There are times when one cannot but think of South Africa as a bleak house of laughter and forgetting. Given our turbulent history, both from the recent past and from the further recesses of long ago, in South Africa we seem trapped in habits of being dedicated to erasure and mis-memory.
We live in an age of misinformation, of concerted campaigns of disinformation, and of rumour mongering commodified as information provision. Our records of the present and those records surviving of our past are thus crucial if we are to chart our way into the future. That the future we face as a species is as imperilled as it is means those annals are even more precious.
It is truly frightening when one begins to confront the record of our record-keeping in post-millennial post-apartheid South Africa. Far from merely neglecting those documents, which will tell those who come after us how we lived here and now, so that perhaps they can strive to live better then and there, we seem to be erasing them. There are times when one feels like Winston Smith, trapped in the dystopian nightmare of George Orwell’s 1984.
Worse still, we seem not to make concerted efforts to preserve the records of our past, which are invaluable for making better sense of and responding to the challenges of our present. Think of the state of our archives, which contain not only the colonial and imperial records, but also the responses, including evidence of co-opting and resistance among those subjected to that European expansionist project.
The archive is not a luxury in a society with the traumatic history that South Africa has. It is an essential treasure, which we have to preserve. Archives contain the documents and artifacts which gainsay the distortions to which various actors in a society may wish to subject our understanding of the past and the present. The record may be discomforting, but it allows for some semblance of truth to be maintained in the face of “alternative facts”, or the reconstruction of the past and the present for political benefit, corporate profit, or opportunistic incitement.
The archive of this society’s past and the ongoing archiving of its present are often dismissed as the concern of egg-heads, disciplinary specialists in ivory towers too far removed from the daily struggles against poverty and injustice, people fighting to have their basic needs met. This is a false choice — we need not have “either/or”, we can have “both/and”. Those responsible for meeting the basic needs ought to do their jobs better. Those among them tasked with managing the less urgent but essential elements of life in a democratising society ought to do theirs.
Recently I heard from an acquaintance of nearly a quarter of a century of the treatment of books bequeathed to a university library by one of the most renowned intellectuals of the 20th century. The acquaintance walked past boxes of books put aside with the offer that people could take them. In a land of book scarcity, this gesture seemed noble, even well-intentioned. But several of the books were inscribed to the Nobel laureate, some from other writers of equal renown. The books bore the imprints of the Nobel laureate’s reading. They were an invaluable resource for any researcher who would want to investigate how a mind such as that of the Nobel laureate came to engage the society as it did. What did she read? How did that reading influence her writing? What can we deduce about the relationship between her writing, her reading, and her response to this society? These are important questions given our current challenges. After all, those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.
In giving these books away — and one is led to believe that the official account is that they have all been recovered by the university library, even though one has been told that at least one volume was not returned — something of their value, or devaluation, is revealed. This was not only human error, or bureaucratic oversight. This incident forms part of a larger pattern of conduct in this society towards documentation from and about its past.
The incident is a symptom of the long history and current practice of under-funding universities, museums, libraries, and archives. It reveals the under-skilling of those entrusted with the duty to keep those records for present and future use. When I retold the story of the treatment of the Nobel laureate’s bequest, it elicited outrage but little surprise from historians, literary scholars, journalists and teachers.
Recall the treatment of the archive of the public broadcaster over the last decade. Those historians working with and in the public archives have long indicated the mismanagement of the precious resources meant to be preserved there. One historian provided video evidence of the disintegration of the 1890 working papers of one of the leading Black intellectuals of the Eastern Cape held but not properly preserved in a university research library. She despaired — she knew, as many of us do, how underfunding and reprioritising of money in the higher education sector have led to cuts in library budgets, and how senior and specialist staff were not replaced so that, in a debasing process, books are dumped or given away.
Librarians are themselves under pressure to manage their holdings with less money. Those of us who worked in higher education know only too well about the reminders from library staff about the need to cut journal subscriptions, or to scupper volumes because of space pressures. At one city campus there has been no physical expansion of the library between my first visit in 1996 and my most recent in 2019. On some campuses there are no longer specialist subject librarians, as there were when I first set foot inside a South African university library in 1990.
A friend in the Eastern Cape was shocked when the otherwise professional and amiable librarian professed a vision of a university library without physical books. This is not only about fetishizing the physical book. In the Western Cape one university’s library is constantly giving away “old books”, some of them bequests to the historically black campus during late apartheid, and as such, markers of the history of higher education in South Africa and its connections with higher education organisations elsewhere in the world.
Historians who work in the national archives often vent their frustration about the state of the record-keeping. Boxes and rooms full of materials that have not been catalogued, or old records
which have not been properly bound. As one historian phrased it, “loose pages are lost pages”. Lost pages are lost records. We ought to do better, all of us. We need not be Winston Smith.
The records of the past, and the records we are engendering of the present, are not “nice to have” luxuries. We have much unfinished business from the past, and to do that work we must understand that history. Without the records of what happened, of who did what (or professed to do what) to whom, where, and when, and often also why, we are at risk of engendering the very amnesia of Orwell’s Oceania, a totalitarian state in which it is much easier to manipulate people’s behaviour because it is possible to control their access to the record of the past.
All of the Nobel laureate’s books put in boxes and offered to passers-by may well have been recovered (though one does wonder how that is possible if it is unclear who took what). But that this happened at all is a tragedy. It is not on the scale of the fires at Alexandria, but it is still tragic. Contrast it with the manuscript keepers of Timbuktu. We cannot neglect those traces of the past that have survived in document form. Government has a duty, but so do the rest of us. The solutions are not simple. Better education and training of record keepers may be a start. But valuing those records is just one of the many things which we also ought to do.
A few years ago I bought a hardback copy of Nadine Gordimer’s A Soldier’s Embrace in a second-hand store in Johannesburg. It had been scuppered from the Springs municipal library. Gordimer was born in Springs. A child in contemporary Springs may not even know her town was once home to a Nobel laureate. Marking the book “kelder” (Afrikaans for scupper) is akin to what Winston Smith is required to do with the historical record in Oceania.
Those of us who have never unlearned the child’s habit of constantly interpreting the world, of making sense of it, to understand it, and to alter it and ourselves in it, know that reading is essential to that process. We rely on the records about and from the past to help us do this. We owe it to our children and their children, and should this blue marble still be habitable for creatures like us, the children of those children, to keep the record.
Remember Ray Bradbury. The record matters: let’s preserve it. The alternative is to repeat tragedy as farce, a bleak existence in a house of mirthless ignorance.
Angelo Fick is the director of research at the Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute