Actors and Archives on the Move – Studying Mid-20th Century Black Radicalism and Anticolonial Activism

by Lena Dallywater (Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography) and Ana Moledo (Leipzig University)

Part I – Some methodological reflections on the intricacies involved in our research


According to IDAF information: “Commanders of SWAPO detachments receiving political and military education at an Angolan base near the Namibian border”. Identification in the National Archives: photo no.13286. Original number in IDAF: LA 195-3-5. Copyright: Anonymous.

Recently, the scholarly interest in Black Activism and Black Internationalism, and the movements, networks and ideas of intellectuals and activists has been increasing as a result of new research approaches in the field of global and transnational studies. Intriguing facets of liberation movements and their connections to counterparts in North, West, South and East have been revealed in individual studies and dissertations, but also as group projects that span institutions and archives. Still, tracing the multi-sited, multi-lingual phenomenon of black and anticolonial activism, with explicit attention to individual agency and the particular trajectories of those in ‘side-lined’ positions, is a global puzzle indeed.  

In this blog piece we want to point to the many “stories behind the stories”, the struggles and creative solutions that need to be found to counter the scattered evidence and fragile archival situation of mobile black activists in the mid-20th century. This joint effort brings to light background notes that no longer appear in a dissertation or journal article, yet can tell us so much – methodologically regarding the practices of doing research and the historian’s craft, and also in terms of content, for understanding Black Radicalism and anticolonial activism in a global perspective. Following “the stories behind the stories” reveals the opportunities that lie in rethinking history and history writing away from ephemeral theories and polished manuscripts, we argue.

The two anecdotes from our research that we share hereunder tell us a lot about methodological challenges for researchers studying Black activism. Clandestine, underground activities in multiple locations and at different scales on the one hand, and the ‘journey’ of materials across diverse institutions and countries on the other, bring about a situation with scattered evidence, informally organized and poorly preserved. Acknowledging the authorship of those, who are not in common ‘Histories of Liberation Movements’, requires all forms of media, contacts, networks, joined forces and languages, exchange among scholars and lots of perseverance and creativity. The stories behind the stories point to those people who have been fighting for improvement of their individual and collective situation. In fact, many of them are still struggling to build on the claims and promises that increasingly petered out after the initial disappointments with the Pan-African idea and with the transformation from colonial to post-colonial institutions. Following individuals and their paths is telling about the position of (intellectual-)activists from the so-called Global South in international systems of higher education, arts, and diplomacy.

Archives on the Move – Challenges to trace sources and authorship

A starting points is the photo “NAN 12396” (short for „NAN Photo No. 12396, Mayibuye/IDAF: ‘Commanders of SWAPO detachments receiving political indoctrination and military training at an Angolan base near the Namibian border‘“). The picture is intriguing with regard to the different layers of what is being depicted. The eyes of the viewer oscillate between military guns on the tables, Karl Marx at the wall, the concentrated gaze of the ‘students’ and the mix of styles and headpieces that further diffuse the scene. It is also fascinating in terms of the context of how and where it was created – and by whom. The Angolan town of “Lubango” is the guess of a former archivist of the National Namibian Archives, now retired, when it comes to the question of “where” the picture of the commanders of the anticolonial “South-West Africa People’s Organisation” (SWAPO) has been taken. The “who” is even more obscure: no photographer or other provenance given[i] and finally, the question of “how” brings another level to light. In the following, a few of the convoluted stepping-stones in the 4-week-long excavation into the tangled paths of the image and its unclear authorship and rights ownership are mentioned. They depict, how aspirations of reconstructing and telling microhistories are being hindered, but also complicate more pragmatic actions like requesting copyright permission for the current usage of images and other materials produced in the context of past anticolonial and anti-apartheid struggles.

To begin with, the process of requesting copyright revealed that the source itself had made quite a journey. Originally, the photo comes from the stock of the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF; London), which built up a large photo archive in the 1970s/80s to supply the international solidarity and anti-apartheid movement. Copyright was not taken too seriously, while the conspiracy and anonymization of image sources and content (place/time/persons) was taken more seriously, for good reason. In the course of the democratic change in South Africa, IDAF was dissolved, and the entire archive was handed over to the then so-called Mayibuye Archive at the University of the Western Cape (today Robben Island Museum/Mayibuye Archives). The Mayibuye Archives in turn made IDAF’s Namibia holdings available to the National Archives of Namibia (photographs, library, newspaper clipping collection), with the proviso that copyright for the photographs would remain with Mayibuye. „Somewhat problematically, because Mayibuye arrogated to itself a copyright that should really belong to the anonymous photographers“, our contact, a retired NAN archivist, concedes. Yet, activism within liberation movements as well as on the side of their Western sponsors and solidarity movements was organised on the plural. Individual agency was usually sidelined or replaced by collective identities (movements, groups, organizations), which makes it so difficult to trace particular stories and individuals’ aspirations.

