Professor and Undergraduate Research Documents on South Africa’s Transition to Democracy

Undergraduate history major Liz Moore is working with Professor Benedict Carton on a major research project entitled, “Writing Histories of the Mandela Miracle from the U.S. Government Perspective: Unclassified Documents of the National Security Archive and the Transition to Democracy in South Africa.” Their research – part methodological, part analysis – involves over 1,000 unindexed State Department documents at the National Security Archive (NSA). The NSA is a privately run archive of declassified government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The hitherto untouched documents relate to the final days of Apartheid in South Africa. At that juncture, the United States was trying to foster peace negotiations between the white South African government (SAG), the African National Congress (ANC), and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). The NSA’s documents cover violence between the ANC and the IFP and ways this hindered the peace process. The documents also cover “Inkathagate,” a political scandal involving covert SAG funding to the IFP that helped fuel violence between IFP and ANC members. According to several South African historians, there is no recent scholarly work covering Inkathagate.

Moore and Carton’s methodological work is focused on the challenges of organizing such a large block of data. Using a digital camera, Moore has captured images of key documents from the archive. She is indexing these images using Zotero, a new research tool developed by George Mason’s Center for History and New Media. Zotero is an extension for the Mozilla Firefox web browser, with key features such as the ability to “tag” – or label – specific entries, search for keywords, and enter notes into the database. While most people use Zotero only for websites, Moore is inputting images from the NSA into Zotero. To date, she has archived over 700 pages of data.

While time-consuming, inputting so many files into Zotero makes it easier to locate documents and allows for greater analysis. Moore’s efforts have already lead to some preliminary conclusions. Using Zotero, she tracked the opinions of U.S. State Department officials over time and noticed surprising trends in U.S. attitudes towards the ANC. The U.S. government’s prime focus was on ensuring the success of negotiations for a post-Apartheid government. In April-May of 1991, State Department officials viewed the ANC as a stumbling block towards the negotiations process. After the Inkathagate scandal broke in July 1991, U.S. attitudes shifted. With evidence that the SAG and the IFP had brokered the violence that had been hindering the negotiations process, the State Department began to see the ANC as a more attractive partner in the peace process. The shift in U.S. attitudes may have contributed to the eventual dominance of the ANC after Apartheid ended.

Moore and Carton have received funding through George Mason’s Research Apprenticeship Program, and Moore has presented their research at the Celebration of Achievement. The two hope to publish their findings in the journal History in Africa.