/ 23 October 1998

Apartheid’s history in shreds

Maggie Davey

Forty tons of apartheid government files are estimated to have been destroyed by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) in 1993, according to Professor Charles Villa- Vicencio, director of research at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Villa-Vicencio was speaking at a workshop organised by Wits Graduate School last week on future access to the TRCarchives. Villa- Vicencio confirmed that the TRC’s 21 000 victim and perpetrator files would be stored and managed by the National Archives in Pretoria.

The pre-election Cabinet had issued strict and secret guidelines for the destruction of records, he said, effectively by-passing the director of the State Archive Service, into whose custody government records are consigned.

Villa-Vicencio says that pockets of apartheid files do still exist. When trying to understand the reasons some files were destroyed and others not, Villa-Vicencio makes the point that, in some cases, files were presumably simply overlooked.

In other cases a more sinister motive came into play. Clearly, having access to certain files provided an insurance policy to some, however temporary.

While the shredding machines in Pretoria were known to be working overtime in the run-up to the 1994 elections – and despite the efforts of Lawyers for Human Rights to halt the destruction – there was massive and unchecked interference with files.

Sources claim that practically all files pre-dating 1990 belonging to the NIS have been destroyed. Only the bland files remain, reflecting a clear policy of sanitising the NIS records.

The destruction of military intelligence files was, according to sources, less extensive. Whether this is an indication of how confident the military was of a continuation of the status quo may be revealed in the TRC’s final report. In the meantime, the Moerane commission has been set up to investigate their destruction.

But with regard to the entire destruction process, Villa-Vicencio is categorical: “The TRC’s work was significantly undermined by its inability to access certain documentation.”

It seems Dr Wouter Basson’s cheerful shirts may have been worn in the knowledge that his trunks of illegally removed files made him less of a target than his shirt pattern may have implied. The files were subsequently found and handed over to the TRC.

When the TRC went looking for the Rivonia Trial records, it was discovered that Percy Yutar, the prosecutor in the trial, had sold his records to the Brenthurst Library. Yutar maintains they were his to sell. Those records have since been microfilmed by the Brenthurst Library and will be sent to the National Archives.

When the open democracy Bill comes into operation, probably in 1999, it will govern public access to the files. However, a question mark still hangs over future public access to the security branch, the military and the National Intelligence Agency’s files. So far no provision has been made for their removal to the National Archives.

While no government apparatus in the world keeps all of its records, the systematic destruction of files has punctured the collective memory of South Africa. What remains is a memorial that most South Africans believe must be made available to them.

The Gauck commission in Germany – which aided the reconciliation of Germany’s national psyche by making files available – has cost a great deal.

“South Africa in its present financial state cannot afford this option,” Villa- Vicencio said.

“In the daily struggle to survive, free and unhindered access to archives might not be a priority for many South Africans.

“But political repression has driven a wedge between our ability to remember and our inclination to forget, and civil society may again have to pick up the pieces.”