Posted on March 12, 2013

The brand new Limpopo Provincial Archives building. Photograph credit: Jo-Anne Duggan

The brand new Limpopo Provincial Archives building. Photograph credit: Jo-Anne Duggan

As 2013 began we picked up where we left off at the end of 2012 with our trips to archival institutions in different provinces. Jo-Anne Duggan and I visited Limpopo from the 16th to the 18th of January. We were wonderfully hosted by Jabu Nkatingi, the Provincial Archivist, for the duration of our stay. We returned amazed and inspired by how one person's perseverance against great odds can yield amazing results as well as the remarkable work done by the province's archives staff working in circumstances that can only be described as desperate.

We spent the afternoon of the first day in a discussion with Nkatingi in Polokwane at the head offices of the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture, the institutional home of the archives. Nkatingi was in high spirits: he had just received authorisation from the head of department to move with his staff into the new archives building. We learnt that the building is his pride and job. It is the result of his dedication as Project Manager of the Department to see get a central hub constructed in Polokwane - an extraordinary legacy! A building was necessary because of the history of archives in the province: until 1994 much of Limpopo fell under the administration of the Transvaal and three different 'homeland' authorities.

The provincial archives of Limpopo were established after the delineation of South Africa into 9 provinces in accordance with the country's post 1994 constitution. A major task faced the province in amalgamating the archives of 3 former homelands - Venda, Gazankulu and Lebowa - as well as part of the Transvaal province of the old South Africa into one archives system. We learnt that, like in many other provinces, the process of getting the appropriate provincial Archives Act and policies in place took a long time. In Limpopo, the provincial Archives Act only came into effect in 2001. In the meantime, the records of the former homelands had largely fallen into neglect in much the same way that we have seen happen to records of former homelands in various provinces.

A second major task that had to be undertaken by the archives staff then, we learnt, was the rescuing of documents from the' homeland' repositories, several of which were in a perilous state. In Sibasa in the former Venda we were shown a huge storeroom covered from corner to corner with mounds of documents that had been found dumped in all sorts of outhouses and disused offices around the province or meticulously recovered from the former Venda archives building, which is now a disused outhouse on the grounds of a Department of Correctional Services office complex. Rescued documents were moved to Makwarela where they were arranged and described. The care taken to return the documents to a state in which they are usable and available to researchers is clearly visible, even though the work has not been completed due to a lack of resources such as staff and budget. The Makwarela archives are only opened by appointment because there is no archivist on duty there since one retired and another left for a more lucrative job elsewhere.

In Giyani, the former capital of Gazankulu, in a government office complex, we found two archivists, Messrs. Sebeha and Matsilele, working away in a dark ground floor office on our final day. The lights were out because of light bulbs that needed replacement. The problem had been reported and they were waiting for the wheels of state procurement services to slowly turn and bring them light one day. The two archivists are trying to hold together all the functions of records management and archiving in two and a half districts. The situation of the archivists is desperate. They are at the bottom of the government pecking order, hence they cannot even hold records managers in government departments to account. The records managers are more senior and can simply brush the archivists aside with impunity. Even the provincial archivist is junior to the very records managers - who are Senior Managers whereas he is only a Manager - over whom he is meant to have authority.

The staffing situation is so desperate that 7 archivists serve the province - the Provincial Archivist, 2 members in Polokwane, 2 in Giyani and 2 in Lebowakgomo. Try as they do, they simply cannot humanly fulfil all the duties the archives are tasked with.

Yet, great strides have been made, as we saw when touring the new archives building on the final day. When the construction of a new building for the province was approved by the then MEC in 2006, Nkatingi thought years of tabling proposals and pleas had finally yielded fruit. Instead though it was only the beginning of what he had to do. It took six years to go from concept to an almost completed building. The department was determined to raise every cent of the R39 million the building would cost. Along the way, year after year the department had to make a case for the building to be included in the budget, for the Treasury to release money that had been promised as there was no budget set aside for the building. The leadership of the department changed a few times, but the slog continued. The building the work has yielded is majestic, even though, he tells us, some things have had to be cut back on as there were no funds to complete the building as per approved plan.

The double story building boasts 12 strong rooms, a spacious reading room, office space, two kitchens, an auditorium, and state-of-the-art climate control and security systems. While the first major hurdle has been overcome, another looms - materials have to be transported to Polokwane where they will need to be arranged and described that they can be made accessible. This is a Herculean task that requires a significant investment of resources and capacity!


The same problems keep coming up again and again. Firstly, as observed in the Northern Cape, the Free State and Mpumalanga, it was clear to us that in Limpopo the few archivists the province has are under huge strain. The importance of archives and records management is not getting the priority it deserves from both the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture and the Province Treasury based on grossly inadequate resources being allocated.

Secondly, the task of bringing together four different archival systems is a staggering one. It would take an archives army of 100 people, for instance, six months to get through the work of sorting the mass of rescued documents that has been fumigated and deposited in the new building. 7 people who have to conduct training, records inspections and oral history work throughout the large province are going to be trying to clear the backlog for years to come.

Thirdly, as in almost all provinces, the archives are ill positioned as Library and Archives in the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture. They are way down the priority list and seem to be going to remain marginal as long as they sit in that department being part of Library services, which have a conditional grant and all efforts are on the libraries' conditional grant as a national initiative rather than archives. Moreover, even within the department they sit too low on the hierarchy. Nkatingi kept asking, 'How do we convince the right people that archives are important when even I am too junior to sit in management meetings where major decisions are taken on the functioning of the Department?' It is known that there is a Senior Manager for Libraries and Archives participating in senior departmental meetings, but accountability on spending the conditional grant for libraries takes priority over Provincial archives and records management issues.

Fourthly, according to Nkatingi, the National Archives are nowhere to be found when it comes to giving direction and support to the provinces as it was clarified in many instances that provincial archives and records service is the competency of the provincial legislature and the provinces do not report to the National Archives. Clearly, the National and Provincial Heads of Archives Forum needs to work towards aligning National and provincial challenges so that archives around the country can move in one direction. Due to the problems facing the National Archives that we have reported, they are not in a position to be of any help to the provinces. The problems in Pretoria cascade down to the provinces in such a way that the national archival system falls way short of where it should be.

In the face of all this adversity, we take heart from how one person can change things. More such individuals across the system can take us in the right direction. Of course, we can't leave it up to individuals to brave the odds. The system as a whole must be fixed.

Provinces, like KwaZulu-Natal, the Western Cape and Mpumalanga have revised their organograms and separated provincial archives from Library Services. Archives staff members are implementing their duties far better than those still under Library and Archives directorates. It will assist if uniformity can be applied across all the provinces in the country as it creates confusion on the management of archives and records in the country to have an array of different arrangements.

Mbongiseni Buthelezi is the Deputy Director of the Archival Platform