At some point, Mayibuye went through a phase of mismanagement and disorganization, and it proved problematic getting reprint permissions from them at all. „Apparently, no one was looking through anymore. Since the original prints were in Windhoek anyway, I then issued reprint permissions for historically important photos in the name of the National Archives so as not to block them completely“, our contact recalls. „No one crowed about it either“. This may be often too hastily perceived and labelled as disfunctionality of technical infrastructures in research and preservation in institutions in post-colonial states. Indeed, the e-mails to the Namibian National Archive bounced back twice, also the phone number given on the website was disfunctional, and so was the online inquiry form. The current NAN representative unfortunately never replied to inquiries neither to the official mail address nor her private one, the scholar of the University of the Western Cape who had been recommended for Mayibuye was kind enough to let us know during sabbatical that she cannot be of help. After an inbox full of “Out of office” notices and “Undelivered e-mail” errors, contacts from contacts from contacts (an African studies scholar who had used the photo for his PhD thesis, the former, now retired NAN archivist and direct personal phone calls from his side to support our cause) some, still not satisfying information could be retrieved. The scholarly-archival network has helped us, in part. Still, unfortunately, using a “picture quote” was ultimately the only solution to reprint the image[i] for which the rightsholders’ permission(s) had not been and could not be retrieved. The efforts to obtain rights and printing permission opened up a box of journeys, transfers and institutions. On the one hand, they pointed to the challenges to reconstruct sources and authorship, and what it can mean when archives are “on the move”. On the other hand, they made us wonder whether there is any sort of motivation behind what could be described as dysfunctionality, such as an intentional act of neglecting certain histories that do not suit official narratives of nation-building. Answers to these questions can be given only by the actors, if the sources do not disclose it.

Actors on the Move – Challenges to reconstruct individual pathways

Once we start grasping the details that go beyond the collective undertakings and bureaucracies of political parties, liberation movements and the like, informal relations and human aspects come to light. Usually unnoticed or disregarded, the realm of familiar, personal connections and friendships can tell a great deal about the ins and outs of political activism, strategic alliances, etc. The trajectories of anticolonial activists and intellectuals that lived in exile and moved across the boundaries of several empires and nations cannot be fully grasped without paying attention to their educational background, professional occupations and parallel activities that crisscrossed their political engagement. That is to say, their militancy should not be taken for granted or regarded as an isolated factor in shaping their biographies and careers. More often than not, ties of friendship and partnership, romantic relationships and personal aspirations played the role of enhancers but also disruptors of political commitments. While official histories usually tweak or omit these affairs for being little more than mere anecdotic events in the bigger picture of political and intellectual struggles, such episodes illustrate what lies behind the (im)mobilities of actors that made those struggles possible and illuminate contingencies that enrich those histories.

Finding out more about the life, work and current position of contemporary ‘actors on the move’, in this case scholars and artists who have been active in the South African context in the late 20th century can prove to be as challenging, as the following story of an intellectual (*1960) shows. Whilst finding his MA thesis “The Dialectic Between African and Black Aesthetics in Some South African Short Stories” in the Cape Town University library catalogue rather easily, finding the author himself turned out to be a real endeavor. The detective work necessary to come to an interview with him was equally intricate and troublesome as tracing the photo’s context of creation and preservation. As many stepping-stones (online sources, private messages on networking platforms, newspaper articles, personal conversations with a journalist in Johannesburg) were necessary to learn more about his life and work after the tracks of his educational pathway ended. In fact, the author of the MA thesis had changed his name, and even after being certain about the name change, it took many messages on social media platforms to find the right person, get further information on his now location, and the desperately wanted contact details. After the initial contact, communication still proved to be difficult, due to high telecommunications costs in South Africa. The journey to him and his story developed in an airplane and private taxi for getting to a big shopping mall in Richards Bay, a medium size city in the East of South Africa, which he proposed for the interview. For him, currently living actually in a small village in the countryside, where he was now active as community priest, efforts were comparably high. Being surrounded by shoppers and noisy supermarket trolleys, we eventually managed to have a conversation at an „Ocean Basket” restaurant, sipping a coffee, whilst in 2:45 hours he provided fascinating insights into literary activism in South Africa in the 1980s.

