Department fails to protect archives and democracy

Last year a colleague came back from a trip to the National Archives in Pretoria. She had gone to consult files she had studied two years earlier, files with documents about a piece of land in western Mpumalanga. To her dismay, the title deeds and survey records had vanished. Nobody could say what had happened to them.

Subsequently, historian Jeff Guy, who died in December last year, alerted researchers that documents were increasingly being stolen out of archives – seemingly by people who want to stop claims being lodged on land they hold or to strengthen their own claims where there are competing or overlapping claims.

The question of how to secure vulnerable records has received little of the attention it deserves from those who have political responsibility for their care. Archival records and current record-keeping have largely fallen into neglect.

Current archives are often dismissed by politicians and the public as holding information about the experiences of colonists and not enough voices of formerly colonised indigenous populations. In pursuing post-apartheid transformation the department of arts and culture has largely neglected archives.

This neglect is the soft underbelly of land restitution. It is also the soft underbelly of transforming knowledge production and of democratic accountability. We are far from the hopes and dreams of the 1990s.

Discussions about how to transform colonial and apartheid archival institutions in the 1990s involved five key objectives:

  • Turning archives into an accessible public resource in support of the exercise of rights;
  • Using archives in support of post-apartheid programmes of redress and reparation, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, land restitution and special pensions;
  • Taking archives to the people through imaginative and participative public programmes;
  • Actively documenting the voices and the experiences of those either excluded from or marginalised in the colonial and apartheid archives; and
  • Transforming public archives into auditors of government record-keeping in support of an efficient, accountable and transparent administration.

Assessments from the mid-2000s have repeatedly sounded the alarm that the system was running into trouble because it had been left to flounder by the department of arts and culture.

Today things look much worse. State of Archives: An Analysis of the State Archival System, 2014 by the Archival Platform (a joint University of Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Foundation initiative), and launched this week at Constitution Hill, shows that:

  • As has been noted repeatedly by the auditor general and the South African Human Rights Commission in recent years, the state of government record-keeping is embarrassing. Public archives are neither equipped, resourced nor positioned to do the records auditing and records management support they are required to by their mandates. Poor record-keeping undermines service delivery, cripples accountability and creates environments in which corruption thrives;
  • Generally, public archives have been unable to transform themselves into active documenters of society, nor to fulfil their mandated role of co-ordinating and setting standards for the archival sector as envisaged in the 1990s. Oral history projects are common but are both random and undertaken in modes that are profoundly problematic. The huge potential of digitisation in support of preservation and public access has not been harnessed;
  • Apartheid-era patterns of archival use and accessibility have proved resilient. Archives remain the domain of elites. Public archives do very little outreach and only a fraction of their holdings are accessible online; and
  • Swaths of documentary memory are being lost, especially in electronic environments. Although 21st-century record-keeping is primarily electronic, public archives remain geared to paper-based realities. And public archives continue to authorise the destruction of an estimated 90% of public records without independent monitoring in the public interest.

What remains now is bitter disappointment among overworked and demoralised archives staff and records managers, as well as academics and the public who are being failed by the state. The archival system is in trouble. To think that we can have a well-ordered land reform process in light of the failure to take basic steps to secure and make accessible what records are available is unrealistic.

The department of arts and culture and the minister bear a major responsibility in the land reform process. They must start taking steps now to improve the lot of our national archival estate for land claimants and to improve general democratic accountability to safeguard the gains made since the dawn of democracy.

Dr Mbongiseni Buthelezi is a senior researcher in the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative at the University of Cape Town. The report is available at

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