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Gail Gerhart Launches Volumes 3, 5 and 6 of From Protest to Challenge with Clive Glaser

Gail Gerhart

From Protest to Challenge is a multi-volume chronicle of the struggle to achieve democracy and end racial discrimination in South Africa. Beginning in 1882 during the heyday of European imperialism, these volumes document the history of race conflict, protest and political mobilisation by South Africa’s black majority.

From Protest to Challenge Volume 3From Protest to Challenge Volume 5From Protest to Challenge Volume 6Volume 3: Challenge and Violence 1953 – 1964, covers the years of passive resistance to apartheid and the increasingly brutal repressive measures of the state, culminating in the Sharpeville massacre and the banning of the ANC and PAC, which finally turned the movement away from its tradition of non-violence into the difficult and protracted path of armed struggle. Volume 5: Nadir and Resurgence 1964 to 1979 includes extensive background essays, formal documents, underground materials and statements written in exile or on Robben Island, not previously published. Volume 6: Challenge and Victor 1980 – 1990 examines the crucial period that preceded the collapse of the apartheid system.

At the launch of the re-publication of three volumes of this scholarly work at Wits University on Thursday evening, Maggie Davey, head of Jacana Media, told the audience that it had been a five year journey to achieve this. She said it was difficult to get copies of the original volumes five years ago, and Jacana is extremely pleased to be able to make them available now. She thanked Alice Brown, formerly of the Ford Foundation, Abdul Bemath for his indexing and Clive Glaser, who was a co-author of Volume 6.

Glaser said that it had been a great honour for him to have worked with Gail Gerhart. He described her as a walking encyclopaedia about SA politics, with an analytical mind. He praised her wonderful style of writing and remarkable integrity and generosity. Glaser mentioned that the series contains substantial upgrades in the form of photographs, maps and indexing. Volume 6 provides a most substantial analysis of 1980s resistance politics, with 215 pages of text and analysis and 182 primary documents. It begins with the Botha era, and deals with the emergence of the United Democratic Front, youth and student politics, trade unionism, the states of emergency, vigilantism and a discussion of the move towards a negotiated settlement. The epilogue deals with the transition to democracy. Glaser said this is not a hagiography of South African political history. It looks at internal dis-unities, camp rebellions, conflict within the unions and a whole range of political conditions. The primary documents are really what make the series special. They include a wide range of important material such as internal policy documents, minutes of meetings, flyers and newspaper articles and are important for both study and teaching.

Clive Glaser Abdul Bemath

In her address, Gerhart said that there is a larger database of the source materials in the William Cullen Library. She described her journey with the series as one of “dumb luck”.

When she was in the 8th grade in New York City, they had an exchange student from South Africa. They held a debate entitled “Apartheid is a good thing – yes or no?” Gerhart drew a “no” straw. But for that, “I wouldn’t be standing here today”, she said. Then at Harvard she accompanied a friend to South Africa to do research for his honours degree. She noted that it was 50 years to the day that she last set foot on the Wits campus!

After college, she enrolled in a course in SA politics with a visiting Professor at Columbia, Thomas Karis. He said he had a huge number of primary source documents up in his office that the students were welcome to come and look at. Gerhart was the only one who took him up on this. He was working on Volume 3 of the series at the time and invited Gerhart to work with him on the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) section on Africanist movements.

Later, once she was married and working on her thesis, her husband was working in Nairobi, where Gerhart met three members of the PAC in exile and hired them to transcribe the interviews she had taped with other members. This resulted in two years of dialogue with them.

In 1971 she met an American journalist in Nairobi who was on her way to South Africa. Eight months later she got a call from the journalist (who had been deported from South Africa). She said, “Drop everything. Pack your suitcase and go to Durban. You have to meet these people on Beatrice Street”. One of these was Steve Biko. Gerhart met him the following year and had an entire day’s conversation with him. A six-hour tape of this interview is in the William Cullen Library. And Gerhart added a new chapter on the Black Consciousness Movement to her thesis.

Later, in 1975/6, when she was a mother of two children, Thomas Karis and Gwen Carter invited her to write Volume 4, which was the end of the series. However, independence in Angola and Mozambique and the Soweto uprising prompted thoughts about updating the series. Still, ten years passed before Volume 5 was published in 1997. She was introduced to Clive Glaser who agreed to work on Volume 6 in 2010 and met Maggie Davey, who expressed the desire to republish the entire series.

A member of the audience asked how the original documents that comprise the remarkable Karis-Carter collection came to be in their possession. Gerhart related how Karis had been a consular officer and he and Carter met Advocate George Bizos at the 1963 Treason Trial in Pretoria where Nelson Mandela was among the accused. The defence team had four or five sets of documents in a warehouse for safekeeping but could no longer keep up the payments. Karis and Carter agreed to pay the rental for the warehouse in exchange for a set of documents, including a transcript of the testimony. These are housed in the Columbia University library and came to be the idea for the books. People they met in South Africa during the apartheid years gave them many documents in order to get them out of the country and keep them safe from the security police.

George Bizos was among the launch audience, and told some amusing anecdotes about his friendship with Karis in 1963. When Karis went to pay his respects to PW Botha, he invited them to visit the Transkei, where they would see “separate but equal development” and that apartheid is “not a bad thing”. They later wrote a book entitled The Transkei: An experiment in domestic colonialism!

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