As this scholar was growing up, schooling was organized in terms of Bantu education. His mother tongue was, as for many others, Zulu, and the level of common English at school was very poor. He ended his schooling in 1982, only after a big controversy about the matric examination of the school, which was finally settled with the help of a female lawyer, being in the forefront of the struggle for liberation (assumably paid by the ANC). He was then able to go to university, but because of his family background, he could not afford full time university, and went to University of South Africa (UNISA), which is distance education. This didn’t improve the situation after the poor schooling quality, and in the beginning of the 1980s, after failing at UNISA and a second failed attempt at the then University of Natal, he started writing poetry and he was also getting active politically. With the political climate and the strategies of the apartheid regime changing in the mid- and late 1980s, he had the chance to study English literature at the University of Cape Town,[ii] which had been opened recently for Black students. This caesura in South African history influenced his pathway, as did the crucial year of 1976. When, just after 1976 a collection of his prominent journalist uncle Nat Nakasa’s writing was published, the then 16-year-old delved into that book. He wanted to get out of “all this fear in white people […] and thinking white people are superior” and the “peel of negativity of knowledge that was not affirming”, and the humiliation of the time, he described. Rather, he began to question their [white people’s] rhetoric and to question the discourse of the time.  He never told his peers about these kinship ties, though his prominent uncle had shaped his confidence to master the English language, and also shaped his world view. He kept the secret, he admitted laughingly in the interview, to impress others with bringing forward those revolutionary ideas at suitable moments, for example in student debates. This secrecy, although it obviously has other reasons than the anonymity of the photographer and the photographed persons in the picture, thus reemerges as an essential feature.

Pathways forward: Avenues for further research and collaboration

What can these two stories tell us though for pathways forward and avenues for further research and collaboration? The two examples from our research have shown that reconstructing individual authorship and trajectories of people and sources related to political and intellectual struggles of liberation is a challenge.  The attribution of an important body of primary sources to liberation movements, parties and organizations obscures individual agency and hinders the reconstruction of particular trajectories, notably those of female militants, spouses or companions that occupied less prominent positions as translators, photographers, journalists, etc. Memoirs and interviews are a good way to disentangle individual and collective agency and grasp the internal complexity and heterogeneity of these political and black intellectual movements. Yet, those findings also need to be made available across national and institutional boundaries.

A set of “sources at the margins” has increasingly been explored, systematized and made accessible for a larger research community. Online repositories, such as Struggles for Freedom in Southern Africa – Jstor, Forward to Freedom – British AAM, African Activist Archive (MSU), South Africa Overcoming Apartheid, Building Democracy, to name but a few, are consolidating as platforms of reference by collecting and making available for public consultation a large volume of sources from liberation movements, anticolonial and anti-apartheid activist groups. This body of sources allows to shed light on networks and circuits of knowledge and political action that sought alternatives to rethink issues of (anticolonial/black) resistance, race, nation – which are still marginalized by Western epistemologies. It is in itself a counterpoint to the (colonial) archive as we know it – a way of organizing, systematizing and seeing the world[iii].

At the same time, within the ReCentGlobe at Leipzig University, first steps are also being taken into the systematic reconstruction and visualization of individual trajectories and networks of black radicals and anticolonial activists in the 20th century. The work developed so far in the subproject A07 “Free Radicals”? Political Mobilities and Post-Colonial Processes of Respatialization in the Second Half of the 20th Century of the collaborative research cluster 1199 “Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition[iv] to create a database with the mobilities of Luso-African anticolonial militants, and more generally intellectuals and activists involved in broader (socialist) internationalist anti-imperialist projects is only an initial attempt that will certainly benefit from future collaboration with other colleagues working in this field. This kind of work relies on a combination of sources as proxies for the identification of individuals, routes, places and encounters, from police and colonial archives, to private records, collections from activist organizations and liberation movements.

Pairing such initiatives with similar undertakings in other places – and also very small, individual “stories behind the stories” from single projects, as we have now shown – are one pathway forward and a strategy to fill the loopholes of gender, black and subaltern perspectives in the history of black radicalism and anticolonial activism in the 20th century.


[i] Used as illustration for an editorial comment in the scientific blog, see Lena Dallywater, Chris Saunders, and Helder Adegar Fonseca, Southern African Liberation Movements and the Global Cold War ‘East’ – Transnational Activism 1960–1990, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 05.11.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/25329.

[ii] On the central role of English in determining aesthetic standards and the corresponding debates of Black writers and poets and their white counterparts in relevant institutions in Southern Africa, see, among others, Dallywater, Lena, “’Black Fire’ – Conceptualizations of Black liberation and engaged views of African and Black aesthetics in the USA and South Africa”. In: Carlos Garrido (ed.): Decentring the Genealogies of Art Activism, Third Text – Critical Perspectives on Art and Culture, Vol. 24, Issue 4 (October 2020), pp. 551-567.

[iii] Cf Foucault and the archeology of knowledge: “more than static collection of documents but a set of relations and institutions that enable certain statements to continue to exist”.

[iv] The SFB 1199, funded by the German Research Foundation for a second phase (2020–2023), is a collaborative research centre that examines modern history up to the present day, with a focus on the role of new spatializations in shaping social interactions and social change. https://research.uni-leipzig.de/~sfb1199/.



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