A front-row seat to history

2013-02-08 00:00

DURING the last decades of the 20th century, the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness (Pacsa) had a front-row seat to history, and the organisation’s records of that time constitute an invaluable resource for historians. Those records now have a permanent home at the Alan Paton Centre and Struggle Archives on the local campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and the Pacsa Collection 1979-1999 will be officially launched tomorrow.

“Pacsa has a history that belongs to the city of Pietermaritzburg,” says Pacsa acting director Mervyn Abrahams, “and the collection, now at the Alan Paton Centre, will better enable people to access that history.”

The Alan Paton Centre started as a repository for the Alan Paton collection, which was donated by his widow, Anne Paton, says Nazim Gani, head and manuscript librarian of the Alan Paton Centre and Struggle Archive. “But the collection was then extended to cover other people and institutions of the struggle era. We are glad to receive the Pacsa material as it is a vital holding in terms of research.”

What has impressed Jewel Koopman, a former librarian with the centre who has been involved in indexing and archiving the collection, is that “everything was so carefully documented at the time”. Such detail can be emotionally overwhelming.

“What is recorded is disturbing and depressing,” she says.

Archivist Mary Gardner, who has worked with Koopman, agrees: “The horror of it all comes back so vividly.”

Pacsa was “arguably the most significant centre for resistance to apartheid in urban Pietermaritzburg in the eighties”, according to Christopher Merrett, writing in the 2000 edition of the journal Innovation.

Merrett described the formation of Pacsa as “an incredibly courageous thing to do in the context of the time: there were numerous intimations of the fact that South Africa was rapidly becoming a vicious police state, in which lawlessness would be employed by the government as a means of political control”.

“As this repression took a hold on South Africa, Pacsa became known to the police as a haven for those being persecuted by the state, and a place where information was collected about human rights violations in the region. Police raids were a fact of everyday life at Pacsa.”

Its members appeared in court at regular intervals in connection with “illegal” gatherings, “confidential” documents and “banned” books”.

Pacsa came into being in January 1979, and its organising secretary was Peter Kerchhoff. Monika Wittenberg ran the resource centre and Gay Spiller was the first secretary.

In a 1997 interview with The Witness, Kerchhoff recalled how in the seventies, he and others in a small ecumenical non-racial group of Christians, believed “that much of the Christian church, especially white Christians, responded to the events in the country by talking and praying about them, but not by acting. We felt that if they knew more about the situation, they would be equipped to act.”

Encouraged by Archbishop Denis Hurley and others, who felt it was time local Christians were made more aware of justice issues, Pacsa was formed. First thing on the agenda was forced removals. “The work had a two-fold thrust: to inform both clergy and laity so that they could begin to challenge the practice, and to embarrass the apartheid government by publicising its actions to a sphere of society that had previously had such information withheld from them,” said Kerchhoff.

Pacsa went on to produce fact sheets on political conflict, security legislation, deaths in detention, malnutrition, income distribution and poverty. They provided lists of those banned or detained. They monitored the increasing violence and also began to support political detainees and their families. This saw them not only providing moral and material support, but also medical care for those with injuries. Each case was documented.

Not surprisingly, the Pacsa offices and its members attracted the attention of the security police. In June 1986, Kerchhoff was taken into detention. He spent 97 days in detention, 32 of them in solitary confinement. Spiller and other Pacsa members were also detained.

In 1992, Pacsa community worker Sikhumbuzo Mbatha, a key player in local peace initiatives, was gunned down as he drove away from a restaurant where he had been meeting with Pacsa staffers and some visiting Americans.

Post 1994, Pacsa has continued to raise awareness within churches and other community structures on issues of social justice.

Kerchhoff died as the result of a car accident in 1999. In 2000, a mosaic depicting the Good Samaritan, by Dina Cormick, was unveiled in his memory in the precincts of the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Nativity.

Over the years, there have been three donations of Pacsa archives to the Alan Paton Centre. The first, during the apartheid era, was by Monika Wittenberg, to protect the files from possible confiscation by the security police.

The second donation of 41 Pacsa Crisis files was made by Joan Kerchhoff, Peter Kerchhoff’s widow, just before she retired from Pacsa in 2005. This section deals with crisis incidents arising from political violence in the Pietermaritzburg area.

The third donation of Pacsa material was in 2012, by Daniela Gennrich, then director of Pacsa. This was done when Pacsa moved on to dealing with new issues, adopted a new strategy, and changed its focus and its name to the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Community and Social Awareness.

The total collection now comprises 75 boxes of documents and five boxes of photographs and slides.

The job of indexing and archiving this material has been shared by Koopman, Gardner and Joan Kerchhoff.

“This is probably the last time I will look back over this history,” she says. “It is a reminder of how terrible the apartheid years were — detentions, bannings, capital punishment, torture, forced removals. The records here reveal dreadful things that we have forgotten.”

• feature1@witness.co.za

THE Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness (Pacsa) Collection 1979-1999, at the Alan Paton Centre and Struggle Archives on the local campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, will be officially launched tomorrow at the Leeb du Toit Council Chambers. Time: 12.30 pm for 1 pm to 5 pm. The guest speaker is John Aitchison. There will be a viewing of the archive exhibition introduced by Karen Buckenham. A light lunch will be served. RSVP Sonia 033 342 0052 or


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