Opinionista Ismail Lagardien 15 June 2015

National Archives crisis: records of democratic South Africa could be lost – probably forever

On the streets of cities and towns, and on campuses across the country, informal populist movements continue to mount spasmodic campaigns to bring down historical and cultural signs and symbols of South Africa’s past. As with most public acts that include violence, wilful destruction or revisionism of a country’s historical and cultural heritage, a multiplicity of opinions abounds. As expected, and as with so much of South African politics, the spectacle has been reduced to a crude either-or situation, with attendant prejudices and mud slinging

I wrote about this issue in the context of memory in an earlier column; there is little to be gained from going over the matter again, here, now. What may be said, however, is that the destruction of cultural and historical icons and symbols over the past several weeks occurred in quite loud, and very public events, the most prominent of which was “RhodesMustFall” campaign. Given that our political discourses are shaped by public intellectuals wrestling each other over who can be more radical, there is no telling what will fall, next. My sense is that the leaders of these campaigns are setting themselves up for a fall – in their own lives. Chinua Achebe wrote, most elegantly, about the danger of destroying cultures, and of imposing one culture over another. It can only lead to brutal disasters.

Setting aside the loud and more violent destruction of the symbols and icons of our fractious past, we may want to look at a more subtle and insidious process underway that is contributing to the stripping away the records of democratic South Africa’s historical, political, administrative and cultural heritage. Successive post-apartheid governments have presided over the neglect and deterioration of the county’s official archives in a manner that verges on criminality.

As with most things in South Africa there was great enthusiasm and shared wisdom about record keeping during the early 1990s. A report by The Archival Platform, State of the Archives: An Analysis of South Africa’s National Archival System, 2014, makes the point that there was “a vibrant transformation discourse” on securing and improving archival processes in the country. The 1996 Archives Act mandated the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa (NARSA) with “proper management and care of all public records”. All the right noises were made.

The report notes that by the end of Nelson Mandela’s presidency, most of the archival system’s building blocks were in place, and started taking shape around five key objectives:

  1. Turning archives into an accessible public resource in support of the exercise of rights.

  2. Using archives in support of post-apartheid programmes of redress and reparation, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, land restitution and special pensions.

  3. Taking archives to the people through imaginative and participative public programming.

  4. Actively documenting the voices and the experiences of those either excluded from or marginalised in the colonial and apartheid archives, and

  5. Transforming public archives into auditors of government record-keeping in support of efficient, accountable and transparent administration.

Thereafter, almost right on cue, like so many other institutions in the country, South Africa’s archives began to deteriorate to the extent that the entire system is, today, “in trouble,” and sliding towards becoming “a national disgrace”.

Today the national archival system is in trouble. Good work is being done only in isolated pockets. There is no overarching policy framework for archives beyond that implicit in national and provincial legislation. The vision of the 1990s has evaporated,” the Archival Platform reports.

The dégringolade appears to have started in the early 2000s, and gained momentum after 2006. Resources (government support) began to dry up, backlogs in processing archives and records became unmanageable, training of new staff and professional advancement stalled, and the state (seemed to) eventually lose interest.

While there are occasional references in speeches to budgetary allocations, there is currently no systematic and consistent institutional basis for archives across the nine provinces. Some provinces are better equipped than others, and almost all provinces are unable to serve the public through a combination of skills shortages, space constraints, or keeping records safe from cultural vandals, who show little to no compunction about destroying the country’s official records. This seems consistent with the wilful destruction of icons and symbols of our past that we may, at any time, find odious.

For example, in the Northern Cape a new purpose-built building was completed in 2013, but it remains basically useless for the lack of resources – equipment and staff. North West is doing no better. Limpopo Province inherited repositories from the former ‘homelands’ (in Thohoyandou, Lebowakgomo and Giyani) and a new building was completed, also in 2013, but there, too, the building remains useless, for the lack of resources. This state of affairs is replicated across all provinces, mutatis mutandis.

One research project, by Mpho Ngoepe, cited in the Archival Platform’s report, concluded that South Africa had in place some of the best legislative mechanisms in the world “to enable and audit government record-keeping”. Delving into the report, however, it is clear that between the legislation and the optimism of the 1990s, and the current state of affairs, “effective implementation and maintenance of records management systems” is desperately lacking. This, Ngoepe explained, could result in records management in government being marginalised “forever”. The key word, in my estimation, is “forever”…

Sometime during the early 1990s, I wrote, provocatively and polemically about a sibilance of shedders that was heard across Pretoria, as the apartheid state was shredding records of its wrongdoings. As much as what I wrote at the time was purely speculative, I would find out, much later, that I was not far off…. Also sometime in the early 1990s, I travelled to the Balkans, briefly, where the horrors of Yugoslavia’s collapse, and later to Rwanda, shook me to the very core of my being. I have no doubt, many others endured a lot worse. Nonetheless, one of the things that stood out in the former Yogoslavia, apart from the mass slaughter, was the wilful and systematic destruction of much of that country’s archives.

With that disappeared the records of the country’s accomplishments, government actions, and the records of the lives of communities. In another time and place, after the United States’ occupation of the Philippines, in 1898, one archivist recounted that US soldiers “mostly because of ignorance, but at times with malice and premeditation, destroyed a large portion of … archival holdings. The documents were used … as toilet papers … and to kindle fires”. During the colonial period in Africa, the British “lost” archival material to impede access to documentary evidence about their violent campaigns in pre-independence Kenya. In Algeria, there were accounts of French colonialists destroying or stealing archival material, and thereby impeding Algerian efforts to give a full account of their own history.

Let us pull this discussion back from hysteria. South Africa is not at war. South Africa has not collapsed. South Africa is not occupied by a foreign power. I raise the above examples to demonstrate, only, the wanton ways in which the archives of countries have been destroyed during times of conflict. What does seem apparent is that the democratic government of South Africa is presiding, during peacetime, over the loss of our archiving capacities. The post-apartheid state is also achieving what the European colonialists and the apartheid regime did not. The British and the apartheid state kept impeccable records, such as they were, and democratic South Africa, has failed the people. If, indeed, our public record keeping may be lost “forever” as Mpho Ngoepe concluded, South Africans will be losing the records of our democratic history. We may be left with only the ‘good stories’ that the ruling party tells us.

When archival records are destroyed, or they are lost or simply not retained in safekeeping, as in South Africa, today, you actually destroy vital links between a people and their past. Perhaps more crucially, you destroy society’s ability to learn about itself, and strip people’s epistemic capacity to defend their rights in courts of law. In conclusion, then, our fixation with changing the symbols and icons of our deep past is probably less important, right now, than the loss of our current records. DM


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