Posted on October 24, 2012

'In the case of the DAC, problems were largely attributable to lack of strong leadership, continuous monitoring, accountability and discipline.' Ah, we thought reading this, the Auditor General of South Africa (AGSA) has noticed that the National Archives are in crisis. Unfortunately that was not the case, the findings relate more generally to the activities of the Department of Arts and Culture and its entities. We looked expectantly through the AGSA's overview report for mentions of the National Archives and, though there is one specific comment, there's a curious silence around the issues that we have raised concern about. We wondered why and came to the conclusion that a number of interventions since 2001 have rendered the National Archives almost invisible, increasingly hamstrung and effectively leaderless.

The AGSA presented an overview of its audit findings on the Department of Arts and Culture and its entities to the Parliamentary Committee on Arts and Culture on 9 October 2012. While the AGSA's comments are pertinent and pressing, the Archival Platform is interested in what was said or, more importantly, not said about the National Archives: to probe the gaps and silences, and ask why the dire situation of the National Archives is almost invisible in this report.

Let's take a step back. The National Archives and Records Services Act of 1996 was established the National Archives as a powerful and important institution. It made provision for the National Archivist to be appointed by the Minister of Arts and Culture and to report directly to the Minister and to Parliament. In addition, the Act provided for the establishment of a National Archives Commission with full oversight and executive powers. In 1998 the TRC recommended that government 'take steps to ensure that the National Archives functions as the auditor of government record-keeping' arguing that it should be set up as an independent agency, rather like the office of the Auditor General. The TRC went so far as to suggest that consideration be given to creating a National Archives Unit in the office of the president. Sadly, it seems that this advice was not heeded and subsequent developments have succeeded in reducing the power and visibility of the National Archives. Amendments made to the Act in 2001 placed the National Archivist directly under the control of the Director General of Arts and Culture, making the institution effectively a branch of the DAC rather than an independent entity. It also replaced the powerful Archives Commission with a toothless Advisory Council. The consequences of these actions are evident in the challenges facing the National Archives today: it is under-resourced and under-capacitated. Lacking an executive council, there is no strong body with a clear vision and the power to effect the changes needed to lead the institution boldly into the future or champion its cause.

The Archival Platform has repeatedly drawn attention to the way in which a lack of visionary leadership that has impacted negatively on the potential of the National Archives to deliver on its mandate. We were not surprised to read that the AGSA's report attributes the problems it has noted within the DAC and its entities largely to 'lack of strong leadership, continuous monitoring, accountability and discipline. This is deeply concerning. While we lament the lack of political will to address the crisis in the National Archives there are two specific issues pertaining to leadership that the DAC has failed to address timeously. The National Archivist and a senior colleague were suspended over two years ago and dismissed in July 2011. Despite the fact that an independent arbitration found that their dismissal was substantively unfair and ordered their re-instatement, the DAC has not yet reached a settlement with them. The Deputy National Archivist was appointed to head the institution while the matter was being resolved but this has had an adverse knock-on effect on operations. With three key staff members effectively removed from their positions, the already stretched capacity of the staff has reached breaking point. The institution has been destabilised and morale is low. Uncertainty about what the future holds in terms of leadership does not bode well for long-term planning. This troubled situation is compounded by the DAC's failure to appoint an Archives Advisory Council timeously. In the absence of the National Archivist the Council might have played a meaningful role in guiding the institution. Without it, the institution is left to flounder. What is needed now more than ever is strong visionary leadership. Leaders who understand the critical role that archives play in addressing the country's skewed history and deepening democracy and who can speak out boldly and passionately in support of archives in policy and decision making forums at the highest level.

