Some Rhodes lead to freedom

July 12, 1996

The Anti-Apartheid Movement's archive has found a home. Simon Targett reports. Cecil Rhodes was not noted for his anti-apartheid credentials. President of the Cape Colony, head of the De Beers mining company, which exploited black workers, he once defined his policy as "equal rights for every white man south of the Zambezi". So it might seem strange that the Anti-Apartheid Movement has chosen to deposit its huge archive in Oxford's Rhodes House Library.

The dark-timbered library, founded in 1929, occupies a central part of the grand copper-domed Rhodes House, which was built from the profits of Rhodes's diamond ventures and designed by the architect of Groote Schuur, the official home of all the pro-apartheid prime ministers and presidents of South Africa.

But, in fact, Rhodes House Library is quite independent of the Rhodes Trust, which oversees Rhodes's financial legacy, and is part of Oxford's Bodleian library. More than this, as the university's base for imperial and commonwealth history, it has a long-established tradition of stocking the archives of black history.

Nestling among the 3,000 manuscripts are the Anti-Slavery Society papers - recording the work of activists from Wilberforce onwards. Other big collections include the documents of the African Bureau and the Fabian Colonial Bureau, pressure groups which campaigned for the independence of states colonised during Europe's 19th-century scramble for Africa.

The library does collect pro-apartheid papers. It has recently received the collection belonging to a vehement polemicist for H. F. Verwoerd, the Nationalist party's architect of apartheid. But as librarian John Pinfold explains: "The library has to reflect every shade of opinion. People in the future must know what people in the past said and thought. It is not the library's job to make a judgement."

The Anti-Apartheid Movement papers promise to be one of the jewels in the Rhodes House Library crown. This is partly because of the significance of the AAM, which was finally wound up last week. Founded in 1959 as the Boycott Movement after future Nobel peace prizewinner Chief Lutuli called for international action, the movement acquired its lasting name after the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 transformed the nature of the struggle. In the years following, it was associated with the Cape fruit boycott, the sports boycott, and above all the campaign to free Nelson Mandela who, as Mike Terry, the last secretary of the AAM, remembers "was still little known outside South Africa in the early 1970s even though he had served ten years in prison".

This made the AAM, according to Mr Terry, "the largest solidarity campaign in the second half of the 20th century". But if this suggests the significance of the archive, its sheer size also makes it something of a treasure. Some 300 unsorted boxes are stuffed with historical gems - annual reports, campaign posters, correspondence, press cuttings and releases, tape recordings - which catalogue the extraordinary success of the AAM, including the time when Iris Murdoch and 500 other UK academics pledged not to work in South African universities.

What is doubly exciting for historians of the anti-apartheid campaign is that the collection has never before been studied. For security reasons, scholars were never allowed anywhere near the archive. As Mr Terry recalls: "Ruth First was on the executive, and of course she was eventually assassinated. Our premises were often firebombed or burgled. We just couldn't take the risk of giving people easy access to our papers."

Even with tight security, some files and records were stolen, most probably by the South African government. The AAM is expected to be represented at the proceedings of Desmond Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, giving evidence of the old regime's illegal activities abroad and possibly retrieving some of its lost documents for the Rhodes House Library.

The archive is expected to be ready in 1999, and Oxford's quota of apartheid-oriented doctorates will surely escalate in the first years of the new millennium. But even before all the cataloguing and conservation work has been carried out, any duplicate documents in the archive will be distributed to South African universities and some key reports will soon be scanned on to the world wide web.

It was this commitment, alongside the ability to raise Pounds 80,000 needed for a full-time archivist - an amount donated by the Bodleian's South African Friends group headed by former De Beers chairman Harry Oppenheimer - which ensured that Rhodes House Library beat off stiff competition from the British Library, London's Institute of Commonwealth Studies, and rich American universities like Yale.

As Mr Pinfold says: "We want to make the archive freely available to South African scholars. We feel we owe it to Nelson Mandela's South Africa."

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