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

Article excerpt

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.

Building on a Holocaust archive

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. …


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