Posted on September 7, 2012
In late August Mbongiseni Buthelezi and I travelled to Kimberley in the Northern Cape to explore the province's archival landscape, interview archivists and visit archive and memory institutions as part of the research we are undertaking for the Archival Platform's State of the Archives Report.

Taking the Archival Platform's understanding of 'archive' to include a wide range of records that we draw on in the present, to understand the past and imagine or plan for the future, we visited a range of institutions and organisations. These included the Wildebeest Kuil Rock Art Site, the South African San Institute, The Africana Library, the McGregor Museum, The Duggan-Cronin Collection and The Sol Plaatje Museum and Library. We met with the Provincial Archivist and Department of Education's Records Manager. We popped in to view works on display in the William Humphreys Art Gallery and we spent some time exploring Kimberley's premier tourist attraction, the Big Hole.

We returned from our sortie to Kimberley enthused by the pockets of excellence we found, inspired by the dedication of the people we met with and energised by the way in which individuals and institutions just seem to be getting on with their work despite the challenges they face and the ever-present battle for resources. We have a new respect for our colleagues 'in the trenches', a more nuanced understanding of the state of archive and an appreciation for the extraordinary multi-layered record of our far distant and more recent past.

We'll be posting detailed reports on all the places we visited, but, while our trip's fresh in our minds, would like to share a few general impressions and observations.

The resources available to us when we speak about the past are many and varied, and reflect the history of humankind's interaction with the environment and with others who have inhabited it over time. We were privileged to walk through the Wildebees Kuil Rock Art site with David Morris of the McGregor Museum and to see engravings that have remained intact and in situ for over a thousand years. But we were disturbed to see crudely carved graffiti and the devastation caused by a recent fire, both bearing testimony to careless or uncaring visitors with no appreciation for the significance of this fragile resource. It is worrying to hear that this site is rendered vulnerable by a lack of resources to protect it against human predation. We can only hope that visitors who pass through the interpretation or take a guided tour will gain a deeper understanding of the significance of this site.

Standing on the small 'koppie' amidst the rock engravings one can see in the distance the small settlements of !Xun and Kwhe people. Displaced from the land they had inhabited for thousands of years by the 'apartheid wars', these communities were brought to South Africa from Angola, via Namibia, and were settled on the farm Platfontein at the end of 2004. The records of this community's history reside in cultural practices and in the memories of the elders, spoken in a tongue that, it seems, will soon pass out of existence. We were pleased to hear, in our meeting with Meryl-Joy Schippers of the South African San Institute, and her colleague Hennie Swart, that there were a number of initiatives on the go to record the memories of the community - in visual and oral form - and to ensure that community elders passed on their language to younger members of the group. We saw the first children's book translated into Khwe.

Evidence of mining, and of conflict, looms large in the Kimberley landscape: from the Big Hole to the memorials that dot the town and in the obvious silences in the built environment. The homes of the mining magnates are in evidence, but not the compounds in which migrant workers were corralled; the quaint Edwardian cottages are still to be seen, but there is no trace of the 'Malay Camp' from which residents were forcibly removed. To imagine the past one needs to explore city's Kimberley's museums: the McGregor Museum, the Duggan-Cronin Collection and the Big Hole. These provide an opportunity to look beyond the romantic picture of the prosperous 'mining camp' at the stark reality of the everyday world of the miners. An image shown to us by Shirley James of the Africana Museum remains etched in my mind: a sepia photograph showing an ant-like stream of men leaving the mine at the end of a long day's work; minute figures making their way precariously up the steeply sloped side of the Big Hole. This image, sitting alongside Alfred Duggan Cronin's ethnographic photographs, the heavily furnished interiors of the city's period house museums, the eloquent writings of Sol Plaatje and the war memorials, epitomise the richly layered narrative of the area.

Turning our gaze from the past to the present, we met with the Provincial Archivist Elizabeth Manong and her colleague Leah Phayane to find out how the Northern Cape was addressing the challenge of holding the records of government safe for the future. While the archive repository is still under construction the archivists cannot accept any records; these remain in storage and under the control of provincial government departments and entities. In the absence of a repository the provincial archivist and her colleague work with records managers and conduct inspections to ensure compliance with records management policies and procedures. It's a daunting task, the department is drastically under-resourced and there's a sense that the province's politicians have little appreciation for the value of records and the role that they play, or could play, in holding government to account or, providing government with the facts and figures needed to dispute allegations of poor service delivery.

Delving deeper, we visited the Department of Education where Records Manager Andrea Luxton explained how she and her staff were getting the department's records in order. It's a herculean task, but Andrea's clearly determined - and energetic - and well versed with the regulations and procedures. She clearly knows what needs to be done and she's going to get it done, come hell or high water!

What conclusions can we draw from our visit to the Northern Cape? 1) Individuals can make a difference. Everywhere we went we were impressed by enthusiastic and committed archivists determined to do their best with minimal resources. 2) Archival records provide the record of the many and varied forces that have shaped our diverse history. Without this evidence the narrative of our country would be sorely impoverished and restricted to a simplistic storyline. 3) As archivists we stand in the present, constantly shifting our gaze from the past to the future. While we're often seduced by the possibility of casting new light on the past, we need to pay more attention to ensuring that the record of the present is held safe for the future. 4) Government - at all levels - is not doing justice to institutions of memory: seemingly oblivious to the fact that archives, museums and heritage sites are in a state of crisis.

It was a privilege to meet with our colleagues in the Norther Cape. We look forward to engaging with archivists in other provinces over the next few months!

Jo-Anne Duggan is the Director of the Archival Platform