Posted on October 20, 2011
State archives are primarily tasked with preserving and making accessible the record of government, its departments, agencies and institutions. They are not neutral storehouses of documents. Like any other arm of government, they reflect the interests of those who hold power and they are susceptible to political pressure from those who seek to safeguard a particular set of interests, promote a specific agenda or entrench a circumscribed version of the past. But, they are our primary source of information, both now and in the future, about government and its doings.

Our national archives are in a woeful state: inadequately resourced, under-capacitated, lacking in visionary leadership and with little evidence of the political will required to turn the tide of disinterest and decay, they are simply unequal to discharging their legislated responsibilities, let alone driving transformation or re-invigorating a dispirited sector.

It must be acknowledged that progress has been made in putting in place the policies and programmes required to address the previously marginalised area of indigenous knowledge systems and to validate and preserve the memory of the liberation struggle. But little has been done to preserve or revive the record of our remote, pre-colonial past, the archive of black intellectual history, other formative voices that have been excluded form the narration of our county’s history; the disavowed histories of the struggle, and the complex set of records that evidences civil action in response to issues of service delivery, healthcare and access to information? These archives sit elsewhere, in often precarious conditions, out of the public eye.

When the archive is inadequate, dysfunctional or closed we lose the resource on which we depend to understand the predicament of the present; to make sense of the past; and to plan for the future. Blinded by the political rhetoric of the day, and with no access to the evidence required to counter it, we run the risk of losing sight of alternative notions of past and future.

What can civil society organisations do to address these problems? Civil society organisations have an important role to play in shifting the perception of archives from that of an inert repository to a place of robust engagement: keeping the debate about the archives in the public eye: surfacing the questions; raising public awareness of the role and value of the archive, particularly in relation to social justice, the processes of reconciliation, redress and social cohesion and the exercise of democratic government; facilitating organised, effective public engagement and intervention in the public interest wherever questions of archive are involved; playing a role in developing pro-active citizens empowered to draw on the archive as a resource for interrogating the past, shaping the present and imagining the future and; drawing attention to the archive as a site of power, engagement and public deliberation.

In a democratic state, with a constitutional commitment to accountable government, administrative justice and access to information, civil society organisations have a duty of care to keep a vigilant eye on the activities of the state: to ensure that the records of government are adequately kept and managed and that they are safely preserved.

Even the best kept records are of little consequence if they are not open and accessible. At a time when access to information is under threat, civil society organisations have a critical role to play in ensuring that citizens have reasonable access to the records they require to hold government to account, exercise their democratic rights, support public discourse and engage with the past.

Where any of government’s responsibilities are neglected or wilfully ignored for whatever reason, when rights are transgressed or information suppressed, civil society organisations have an additional duty to raise the alarm, sound the warnings, advocate rigorously for policy change and institutional reform and take action to safeguard fundamental human rights and freedoms

What of the records of civil society? Civil society organisations have a critical role to play in establishing new archives and in ensuring that areas that are under-represented in archival collections are attended to; unlike state archives, civil society organisations can take custody of dissident voices, elements of our history that are politically unpalatable and aspects that are otherwise denied, disavowed, kept secret, suppressed, demonised or simply considered to be inconsequential. Civil society archives function as place of repository for material documenting work done, and causes fought by activist organisations and they hold safe the material that is not being gathered together elsewhere or through any other means. This is becoming increasingly important as media coverage is skewed and information deliberately withheld from public scrutiny.

Civil society organisations have risen to the challenge: the South African History Archive (SAHA) and Historical Papers at the University of the Witwatersrand are playing an important role in collecting and making accessible the endangered records of ant-apartheid groups and the labour movement, conducting oral history interviews to record information not captured in the documentary record and in ensuring that access to information is kept open. The Visual History Archive is digitising important collections and making these publicly accessible in innovative ways. The Archival Platform is keeping the issue of archives in the public eye and provoking the sector to think critically about its actions.

While these organisations are doing good work, they are presently dependent, for their existence on donor funding and the contributions in kind of the institutions to which they are attached. The question is, what measure can be taken to ensure that they are sustained, and thrive, in the future? It might be argued that these organisations that contribute to the national archival project should be drawn formally into the national archival system and funded accordingly. While this might be possible in other parts of the world, the mechanisms to do this have not been established in South Africa. Funding for projects like these may be accessed through the Department of Arts and Culture's funding agency, the National Heritage Council, but this is allocated in terms of government priorities. While the civil society organisations may qualify for special project funding they would still be reliant on other sources for funding of core operations and might find their critical voices compromised! Funding might be made available through the National Lottery Distribution Agency but this too is subject to a government lead agenda and disbursement is unreliable. Funding from other donor agencies such as the European Union is also granted subject to organisations meeting clearly identified objectives. Academic institutions are generous in their support in kind, providing services and facilities to support the work of the civil society organisations, but in the face of financial constraints unable to offer additional funding, especially for activities that do not confirm to their definition of 'core business'. Ideally, what is required is a complete overhaul of the national archival system to take into account the wider archival landscape and to embrace the care of 'marginalised' archives; the development of an energetic, skilled corps of archival workers able to insist on and maintain adequate standards of care and management and; an informed citizenry prepared and able to hold government to account for sustaining a vibrant and dynamic archive.

Jo-Anne Duggan is the director of the Archival Platform