For most people other than historians and lawyers, the notion of a public archive is almost certainly rather hazy. Insofar as they think about it at all, the public probably believes an archive is a storeroom full of dusty papers in brown boxes dealing in matters with little significance for their everyday lives.
Yet in the modern state we depend on written records for our human rights at the most basic level. Our governments need records to keep track of their decisions and transactions, as well as their outcomes. As citizens we need records to keep our governments accountable, register our land claims, protect our legal status and claim our pension rights. Indeed, public records are, as the International Records Management Trust proclaims, “fundamental to the concepts of democratic society”.
“In the absence of well-managed records,” it states, “information can be manipulated, citizens cannot prove unequal treatment and human rights violations become difficult to challenge. The people cannot make an informed contribution to the governance process.”
This does not mean that the records in a public archive are a guarantee of good governance or democratic practice, or that the evidence in an archive is devoted to the public good or is unbiased. Public records do not speak for themselves and the documents in most national archives are shaped by the preconceptions and prejudices of the people who decide which documents should be selected for saving and how they should be described, and which should be destroyed — for the process of saving must always be accompanied by destruction, or we would be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of records produced by the modern state.
In most cases, the national archive reflects the views of the powerful. Before the 20th century, the independent voices of women and workers were barely audible in the national archives of Europe unless they were brought before the law. So, before 1994, the documents in the public archives in South Africa reflected for the most part the acts and actions of successive white governments and it is through these records that many of their acts and actions can best be uncovered.
Indeed, read critically, state archives are, as scholar Anne Laura Stoler has remarked, “the sites where the secrets of the colonial state are really stored”. Official records are crucial if we are to call the powerful to account.
The purpose of official archives is to provide a record of governments and rulers, but few national governments or their archivists are prescient enough to obliterate the traces of other voices from the archival record, and no ruling class is so homogenous or single-minded. As many historians writing the history of colonialism have shown, in South Africa as elsewhere, read against other sources of evidence, records in the national archive can be assessed to convey meanings unintended and unforeseen by their erstwhile compilers.
These sources range from written records in missionary or business archives and private collections and correspondence to other kinds of evidence: oral, family and local histories, songs and poetry, place names, archaeological remains, contemporary monuments and, indeed, even genetic markers. To dismiss the value of the official record, however, is to dismiss the role of the state in history and in our everyday lives.
It is therefore important that states have well-managed archives and it is disappointing that, at the moment, all the evidence suggests that conditions in South Africa’s national and provincial archives are deteriorating alarmingly. This has long been true of some provincial archives, where there have been few trained archivists and local governments have lacked systematic and safe methods of depositing their records in the archives.
As disturbing is the current state of the national archives. A serious lack of storage space for new documents or a clear strategy for capturing and maintaining digital records, as well as a dearth of trained archivists, have begun to take their toll. It is noteworthy that in the budget debate in Parliament earlier this year the minister of arts and culture did not mention the national archives. His department’s 2012 strategic and performance plan gave just one bland sentence to these crucial issues. One can only conclude that the minister and his department, like many members of the public, have little idea of the importance of a national archive.
The deteriorating situation in the national archives has been exacerbated by the department’s suspension of the national archivist and one of his senior colleagues in September 2010 on a disparate collection of minor administrative charges. Despite numerous investigations and inquiries — and the expenditure of considerable state resources — not one of the accusations against Dr Graham Dominy and his colleague Clive Kirkwood have been substantiated.
In March, the labour tribunal arbitrator cleared them of all charges and ordered their full reinstatement with back pay, pension rights and medical aid restored, yet this has not happened. Despite the withdrawal from the case of several of its own lawyers, the department is still resisting the reinstatement of Dominy and Kirkwood on the nebulous grounds of reviewing the outcome of the arbitration award that recently reinstated several other employees who had been dismissed. The loss of experience, expertise and excellent qualifications seems wantonly wasteful.
This is important because the effect of the suspensions and the long drawn-out legal proceedings has been to destabilise the national archives and demoralise its overworked staff, with effects that are now being felt by many of its users. Moreover, the minister’s failure to reconstitute the National Archives Advisory Council, even though nominations were called for in 2009, means there has been no outside voice to champion its needs.
In the absence of leadership from the minister, the department or the advisory council, one of the country’s most crucial resources is being wilfully mismanaged and squandered.
Shula Marks is emeritus professor of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and has lectured and written widely on South African history. She chaired the London-based International Records Management Trust from 1984 to 2004