Posted on December 13, 2012

Cooling towers bedecked with portraits of ANC presidents soar over the Waaihoek Wesleyan Church, Bloemfontein, where the organisation was founded.Photograph credit: Jo-Anne Duggan, 2012

Cooling towers bedecked with portraits of ANC presidents soar over the Waaihoek Wesleyan Church, Bloemfontein, where the organisation was founded.Photograph credit: Jo-Anne Duggan, 2012

Mbongiseni Buthelezi and I went to Mangugaung in November. We went, not as an advance guard preparing for the ANC’s conference, but as part of our journey to make contact with Free State archivists and to explore the treasures they hold in safe keeping. Since we were so close to Lesotho, we took the opportunity to make a quick trip across the border and visited a few of that country's institutions too. We've also travelled to the Northern Cape, Mpumalanga and Kwa-Zulu Natal and will be visiting Limpopo, North West Province and Gauteng in 2013. Brenton Maart's spent some time exploring the Eastern Cape's archival landscape and we'll be taking time out of the office whenever we have a moment to spare to explore the repositories on our doorstep in the Western Cape.

Free State
We have planned our itineraries for these journeys, and chosen the places to go and institutions to visit, we've been mindful of our understanding of archives as the diverse resources we draw upon when we speak about the past in order to better understand the predicament of the present and imagine the future. We visit institutions, museums, monuments, memorial sites and other sorts of places where documents are housed and oral history projects are preserved.. In Bloemfontein, for example, we visited the Provincial Archives, The Archive for Contemporary Affairs at the University of the Free State, the National Women's Memorial, the Anglo-Boer War Museum, the National Museum, the Waaihoek Wesleyan Church and Maphikela House. We also travelled to the small town of Tweespruit to visit the mission station where Father Frans Claerhout, a Catholic priest and artist of note settled.

Having heard the lament of embattled archivists struggling to deal with limited staff members, little or no storage space and uncaring political principals, it was refreshing to meet the Free State Provincial Archivist in his well-kept office in Bloemfontein. Although this repository faces some challenges - as do all the others we have visited - appears to be better resourced than many, and in good order. Mbongiseni and I have been disheartened to hear how many archivists bemoan the lack of status accorded to them and their institutions. In many instances, provincial archivists occupy the position of deputy-director reporting to a director of library services.

We have also been concerned to hear how some departments, like the Northern cape Provincial Archives focus their meagre resources on records management, trying by all means to ensure that provincial government departments comply with archival requirements and standards, while others see their value as a resource for researchers and social scientists and focus on the records of the more distant past. We have wondered, if it is possible to achieve a balance between these two? Addressing this challenge, the Free State Provincial Archive's functions are split neatly into two departments, the records centre and the archives, each of which is headed by a deputy director. This means that there are two functions that are more equitably balanced and each is headed by an official with a clearly defined mandate and focus. Although this does not solve all the problems that beset the archives, it is a model that could be usefully applied in other provinces. Our visit to the Free State Provincial Archives spurred us on to consider the deep impact of organisational structure on the function and status of archives leaving us wondering whether departments that deal with sports, recreation, arts and culture - issues considered to be less weighty than health, housing and finance, for example - are the best possible custodians for the records of government. Wouldn't archives be taken more seriously if they reported to another department?

The Archive for Contemporary Affairs (ARCA), based at the University of the Free State, was established in 1964 as a centre for the collection and preservation of political documents. Today it houses, amongst 957 private document collections, the records of the National Party and many of its functionaries. ARCA has a large collection, and a staff of 3. But the small staff is energetic and committed to making the resources in their collection accessible. They've embarked on a digitisation project and though the documents themselves are not yet available electronically, most of the inventories are, and the staff is happy to scan and send document to people who request these electronically. Having heard of so many major digitisation projects requiring vast sums of money to implement, it was inspiring to hear how this small institution was simply getting on and doing the preservation and conservation work that is greatly needed. We know that a National Policy on the Digitisation of Heritage Resources has been prepared but not yet signed off. We worry that at the rate things are going, it will be out of date and or completely irrelevant by the time the project is completed and available to the public!

