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Authors:  A Isaacman, P Lalu, & T Nygren

Source: Indiana University Press​ and MUSE Project

Date: 2005​​​


 Digitisation, history, and the making of a postcolonial archive


This paper describes the history of an initiative to digitize a postcolonial archive on the struggle for freedom in Southern Africa. The authors outline the intellectual architecture of the project and the complex epistemological, political, and technical challenges that they confronted in their endeavor to construct a digital archive that might help reorient scholarly debates on the struggle for liberation.

The liberation of southern Africa was a major political event of the twentieth century. The demise of colonial rule, the end of white-settler domination,and the dismantling of the apartheid regime had far-reaching consequences, not only for the continent, but also for the global community.

At a local level, majority rule created the possibility that millions of people would be free from racial oppression, economic exploitation, and political exclusion. For them, independence carried the hope of social justice and a better life for future generations. Nationally, it meant a radical restructuring of political power. It removed the state bureaucracies and police apparatus that had enforced white privilege and racial segregation. The process took more than thirty years. At a regional level, the revolutions in Angola and Mozambique, followed by those in Zimbabwe and Namibia, defeated Pretoria’s military and political strategy of sustaining white regimes as a buffer against black Africa and isolating movements such as the African National Congress (ANC). The region included the other frontline states, Botswana, Tanzania, and Zambia, which provided critical diplomatic and material support to the liberation movement. africa They represented a wider African involvement, including Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, and other nations.

The struggle for freedom in southern Africa had signifi cance that extended far beyond the continent. By the 1960s, the region was the world’s last major bastion of colonial rule. Firmly entrenched racial minorities resisted a growing global consensus in favor of majority rule and self-determination. Southern Africa became the site of an intense cold-war confl ict, yet even during the cold war, a wide range of forces helped expand an international consensus that the apartheid regime was a pariah that had to be dismantled, even if only on the pragmatic grounds of avoiding a muchfeared racial holocaust. As the cold war drew to a close, the spotlight focused even more intensely on South Africa, the remaining exponent of explicit racial discrimination. Given the long histories of the liberation struggles and their far-reaching consequences, it is hardly surprising that over the past three decades this set of histories has attracted a great deal of scholarly attention. Much of this literature has been written from the perspective of victors, and has become the basis for the dominant nationalist narratives in the liberated countries.

Recently archivists, researchers, and public intellectuals have begun a vigorous effort to preserve, digitize, and disseminate on the web collections of documents on the struggles for freedom in southern Africa. Among the most important projects are the SADC project, “A History of the Liberation Struggle in Southern Africa,” Howard University’s South Africa Research and Archives Project (, The University of  Connecticut-African National Congress Partnership ( ancpartnership.htm), the African Archivist Project at Michigan State University (, the Nordic Documentation on the Liberation Struggle in Southern Africa ( under the auspices of the Nordic African Institute, and Digital Imaging South Africa (DISA) ( Although differing in geographic scope, scale, and internal structure, all these projects share a common objective: to ensurethat the record of this moment in world history is not lost to posterity.

2 In many parts of the region, much critical evidentiary material remains in a precarious state, even when housed in official repositories. Each year, thousands of personal papers, pamphlets, photographs, newspapers, and other critical documents not in secure repositories are inadvertently destroyed. With the passing of time, more and more elders who played critical roles in the armed struggle have died, as have the women and men who served as ordinary foot-soldiers. Gone with them are their personal narratives, which could have provided a valuable interior view of the combatants’ experiences. Joining these archival initiatives is the Aluka Project, “Struggles for Freedom in Southern Africa,” in partnership with DISA. In addition to preserving critical documents, Aluka intends to stimulate important debates on the liberation struggles and the analytical frameworks through which the freedom campaigns were originally studied and represented. The first africa phase of this project will focus on the freedom  truggles in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana. Botswana is included to highlight the fact that independence was achieved not only through the barrel of a gun, but also by nonviolent means. Once independent, however, Botswana played a critical role by  roviding sanctuary and support to neighboring liberation movements—a subject that is documented in the Aluka Project. In a subsequent phase, we intend to expand the scope of the initiative to include Angola, Tanzania, Zambia, and other countries in the region that fi gure prominently in the larger freedom struggle.

3 In less than two years, the Aluka Project has made considerable advances, but much remains to be done. We have created strong workingpartnerships with fi fty prominent scholars, senior archivists, and engaged ublic intellectuals throughout the region. As a group, they bring extensive research experience and a deep commitment to preserving the region’s historyfor future generations. They have organized national panels in Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, which meet regularly.

4 and provide the intellectual direction for the project. Toward this end, the panels have identifi ed the critical themes, issues, and major collections of archival documents, newspapers, journals, nationalist publications, oral histories, iconography, fi lms, and videos that will constitute the evidentiary base of the digital archive, and have determined the allocation of documents to be digitized within each category.

5 The panels have selected local scholars and archivists to go through these collections and select critical materials that illuminate the histories of the liberation struggles. In some cases, particularly in South Africa, which has a long tradition of historical scholarship, the panels have enlisted the assistance of a wide array of researchers who have already worked through much of this material; more commonly, researchers and archivists have had to begin from scratch. In this paper, we outline the history of the project and the intellectual architecture that we have developed. We explore many of the epistemological,

political, and technical challenges that we have had to confront as we try to construct a digital archive that might help reorient scholarly debates or discussions on the struggles for liberation. We begin with a brief discussion of the historical antecedents of the Aluka Project and a description of two other digital projects that Aluka has recently begun.

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