Information that made

2013-02-11 00:00

“THE people who founded Pacsa believed that good, accurate and truthful information could make a difference,” said John Aitchison, guest speaker at the launch of the Pacsa Collection 1979-1999 at the Leeb du Toit Council Chambers on the local campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) on Saturday afternoon.

The collection will be housed at Alan Paton Centre and Struggle Archives (APC) on the campus and according to Nazim Gani, head and manuscript librarian APC, the collection comprises 75 boxes of documents and five boxes of photographs and slides. The collection has been indexed and archived by Mary Gardner, Joan Kerchhoff, the widow of Pacsa founder member Peter Kerchhoff, and Jewel Koopman.

The Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness (Pacsa) was founded by a group of Christians in 1979 to gather information about the true nature of the South African apartheid state in the hope that if Christians, in the words of Peter Kerchhoff, “knew more about the situation they would be equipped to act”. Pacsa later became actively involved in supporting detainees and their families as well as those injured and killed during the political violence of the eighties and nineties.

“Pacsa provided factual information about our unequal society on the basis it was useful to know and understand some of the unequal dynamics of that society,” said Aitchison, Professor Emeritus in Adult Education at the UKZN and Pacsa member.

“Did it make a difference? Yes. It engaged with the poor and drew from them information which was communicated further and became a means of people becoming more informed about what was happening in South Africa … and the real Pietermaritzburg.

“Informants came with stories about the shootings, the assassinations, the petrol bombs,” said Aitchison. “It was a period of horrific and ghastly violence and during the Seven Day War in 1990 it became catastrophic.

“Gradually a pattern began to emerge that … the conflict was being sponsored as a deliberate destabilisation measure by the state … to beat the UDF and the ANC into the ground.”

This was at the time just prior to the release of Nelson Mandela and during negotiations between the various political parties to bring about the end of apartheid. “Pacsa played a crucial role in getting the knowledge out that the South African government was trying to destabilise the situation.

“Information communicated well can make a difference,” said Aitchison.

Responding to Aitchison, historian Christopher Merrett agreed: “This information is part of what led to the downfall of apartheid.”

Merrett said the fact sheets produced by Pacsa on subjects such as political conflict, security legislation, deaths in detention, malnutrition, income distribution and poverty “were models of documentation” and were circulated in “the service of the truth and the greater good”.

He said the organisational and inspirational qualities of the late Peter Kerchhoff were crucial to the success of Pacsa. “He was a walking encyclopaedia of the struggle in this region.”

Karen Buckenham, a former director of Pacsa, introduced the exhibition created by Jive Media to accompany the launch. Titled “Imagery and Activism”, it consists of several panels containing poems, photographs, artwork and explanatory text. “This exhibition evokes painful memories,” Buckenham said. “But it leads to a beautiful new vision where there is life for all.”

• feature1@witness.co.za

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