The ethics of remembering: how to retell personal stories from a political archive?

One of the delights of working with the archive of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s papers, over a decade’s worth of correspondence and the minutes of meetings, has been tracing the connections City Group forged with other anti-apartheid activists around the world.  The papers also allow us to chart the emergence and development of particular campaigns and events, seeing which ones captured the imagination and energy of the group’s supporters, and which ones faltered from the beginning.  The trail of correspondence has also offered insights into tensions and conflicts both within the group, and between City Group and other organisations (principally the national Anti-Apartheid Movement and certain factions within the leaderships of the ANC and SWAPO in London).

Sometimes, however, the archive reveals the raw emotions of more personal conflicts.   While there are, of course, ethical issues involved with the use of any archival material, and questions about my authorial responsibility in how I represent individuals and organisations in this research, the personal letters are more difficult to know how to handle.  As a rule of thumb, when writing for this blog (and related academic papers and presentations) I have given the full names of prominent activists who held leading positions within City Group and had a public profile at the time.  For other City Group members, I have tended only to use their first names, unless I have explicit permission to do more than this.  But there are times when even this doesn’t seem appropriate.  Then what do I do? I can try to make some individuals completely anonymous; but then I know that in telling their stories some of my readers who were involved with City Group at the time will still know who I am referring to (and there is always a risk they will name them in comments on this site or elsewhere online).  And so it is with the story I want to tell today – for now, the individuals involved remain nameless.

In the archive we have found a series of letters from an individual who found herself in conflict with City Group.  This thread of letters stretch, intermittently, over a period of seven years.  The woman in question had clearly been quite involved with City Group in the early 1980s, before the start of the main Non-Stop Picket.  During this time she entered into a relationship with a leading member of the group, but that ended acrimoniously.  In October 1985 she was suspended from the group as a result of allegations that she had physically assaulted her ex-partner.  This was obviously a difficult time for all involved and the woman challenged the disciplinary action taken against her.  When she did not receive the answers or outcome that she wanted, she involved local politicians and journalists (all of whom were otherwise largely supportive of City Group’s  campaigning) to intervene on her behalf.  Undoubtedly this entrenched the conflict further.  Eventually, the woman resigned from City Group, and we have found at least one letter on file from another City Group supporter who resigned in protest at the handling of her case.

Reading these letters is unsettling.  They bristle with anger, hurt and frustration.  But such events are not unusual in social movements, and particularly in a close-knit group like City Group where a relatively small group of people were working intensely together for a cause they understood to be urgent and vital.  Relationships occur and some end badly.  Personal loyalties are put to the test and interpersonal dynamics (and tensions) beyond those immediately involved often are played out in the process, especially when the course of events makes the unravelling of that relationship more than a personal affair.  This was certainly not to only time in City Group’s history when difficult interpersonal relationships became politicized.  It provokes a whole series of questions for me about how different forms of privilege were played out (and, potentially, reproduced) within personal and political conflicts within the group, and how loyalty to (or the loyalty of) particular leading members in the group may have skewed the outcome of such conflicts.

The particular story that sparked off these thoughts for me may not have had a ‘happy’ ending, but it did eventually reach an amicable resolution of sorts.  The final letter in the chain of correspondence was received by City Group in 1992, seven years after the woman in question resigned from the group.  She concludes her letter by thanking City Group, recognizing that despite parting in difficult circumstances, she had learned important lessons during her time in City Group that had since served her well in other campaigns.  The letter ends by stating,

in years to come the ‘responsibility’ for a generation of serious anti-imperialist fighters, who went out to win will be laid at the door of the South African embassy picket.

Interestingly, to return to the question of ethics I raised earlier, I am conscious that I might not have written about any aspects of this particular conflict if it had not been ‘resolved’ in this way.  That realization, in itself, poses further questions for me about which stories of City Group are retold through this research and which are left unremembered because they never were resolved to the satisfaction of all involved, or remain too raw to this day?

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
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