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Democracy and Archives: A quest for truth

- Gabriele Mohale

Archives are the custodians of evidence in the pursuit of truth and records of Commissions of Inquiry are fundamental to support democracy.

Commissions of Inquiry have played a crucial role throughout South Africa’s history. Appointed by the highest office in the land, the judiciary is mandated to investigate and interrogate, and commissions are therefore a powerful tool in ‘seeking the truth’ and their processes can well be qualified as democratic in nature.

Rivonia Trial defence team at the Historical Papers Research Archives in the Willem Cullen Library Curiosity 17: #Democracy © 

Equally important are inquests, judicial inquiries to ascertain the facts of an incident, which too are truth seeking by nature. Inquests into the death of detainees have proved important in making public those secrets from South Africa’s apartheid past that would otherwise have remained hidden. Many of the findings from these proceedings, however, remain shrouded in ambiguity.

Records of commissions and inquests have found their way into university-based archives such as the Historical Papers Research Archive in the William Cullen Library at Wits and were deposited by progressive legal firms, organisations and individuals. These archives include various commissions of inquiry into social conditions such as housing, health, farm labour and the penal system. During South Africa’s highly charged and volatile transitional period up to 1994, the reports by the Goldstone Commissions of Inquiry were instrumental in exposing human rights abuses. The inquests into the deaths of Steve Biko, Ahmed Timol and Neil Aggett among many others, include records that are now extensively consulted by South Africa’s prosecuting authorities in their investigation into apartheid-era crimes. Often, they are the last traces remaining from original proceedings, as records of inquests are fragmented or missing from the State’s archives.

In recent years we have received outstanding additions to our archive holdings, including the papers of the former Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson, and of Advocate George Bizos. Their pursuit of the truth runs like a golden thread through their archival records, from the early Rivonia Trial in 1963/64 to the development of the Constitution for a new South Africa and the role of its judiciary in a democratic dispensation.

The events at the Lonmin Mine in Marikana in 2012, which became known as the ‘Marikana massacre’, once more resulted in a Commission of Inquiry to investigate what led to the deaths of the miners. As with previous commissions, its report is publicly available, but not the records generated by the commission itself. The records have found their way into Historical Papers through the full electronic submission made by Advocate Matthew Chaskalson, containing proceedings, exhibits, video footage, photographs, autopsy reports and assessments. These documents are presently supporting the cases being brought by the victims’ families and will comprise evidence in the quest to seek out the full truth.

  • Gabriele Mohale originally trained as a typesetter in Berlin, Germany, before coming to South Africa in 1991. She joined Wits’ Historical Papers Research Archive as an archivist in 2007, during which time she completed her Master’s in Heritage Studies, graduating in 2009. She has been Acting Head of Wits’ Historical Papers Research Archive since 2017. In recent years, Mohale has been involved in accentuating the role and status of archives in civil society, in partnership with academic departments and civil society archives and organisations.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office
  • Read more in the 17th issue, themed: #Democracy, we turn to our academics and professional staff for their research, perspectives and commentary on both the progress and shortcomings in our democracy, and democracies elsewhere.