From my short essay writing and post-project proposal reflection I have been deliberating the direction of my final project. A lack of direction has been my biggest issue, so I have been spending some time to figure out where I want to take it forward and have discovered interesting discourses I want to pursue for my project. My initial idea to research Czechoslovakia during the 1950s-80s and the transregional exchanges between the nation and the Global South was fairly broad and I struggled with how to narrow my focus. My interest in Czechoslovakia came from wanting to focus on states “peripheral” to the USSR during the Cold War, particularly due to the current climate and increased interest in Ukraine and its relationship to Russia. As such, I’ve become interested in a certain aspect I came across in my initial proposal – the civic petition, Charter 77, which described the lack of press freedom in Czechoslovakia as a “virtual apartheid” and criticised the government for failing to implement the human rights provisions of the documents it had signed. This use of “apartheid” got me interested in what role anti-apartheid activism played in shaping the ideas and language of human rights in Czechoslovakia from the 1950s-80s.
Supporting and forming anti-apartheid movements were a key way for socialist states to connect to the South African liberation movements and Third World liberationism in general. Their engagement with this issue proved their solidarity as anti-imperial and anti-discriminatory states – in their eyes the opposite of Britain and the US who both had tricky histories with colonisation and race. It was interesting to see that the African National Congress (ANC) party, which was banned in 1960, sought to foster deeper connections with socialist bloc countries. A letter even exists in Czech archives from the ANC asking the Czechoslovak government to educate South Africa’s black secondary and university students following the University Education Act of 1959 which banned black South Africans from enrolling into open universities there.
Therefore, I think it would be interesting to examine three interconnected strands: the support of the Czechoslovakian regime for anti-apartheid movements in South Africa and the alliances between the region and Africa in a host of international organisations (the UN, World Peace Council etc), the emergence of a transnationally formed human rights rhetoric based on these alliances and its impact domestically, and the emergence of dissidence movements in Czechoslovakia which fought their corner using much of this same rhetoric to claim a shared solidarity with apartheid atrocities and highlight the hypocrisy of their government.
I think there is a lot of interesting intersections to be found here – between national and global/’universal’ ideas of human rights and how they entangled with Cold War events (the Prague Spring for example) or superseded Cold War divisions, between international projections and domestic realities of human rights, between Cold War studies and post-colonial studies, between race and human rights etc.
Scholarship does exist in this area, and some great studies have been done into the history of anti-apartheid worldwide (Betts et al., A Global History of Anti-Apartheid) as well as the formation of ideas of human rights (Richardson-Little et al., New Perspectives on Socialism and Human Rights in East Central Europe). Though some research has been done on how anti-apartheid movements were engaged with in Hungary, the GDR and Poland, none have engaged specifically with Czechoslovakia, even though the nation has a rich history of involvement with both anti-apartheid movements and the formation of a world-wide human rights language, therefore I’m looking forward to looking into it further.