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The power of archives

- By Michele Pickover

Archives are fundamentally political in nature and as such are mediated sites of power, ideology and memory.

At the core of the archive is:

  • propaganda
  • rights
  • desires
  • lies
  • ownership
  • trust
  • nationalism
  • freedoms
  • concealments
  • acquisitiveness
  • surveillance

Archives play a powerful role in framing and controlling our understanding of the past, in engineering the national psyche and in storylessness.

Instruments of selective amnesia

In this globalised world, knowledge and information is seen as a strategic resource and tool and the manner in which information is used and transformed through technology, and who controls it, is pivotal. And, the Soul of the Archive, because it mirrors historical constructs of the past, (albeit only fragments) is often a sought-after commodity. Archives, as repositories of memory debris are instruments of selective amnesia, choosing what is recalled and how it is recalled and playing a pivotal role in fashioning meta-narratives.

At the same time archives provide the bedrock for societies understanding of the past. They underpin citizen’s rights, assert identities and are crucial to truth recovery. Archives, particularly in countries in the process of transition to democracy or new and fragile democracies, are of fundamental importance as evidence supporting victims’ rights for reparation, a means of determining responsibilities for rights violations, and a basis for reconciliation and universal justice.

Sector in dissray 

Critically, a number of South African historians are saying that the domain of heritage and archives has become the most important sphere in which contests over South African pasts are taking place. However, worryingly, on the ground, this sector is in disarray, lacks adequate skills and training (this is true for both the non-state and state archival arena), is under-resourced and introspection and conscious self-reflection is largely absent.

And archives, which are not simply cultural entities but fundamental components of good governance, transparency and democracy, are not accorded the profile and prominence they deserve precisely because they are seen as the competency of ‘heritage’, which is perceived to be something old, in the past or irrelevant. In South Africa, the dire State of the Archive in general has led many to question the prudence of placing the National Archives of South Africa under the auspices of a the department of Arts and Culture, where efficient record-keeping seems not to be a priority.

The physical collections held in our archives are often in poor condition and degrading. Many collections remain unprocessed, need description and are inaccessible. In practice in South Africa, low priority is afforded to archives by the State, by parent institutions and by the public. A combination of political interference, a culture of secrecy, poor record-keeping practices and totally inadequate staffing, capacity and resources in the pre and post 1994 archival record of local, provincial and national government, as well of that of parastatals, means that there is a gapping silence and intellectual and public engagement and understanding will be limited and limiting.  

Secrecy, inaccessibility and no accountability

Much of the information on apartheid human rights violations and security, military and intelligence matters has been removed from public accountability and access. Also of major concern, in terms of access to our documentary past is that the proposed Protection of State Information Act (aka the ‘Secrecy Bill’), in its current form, is retrospective and will give new protection to apartheid government documents and secrets – particularly those documents rendered “secret” and “confidential” . The post-apartheid state is not opening up apartheid-era and previously secret archival sources. For example the records of the Truth and Reconcilliation Commission are not accessible remain unprocessed and deliberately buried in what is essentially an inaccessible and closed archive guarded by the Ministries of Justice, National Intelligence and Arts and Culture.

In important ways the state of South Africa’s archive reflects the way in which the battle around how the sediments of colonial and post-apartheid history are being used, collected and interpreted. Where archives are being shaped by the agendas of the current ruling party. We need to understand how decisions are being made about:

  1. How the archive is being constructed and what is represented and how?
  2. What is being collected and selected for physical preservation?
  3. What archival content is being selected for online access and why?
  4. What is publicly accessible and what is not (and why) and the rights of access?
  5. How resources are allocated and what resources are assigned?
  6. What policies and strategies inform and influence these decisions?

A complete past

Much of our documentary past is already invisible and hidden through: neglect, secrecy, inefficiency political agendas and government and party control over important information that ordinary citizens and civil society organisations, who are seeking justice, openness, equality and accountability, should have access to.

As memory workers, institutions, scholars and civil society we should actively engage with the Archive to ensure that there is not only one fixed, all-encompassing understanding but one that is nuanced, contradictory, ambiguous and multi-layered, reflecting competing accounts of our past. 

Michele Pickover is the principal curator at the Wits Historical Papers Research Archive.

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