helping people to navigate their way into the present and the future."
Dr. Swartz says the linkage with UConn is "one of the most significant partnerships that we've developed."
The two schools face some similar challenges, despite extremely different histories. Both want to create a more multicultural campus and make their curriculum more relevant to the 21st century. "UConn is committed to being part of the global
community, to studying and teaching about cultures far removed from our own, and to welcoming people from across the world to be part of our community," President Philip Austin said last year, when the linkages received more than $1 million in grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the United Negro College Fund.
Such efforts take on a special significance as the smoke of Sept. 11 begins to clear. They can help societies "recognize difference as a source of strength," says Nasila Rembe, who teaches human rights at Ft. Hare. Dr. Rembe also holds a UNESCO Chair of Human Rights, one of 53 positions worldwide intended to promote human rights education and networking. At the UConn conference, he announced that Omara-Otunnu has been appointed to the first such chair in the US.
Omara-Otunnu will now have an even wider stage to share his passion for adding the dimension of human faces and voices to the otherwise legalistic realm of human rights. "Quite often, people relate and respond when they see human rights not as abstract ideas, but as ideas that really affect people's lives in very specific, concrete ways," he says. Last year's conference featured adult children of human rights struggles, such as Nkosinathi Biko, who was 6 when his father, Steve Biko, was killed in a South African jail.
The last thing Omara-Otunnu wants is a purely academic endeavor. Indeed, the university partners are a catalyst for potential business ties between Connecticut and South Africa's Eastern Cape Province. "It's going to be a very comprehensive partnership ... and that is the incredible thing," he says.
"It ought to connect people to people - business people, common people, legislators.... Once you have made the link between people, anything is possible."