Even the best leaders need lieutenants to check that ideas are translated into action. In its overview, the AGSA's overview notes that, 'The Department failed to successfully develop and implement Monitoring and Evaluation Tools and System to facilitate the consistent approaches and standards to assessing the performance of DAC and its public entities'. Without adequate monitoring and evaluation conditions are bound to deteriorate until they reach crisis point. This seems to have been the case with the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), which the AGSA describes as having been 'in a state of disarray' for a number of years. Laying the blame for this fairly and squarely at the DAC's door the AGSA says that it 'did not exercise sufficient oversight over this entity'. The Archival Platform and other stakeholders have insistently raised the alarm about the National Archives and pointed to the DAC's failure to address these, to no avail. Consistent monitoring matched with appropriate actions to address problems as they became evident might well have prevented the institution from sliding into a critical state. One of the consequences of the ongoing failure to identify and deal with problems is that a massive intervention will be necessary to get the National Archives back on track. There are no quick fixes for years of neglect.

Why is it that the National Archives, unlike SAHRA, seems to have, to a large extent, escaped unscathed from the AGSA's piercing scrutiny? Firstly, the 2001 amendments to the Act which relegated the National Archives to the status of a DAC directorate rather than a separate entity like SAHRA means that it is lost from view amongst all the DAC's other directorates. Secondly, entities like SAHRA operate under councils with full executive powers. These councils are ‘in charge' and their objects, powers and functions are carefully spelled out in law. The buck stops with them. They're responsible for the institution's performance and they generally maintain a beady eye on activity. They are empowered to make a wide range of decisions and can call the director and the staff to account. They have the authority to approach the minister, speak out publicly for the institution and call the DAC to account if and when it limits or compromises the institution's ability to function effectively. The National Archives, in contrast, has been lumbered with an Advisory Council that has little power to act on the advice it is called on to offer the National Archivist and the Minister. Although it might be something of a lame-duck, the Council is intended to serve an important function. It provides an opportunity for representatives of civil society to bring their diverse expertise to bear on the work of the National Archives. But, for this to happen council members need to be appointed by the Minister and they need to meet regularly. It is deeply regrettable that this has not happened since the term of office of the previous council members came to an end in 2008. The DAC's critical failure to appoint and capacitate a new Council timeously is inexcusable. Surely this is an issue that should have been interrogated by the AGSA? The question is: How would the AGSA know about a failure that is not reported in the annual report? Is it reasonable to expect the AGSA to consider the extent to which the departments and entity under review comply with the requirements set out in the legislation that establishes and governs them or does the responsibility for this lie elsewhere?

The AGSA clearly got wind of the DAC's broader human resource challenges, noting that 'the Department has placed a moratorium on the filling of posts' and that 'only priority posts were filled in anticipation of the re-aligned organisational structure', the AGSA's asks, 'When will the re-aligned structure come into effect?' This is an issue that has puzzled us too. The Annual Report includes a rather baffling Organisational Structure Diagram which shows that the functions of the DAC fall under the management of a Director General and five Deputy Directors-General (DDGs). Among these is a 'DDG: National Archives and Library Services' - something we have not had sight of before. There is no indication in the DAC report whether this structure reflects the current position or a plan for the future, it's included on a separate page in the middle of the DG's report. The Organisation Structure in the diagram differs from the information about the DAC's structure detailed on its website. Comparison of these two bits of information indicates that the branch previously known as 'Cultural Heritage and Preservation' may have, or will be split into two: 'Heritage Promotion' and 'National Archives and Library Services'. If this is the case, we can only hope that the National Archives will, in future, benefit from more focussed attention, tighter monitoring and a dedicated management 'voice' rather than have to compete for attention with other institutions that fall into the 'heritage' basket. This is a large and unwieldy portfolio to juggle, especially when institutions have to compete for scarce resources. But, given the way in which the DAC has dragged its feet on the issue of the National Archivist and the Advisory Council, it is not unrealistic to fear that restructuring may leave the institution sitting in limbo, marginalising it even further.

