Maverick Citizen


Verne Harris: Memory Bandit

Verne Harris: Memory Bandit
Ghosts of Archive: Deconstructive Intersectionality and Praxis by Verne Harris (Routledge Studies in Archives) 1st Edition, 2020.

Locked down, locked in, many of us have had time to read more books than ever before. Readers, passionate about their own favourite books, are curious to know what writers have been reading during this bleak and lonely period? What was already on their shelves, what did they borrow, buy or read online?

In this, the second series of Reflexions: Reading in the present tense, Ingrid de Kok and Mark Heywood continue to invite established and younger writers and other creative artists to reflect on a text that moved them, intellectually engaged them, frightened them or made them laugh. Our reviewer today is Jacob Dlamini who considers Ghosts of Archive: Deconstructive Intersectionality and Praxis by Verne Harris. 


In one of his popular essays, Verne Harris tells the story of a former activist-turned-government functionary who, upon seeing the ghosts that live in the apartheid security archive, remarked of the old order: “They should have destroyed more.” This was in the early days of South Africa’s transition to democracy, and Harris and the bureaucrat were part of a team given the unenviable job of going through the remnants of the apartheid security archive and figuring out what to do with it. But after seeing the ghosts — meaning the accounts of intimate betrayal, the informer reports, and evidence of struggle icons caught in compromising positions — that lurked in the dark corners of that archive, the former activist wished that his erstwhile enemies had incinerated more of this material than they already had. The man hoped that, by burning more than they had, his former enemies would have exorcised the ghosts of the past and spared him and Harris the thankless task that faced them that day. 

That, of course, was wishful thinking. As Harris shows in his remarkable new book, Ghosts of Archive: Deconstructive Intersectionality and Praxis, South Africa is a land of ghosts. The country is haunted by its past; its inhabitants are spooked by the present, and its landscapes are dotted with restless graves. Whereas the functionary — who, by the way, went on to cover himself in ignominy as one of post-apartheid South Africa’s top spooks — wanted to turn the apartheid security archive into a smouldering ruin, Harris is a self-described memory bandit. Memory bandits are activists, archivists, scholars “fighting against systems that want to be done with the past, fighting in support of the ones being ghosted by those systems”.

Harris, one of South Africa’s most influential theorists of archivy, has been engaging in memory banditry in an activist, public and scholarly career going back more than three decades. His banditry includes using his institutional knowledge of the apartheid-era National Archives — in which he worked in the early 1990s — to help the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) understand the ways in which old-order apparatchiks went about destroying government records on the eve of South Africa’s freedom. It also involves helping the South African History Archive (SAHA), the activist NGO that Harris led in the 1990s, make effective use of instruments such as the Promotion of Access to Information Act to wrest material from the clutches of bureaucrats and to place that material in the public domain — as per South Africa’s constitutional commitment to openness.

But Harris, who also served as Nelson Mandela’s archivist, works for the Mandela Foundation and is an adjunct professor at Nelson Mandela University, is not blind to the pitfalls of memory banditry. “It is easy to romanticise banditry. It is a terrain full of heroic figures — Robin Hoods — fighting noble if hopeless causes. But it has its shadows. It can be used for both good and ill. It’s vulnerable to the elevation of personal agendas above institutional mandates. It always risks speaking for the ghosts rather than listening to them.”

For Harris, listening to ghosts is not just a political imperative but also a deeply personal exercise that involves listening to one’s own ghosts. There are no innocents in history. In Harris’s case, those ghosts include memories of his two years (1976-78) as a conscript in the apartheid military. As he says of his klaaring-out from the military in January 1978, “I was ‘fucked up’”. 

But he did not seek counselling until the 1990s. Instead he turned to the past for solace and understanding. “Studying history gave me the gifts of historical materialism, a hunger for social justice and a passion for archival work. It also made me profoundly ashamed of not having found a way to avoid conscription into the military.” The shame turned to silence which turned to amnesia. “Other more insistent ghosts were haunting me.” It would not be until the 2000s that Harris felt ready enough to confront his own ghosts. Ghosts of Archive is in part the result of that confrontation.

Even though Ghosts of Archive came out months before the fiery destruction of the archives at the University of Cape Town (UCT), one can’t help but reckon with that loss in the light of Harris’s argument about what the archive is and what it does.

Archives, argues Harris, are by definition fragile; they are prey constantly to destruction. That destruction might be bureaucratic — as has happened with many of the apartheid-era and TRC archives — or elemental, as happened with the fires in Cape Town. That is why they demand attention, care and vigilance. For Harris, archives are defined less by what they are than by what they do. He writes: 

“Archive is what archive does. I argue that both archive and memory are best understood as genres of the trace and that neither should be anchored to notions of stability, durability and reliability. Both are always already in the process of formation, and both open out of the future.” 

