Posted on December 12, 2012

Mbongiseni Buthelezi explores the accommodation facilities under construction at the Ncome Heritage Site. Photograph credit: Jo-Anne Duggan, 2012

Mbongiseni Buthelezi explores the accommodation facilities under construction at the Ncome Heritage Site. Photograph credit: Jo-Anne Duggan, 2012

Our journeys of learning about the archival sector continue to take us to different towns and cities around the country. In November, Jo-Anne Duggan and I visited KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). The trip began with my attendance of the KZN Department of Arts and Culture's annual conference of Libraries, Archives, Museums and Language Services. Themed 'Creating a vibrant and inclusive society for generations to come', the conference ran from the 21st to the 23rd of November in Durban.

It was remarkable to see approximately 900 professionals in the same room on the first day. I gave an address to the delegates before the MEC of Arts and Culture, Ntombikayise Sabhidla-Saphetha, enumerated the department's successes and its plans going forward. After the opening plenary, the rest of the conference was made up of parallel discussions among each of the segments of the DAC: museums professionals talked among themselves, so did archivists, as did librarians. The discussions I attended were rich. The archives people talked about oral history on the second day. Well-known author Dr Wally Serote got everybody thinking with his discussion of his work on indigenous knowledge systems over the last 15 years. The central question of Serote's address was: 'What must we do as Africans in order to liberate our voice to participate fully in the human experience?' While the talk energised many people, it was disconcerting at question time afterwards to hear speakers cut through the complexity of Serote's address and return to the affirmation of oral history as our saviour against forgetting ourselves and our histories.

On the third day, I attended the Museum Services session. A presentation that stood out for me was on the Carnegie Art Gallery's one-off project in Madadeni township in which people's living rooms and yards were turned into exhibition spaces. Several people in one street agreed to open their houses for the project. Local artists displayed their work on gates, piles of bricks and whatever else was available; items in people's living rooms were curated for viewing by visitors; and a parade was held throughout the township with live music. The success of the project points to a new way museums can be made relevant and responsive to their contexts.

The session ended with the presentation and discussion of the province's new museums policy. The policy is still work in progress and the conference offered the first opportunity for public consultation on the policy. What was clear from the discussion was that there is a lot of support for the proposal to bring all the museums in the province, except the national ones, under one provincial management structure - what is called provincialization in the policy document. Provincialization will allow for standardisation of pay, access to training opportunities and entry into a network for all professionals in the province, the latter being something Jo-Anne and I went on to observe as lacking on our travels across the province in the following week.

Seeing the wider province

From the 26th to the 29th of November, we visited institutions and people in Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Ladysmith, Dundee, Nquthu and Durban again. On the first day we met with the provincial archivist, and staff at the Killie Campbell Africana Library and Niall McNulty who has been involved in the setting up of the Ulwazi Programme ( that archives local history through a network of field workers. On the second day we talked to the staff of the Msunduzi Museum, the Alan Paton Centre and Struggle Archives at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, David Larsen of Africa Media online, and visited the KwaZulu-Natal Museum and the Tathum Gallery. The third day comprised of a visit to the Ladysmith Siege Museum and the new cultural centre in the town, the Talana Museum in Dundee, as well as the Ncome Museum and Voortrekker monument across the river from the museum. The final day was taken up with a meeting with Coral Bijoux, who is in the process of setting up a Women's Musuem, Dolly Khumalo, senior manager at KZN Museum Services, and a visit to the archives of the former homeland of KwaZulu in Ulundi.


We made several observations as we travelled the province. As noted above, our first observation was that museum staff, especially in museums that fall under municipalities, are isolated and have little access to professional development opportunities. Many of the young crop of staff, especially the ones far from the big urban centres, enter museums with no training whatsoever. They rely on training workshops and conferences to grow their knowledge. Municipalities, we heard repeatedly, often consider museums a burden and do not support them very well. At the same time the municipalities think they are better off keeping the museums for what little funding they bring in from the provincial government. Provincialization will alleviate some of these problems, although resistance to the move is anticipated from municipalities.

We also observed how much duplication there is in collections and displays between museums that neighbour one another. There is a general lack of coordination which results in a national museum collecting much of the same material a provincial or a municipal museum in the same town or in the next town is collecting. Part of this duplication is an effect of pressure for museums to be relevant or to reflect South Africa in its diversity. This pressure takes creativity out of professionals who are already isolated in some cases. It results in generic displays that present stereotypical Zulus, Afrikaners and everybody else in their neo-traditional ethnic splendour. However, in Ladysmith, rather than replace the story of the Siege of Ladysmith during the Anglo-Boer/South African War with a display that is in line with contemporary politics, the museum has added the cultural centre. While it showcases generic Zulus in part, the work in progress has interesting displays on Ladysmith Black Mambazo and other notables local to the Ladysmith area.

As for archives, we noted how the provincial system is relatively well staffed compared to provinces like the Northern Cape and Mpumalanga. Each of the three repositories in Pietermaritzburg, Durban and Ulundi employs approximately 20 staff members. The archives staff component has been built up largely owing to the fact that the archives are a directorate in the province and hence have their own budget. The provincial archivist, S. J. Ngcoya, is happiest with the manner in which the records management function is working in the province. It was clear too at the Ulundi repository that records management across government departments and municipalities served by the repository is working relatively well.

However, the archives are not without their challenges. As in other provinces and in the national archives, records managers are lost to municipalities as well as provincial and national government departments after years of training. Space is also a major constraint in the Durban and Pietermaritzburg repositories. The building in Pietermaritzburg is under renovation, but the renovated building will still not have enough space. Ulundi, on the other hand, has more space than it knows what to do with. The drawback is that the buildings are not custom-made to hold archival material. They do not even have climate control or proper smoke and fire detection equipment, putting the records at risk.

When it comes to university archives, we noted the remarkable work that is being done by staff at the Campbell Collections and the Alan Paton Centre and Struggle Archives at UKZN. Despite limited resources and a sense of marginalisation that has come and gone over the years as university administrators have changed, the two centres (and others) are in meticulous order, especially the latter.

Finally, as talk about digitisation gains momentum in forums we've been part of around the country, we found people talking about digitisation and conducting all manner of digitisation projects: from those lacking any vision of why documents are being scanned, such as at the Siege Museum, to highly successful large-scale preservation and commercial projects such as those undertaken by Africa Media Online. What was quite clear was that digitisation is the word - people in just about every archive and museum are thinking about digitisation even if they are do not yet understand and are fearful of what it will mean for control of access to their material.

A lot is happening in the archival sector in KwaZulu-Natal. We returned encouraged and inspired.

Mbongiseni Buthelezi is the Deputy-Director of the Archival Platform.