Comparative workshop on the underground in liberation struggles in Africa – Johannesburg, 17-19 September 2015



Comparative workshop on the underground

in liberation struggles in Africa



Johannesburg, 17-19 September 2015

Nairobi 2016 (dates tbc)


The History Workshop at the University of the Witwatersrand, in collaboration with the University of Nairobi and the University of Swaziland, has been awarded a grant by the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences for a comparative research project on the underground in liberation struggles in Africa.

The aim of this project is to interrogate the idea and practices of the underground (or clandestine forms of political struggle) in different parts of the African continent through two workshops that will bring together scholars and postgraduate students from various countries over a two year period. Through a comparative approach, the project seeks to contribute to new understandings of the underground and more generally of liberation struggles across the continent from the 1950s to the present. This would also allow for temporal comparisons, especially of the anti-colonial and post-colonial struggles. Three principal outcomes are envisioned: laying the foundation for substantive collaboration between African scholars, training of postgraduate students from a number of universities and publishing peer-reviewed journal articles and chapters for an edited volume.

The History Workshop has been one of the leading university-based research entities involved in the production of struggle or liberation histories. In the course of this work, we have repeatedly encountered the idea of the underground both as military and political phenomena. While there is general agreement that underground political mobilisation was a crucial component of the liberation struggle, it remains poorly researched and understood. In part this is due to the lack of documentary evidence. It is also an incredibly difficult field of research because of the inherent secrecy surrounding clandestine activities.

Over the years, the History Workshop has conducted research with groups of former underground operatives particularly in the North West, Limpopo, Gauteng and Mpumalanga provinces. Scores of life histories have been recorded, mainly with low and middle-ranking operatives. These have produced important insights into the nature of the underground, the range of networks established over the course of many years (which extended into South Africa’s neighbouring countries), and the importance of rural areas in this arena of the struggle. Also, while the military struggle was predominantly male, the underground included many women, young and old, whose role has not been sufficiently addressed.

Research in South African urban townships has also uncovered that through the course of the 1980s there was an expansion of underground networks and structures, causing the divisions between military activities, underground and public or above ground politics to become blurred. Cells and networks multiplied in and across townships. Their relation to above ground structures, as well as with the liberation movements in exile, and their role in shaping popular protests, warrants greater attention. The apartheid state’s violent repression of resistance politics and the rudimentary military training of activists inside the country contributed to the militarisation of internal resistance, especially among the youth and, in turn, caused a shift in the nature of the armed struggle.

The History Workshop has been building partnerships with colleagues from other parts of the continent to create a space for intellectual engagement. In these encounters, we were intrigued to discover a similar interest in the underground, as both historical and contemporary experiences. For example, in Egypt current research is concerned to understand the underground immediately before and in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, while in Kenya the focus is on the Mau Mau uprising and the 1980s period, when resistance against the Moi regime began to take shape. Scholars in Mozambique continue to focus on the liberation struggle and civil war. These various research efforts, however, remain uneven and almost exclusively focused on particular national experiences.

We invite participants to submit 250-word abstracts on any topic related to underground struggles on the continent. Contributors will present their papers at two 3-day workshops (one in Johannesburg in September 2015 and one in Nairobi in 2016 [dates tbc]) with the aim of submitting them for peer-reviewed publishing. The aim of the workshops will be to debate individual papers and to develop a conceptual comparative framework in preparation of an edited volume and a series of academic journal articles. We invite participants to reflect on the following questions as potential foci of comparison in the course of the two workshops:

  • How do particular contexts/ topographies shape modes of operation? These refer both to national contexts and the differences between urban and rural experiences.
  • What were/are the aims of the underground? Specifically, what ideologies and strategies underpin various underground movements?
  • What are the repertoires of underground work and how do they relate to other struggles of resistance?
  • What has been the role of women in underground mobilisation and what is the significance of their participation in resistance movements in terms of gender emancipation?
  • How do established generational hierarchies, shaped by local and national contexts, affect structures and modus operandi of the underground?
  • What are the everyday experiences of underground operatives?
  • What has been the impact of the clandestine experience on political movements and organisations in post-liberation societies?
  • How can we periodise underground struggles in new ways?
  • How do surveillance and repression shape underground struggles?

Please submit your abstract to Sarah Godsell by 30 June 2015. Abstract submission must be accompanied by an undertaking to participate in both workshops and to publish at least one peer-reviewed paper as part of the project.

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