This is a timely and helpful reminder that should guide our reaction to the loss of the archives at UCT. As archivists and scholars around the world pool resources to help rebuild UCT’s Special Collections, they must remember that their actions can never make whole what has been lost; they can never rebuild the collections in any positive sense. They can share digital copies in hopes that future researchers will find these fragments usable and useful — not as parts of a totality restored but as bits and pieces that can be used to guide inquiries into the past. 

Echoing the work of Carolyn Hamilton, Harris wants us to see archives as more than just depositories of facts and information. What he wants is an approach to archives that places them at the centre of knowledge production — except not as a source from which to derive the material with which to produce that knowledge, but as a site of contestation. “Archive, then, not as a source for historiography, but as a form of historiography. Archive as a construction, always already in the process of being constructed.” Harris worries that too many scholars, especially those taken with the archival turn, “play with archive as a metaphor, or a figure, or a figuration”.

We did not, of course, need the fires at UCT to remind us that archives are more than metaphor; scholars did not need Covid and the ensuing lockdown (which meant that they could not travel places to conduct archival work) to appreciate the fact that the materiality and physicality of archives matter. But it is important to be reminded, as Harris does so well in this poignant book, that archives as place and institution matter. The physical place that was the Jagger Reading Room matters. This does not mean that we valorise colonial-era archives or that we treat records from the apartheid era as depositories of the truth about our past. But it does mean that we can — following examples such as those set by Carolyn Hamilton and Nessa Leibhammer — read the material in these archives both against the grain but also for the excess that archives always contain. Archives always tell more than they are supposed to tell. As we all know, archives are always more than what is in the depository. That is why we cannot take them at face value. The archive is always missing something. For Hamilton, Leibhammer and, after them, Harris, that something includes ways of knowing that are sometimes marked as indigenous knowledge. The archives as we know them might be haunted by colonial practices and ideas. However, that does not mean that they cannot be used against themselves.

What, then, of the TRC, whose haunting and haunted presence at the centre of our archival practices since 1994 remains unacknowledged? As Harris says, the TRC was “quintessentially an archival intervention”. It was intended not only to uncover the secrets of the past but to also help South Africans and, by extension, the world come to a better appreciation of South Africa’s past. But the easy and quick dismissal of the TRC — by Thabo Mbeki’s ANC, by Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s IFP, by FW De Klerk’s National Party, by white South Africans — means that many are reluctant to make use of the TRC’s archival collection. Part of that has to do with the systematic manner in which the ANC-led security establishment has gone about making this collection inaccessible. You have to be effectively a memory bandit to find and use this material. You have to know what to steal and how to steal to put this material in the public domain — where it belongs. In short, you have to know how to break the law in order to uphold one of the key promises of our vaunted Constitution.

Harris concludes his book thus: “Hope is not helpful to the work of archive, but faith is indispensable.” It has been 23 years since the TRC presented its report to then-president Nelson Mandela. In that time, many have lived with the hope that, someday, the ANC government would act on the commission’s recommendations, that the NPA would prosecute the thousands of political serial killers who walk the streets of South Africa. None of that has happened and is unlikely to happen — turning some of us into memory bandits.

If these past 23 years have anything to teach us, it is that hope is not helpful. But faith in the power of archives to help us ground our demands for justice and redress is indispensable. “The voices of ghosts matter. And how we respond to them matters,” says Harris. Even if that activist-turned-functionary had had his wish and the apartheid security establishment had destroyed everything, the ghosts from the past would still be with us. They are us. We are the ghosts we must exorcise. DM/MC/ML

Jacob Dlamini is a historian of Africa, with an interest in precolonial, colonial and postcolonial African History. He obtained a PhD from Yale University in 2012 and is also a graduate of Wits University and Sussex University. He has held a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Barcelona, was a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University and has also held fellowships at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study. A qualified field guide, Jacob is also interested in comparative and global histories of conservation and national parks.

 His books include The Terrorist Album: Apartheid’s Insurgents, Collaborators, and the Security Police (Harvard University Press, 2020); Safari Nation: A Social History of the Kruger National Park (Ohio University Press, 2020); Askari: A Story of Collaboration and Betrayal in the Anti-Apartheid Struggle (Oxford University Press, 2015; Jacana, 2014), and the memoir Native Nostalgia (Jacana, 2009).


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