While in Bloemfontein we also visited the National Museum, where Ii was very taken with the recreation of a small section of ‘old' Bloemfontein, and then, remembering having seen similar installations in Kimberly and Pietermaritzburg started to wonder how and why the custom of displaying the material culture of white people in recreated shop windows started and what message this sends to visitors. We also spent some time exploring the grounds of the National Women's Monument and the Anglo-Boer War Museum where we noticed, with some appreciation, the efforts that have been made to acknowledge the African people who were interned and died in concentration camps. Although the manner in which this is done is sometimes a little ‘blunt,' it is encouraging to see that institutions are making an attempt to be more inclusive.

As we journeyed through Bloemfontein we took a detour to visit Maphikela House, the home of struggle stalwart Thomas Maphikela and the Waaihoek Wesleyan Church, reputed to be the founding place of the African National Congress [ANC]. Both of these places have been declared as heritage sites and are being upgraded and renovated. Standing in the shadow of the eight cooling towers bedecked with images of the ANC's presidents, which dominate the Waaihoek Wesleyan Church we wondered what those leaders would make of the going-on at the organisations Mangaung conference. We were also curious about the way in which government has shown its unstinting dedication to the preservation of sites associated with ANC history and how this must embitter others, whose contribution is going unnoticed and whose legacy is uncelebrated. What does this do for the broader national project of reconciliation and social cohesion?

As the day drew to a close, we made our way to Tweespruit where we found an intriguing garden created by Father Frans Claerhout. Watching the children who live in this otherwise deserted mission settlement we questioned what they made of the odd sculptures that still stand amongst the buildings and what, if anything they know of the man who created them. Would it matter if Father Claerhout's legacy crumbled away or not? For the time being his work remains as a trace in a landscape, a mute record of a past occupation.


Travelling to Lesotho was an adventure but we were fortunate to have Sebinane Lekoekoe, or Maseru based correspondent as a guide and facilitator. Crossing the border early, we sped from the Lesotho State Archives, in Maseru, to the Morija Museum & Archives and then on to National University of Lesotho in Roma, by way of Thaba Bosiu before heading back to Bloemfontein to catch the last plane home.

The Lesotho State Archives is an impressive and relatively new building that houses the National Library. It is modest but well organised. Facilities include a small reading room, which was packed with students preparing for year-end examinations on the day we visited. Mobile shelving in the basement area seems to provide adequate space for storage of documents. While everything appears to function well we know that this institution, like many others, is in need of additional resources. For a more in depth analysis see Sebinane Lekoekoe's post State of the Archives: Lesotho.

Morija Museum & Archives should be declared a national treasure! Established in 1956, its roots go back to the foundation of Morija as a centre of mission work, literacy and education and it developed as envoys of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society worked with Moshoeshoe to build up the Basotho nation after the ravages of the Lifaqane. The archives house early printed material from Lesotho, which includes copies of Leselinyaya, the country's oldest newspaper, Government Blue Books and other reports, missionary correspondence, church registers, hundreds of photographs, maps and a sizable selection of monographs in French and English dealing with Lesotho, Southern and Central Africa. If you're interested in the history of Lesotho and its people it's well worth a visit!

While Morija's archives are beautifully kept, stored and made accessible, it seems that the archives of Lesotho's Royal Family have not fared as well over the years. So, it was heartening to hear that, since 2006, there has been a concerted effort by the Royal family and the Matsieng Board of Trustees to ‘rescue' this endangered archive and to sort, catalogue and digitise the irreplaceable material in it. While the project is still ongoing, and work has yet to be completed on the facility in Matsieng where the archive will be housed, we were invited to see the neatly packed boxes of processed materials stored in the library at the National University, evidence that the records will be preserved and held safe for future generations.

Pressed for time, and mindful of the need to navigate border controls and road works we took a brief detour past Thaba Bosiu. A steep-sided, flat-topped mountain, Thaba-Bosiu where Moshoeshoe settled and is said to have founded the Basotho nation is a National Monument. The graves of many of the country's chiefs are to be found on the mountain, together with a variety of ruins associated with the occupation of the plateau by Moshoeshoe and his people. A new development at the foot of the mountain is intended to celebrate Lesotho's history and heritage, but it has yet to be completed.


Although we are sometimes inspired, sometimes perplexed and occasionally made very angry when archives are neglected, Mbongiseni and I are privileged to be able to explore the richness of South Africa's archives. We will be focusing in more detail on many of the institutions and places we have visited in the future. Observations made, and information gleaned through our travels will inform the State of the Archive report which we will be publishing in 2013.

Jo-Anne Duggan is the Director of the Archival Platform.