On the specific issue of 'National Archives, Records, Libraries and Heraldic Services the AGSA's report identifies a number of challenges. These refer to: under-spending of the appropriated budget; the planned evaluation of the condition of all archival records; and the failure to finalise the National Archives Digitisation Strategy as planned, because the DACs National Policy on Digitisation of Heritage resources, on which it is dependent, is still to be approved. Making the point that 'It is imperative for DAC to ensure the survival of archival records as in many instances these documents are unique', the AGSA asks, 'How will the Department ensure that archival records are preserved?' The AGSA calls on the DAC 'to present on the strategies that it will implement to ensure that there is enough capacity to carry out this important function effectively, e.g. outsourcing, increasing the staffing complement, internships in conservation, etc.' This is a leading question and we're encouraged that the AGSA has put it formally on record. We look forward to seeing how the DAC rises to the challenge and accounts to the AGSA in 2013!

On the issue of records, commitments and accountability, the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) of 1999 requires all government departments to develop three-year strategic plans. It is against these strategic plans, and on the basis of information drawn from the annual reports of the DAC and its entities that that the AGSA assesses performance. SAHRA's annual report, for example, makes detailed information about the institution available for scrutiny, putting it clearly in the spotlight. The latest, and only, annual report posted on the National Archives and Records Services of South Africa website is dated 2000-2001 and clearly pre-dates the institution's relegation in status. In later years information about the National Archives is subsumed into the DAC annual report, lost amidst the numbing detail of a range of other activities. This is definitely at odds with the provisions of the National Archives and Records Service Act which requires the National Archivist and the National Archives Advisory Council to compile and submit annual reports to the Minister, and to brief the Portfolio Committee. We tracked down a copy of the 2004-2005 annual report, together with the minutes of the meeting of the Portfolio Committee at which it was presented in 2008, yes 2008. We also found minutes of a Portfolio Committee Meeting in 2006 at which information about the National Archives and the National Archives Advisory Council was presented. These make mention of the National Archivist's explanation, citing the National Archives situation as an integral part of the DAC, as the reason for the non-submission of reports. We wonder though, even if the National Archives and the Advisory Council had complied with the requirement to produce an Annual Report, would it necessarily have surfaced the issues that concern those of us looking in from the outside? It's not possible to interrogate information that is absent from the record, and it takes a well-informed reader to spot the gaps.

To probe the gaps, we suggest that concerned stakeholders go back to the drawing board and take a careful look at the mandate of the National Archives as outlined in the Act.

The National Archives is mandated to:


  • preserve public and non-public records with enduring value for use by the public and the state;

  • make such records accessible and promote their use by the public;

  • ensure the proper management and care of all public records;

  • collect non-public records with enduring value of national significance which cannot be more appropriately preserved by another institution, with due regard to the need to document aspects of the nation's experience neglected by archives repositories in the past;

  • maintain a national automated archival information retrieval system, in which all provincial archives services shall participate;

  • maintain national registers of non-public records with enduring value, and promote co-operation and co-ordination between institutions having custody of such records;

  • assist, support, set standards for and provide professional guidelines to provincial archives services;

  • promote an awareness of archives and records management, and encourage archival and records management activities;

  • generally promote the preservation and use of a national archival heritage.

Taking a leaf from the AGSA's report we'd like to ask the DAC to respond to a simple question: What steps are being taken to ensure that the National Archives delivers on this mandate and when?

In conclusion, the Archival Platform always encourages citizens to ask, 'What's at stake?' This is our take on that question: if the DAC do not address this situation urgently there's a real risk that information will be irredeemably lost. Existing records are endangered and potential records ignored or rendered obsolete. When the archive is inadequate, dysfunctional or closed we lose the resources on which active citizens need to understand the predicament of the present; to make sense of the past; hold government to account and imagine the future. We lose a potentially dynamic public resource and a platform for public deliberation. These are losses our fragile democracy can ill afford.

Jo-Anne Duggan is the Director of the Arcihval Platform

To read the minutes of the meeting at which the AGSA's findings were presented, read the documents, or listen to a recording, see the Parliamentary Monitoring Group Website

To read the minutes of the meeting at which the Minster and Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture presented the annual report, or listen to a recording, see the Parliamentary Monitoring Group website.