Posted on February 4, 2013

The Archival platform has received this rather disturbing communication about the State of archives held by the Deeds Office in Cape Town. The writers, who visited the Deeds Office to research historical property records have asked that the piece by published under a non-de-plume.

After a recent visit to the Deeds Office (DO), at No. 90 Plein Street Cape Town, we left feeling frustrated, shocked and depressed at the state of its archive and strong rooms. Upon arrival at the entrance to the building, one has to sign in with security in the lobby and thereafter with security at the entrance to the DO. However because we were together, only one of us was asked to sign in at both security points. At the public desk, on the 13th floor, we asked to go to the storage rooms and were given permission to do so as long as a search slip was completed and initialled by desk staff. We went to a few storage rooms and were at liberty to roam through files, and if we had desired take photographs or even remove documents. The lack of security and surveillance was not the only surprising issue that we encountered.

Conditions in the storerooms are equally shocking. For example, the Co2 system appeared to be dysfunctional, the fire alarms are defunct and the fire escape door is locked and the key stored away. The water-piping in the rooms is unstable, water stains appear on the walls, shelves are covered with dust, and rubbish (cool drink bottles, sandwich wrappers and pieces of paper) litters some of the rooms.

Most troubling of all the problems we identifies is the state of the DO's digitisation process. Volumes of material are no longer on the shelves and the (now unbound) volumes that are returned to the shelves have been vacuum packed (though in many cases the seal is broken), while others are apparently being held in a storage unit in Paarden Island waiting to be scanned (or digitised) apparently without the presence of a conservation specialist. This is a dangerous, depressing and worrying state of affairs for the future of the DO records.

This DO, and others across the country, house a number of valuable documents pertinent to the country's heritage. If these are not carefully conserved and managed the material will deteriorate and eventually disappear and the information they contain will be irredeemably lost, leaving a void in the historical record of South Africa's past. This has huge implications for the work of archaeologists, archivists, anthropologists, curators, educators, film makers, geologists, heritage practitioners, historians, lawyers, learners, property professionals, sociologists and the public at large.

Deeds Offices - A Brief Overview

There are ten Deeds Offices in South Africa with the head office in Pretoria. The others are in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pietermaritzburg, Bloemfontein, Kimberley, Vryburg, Mpumalanga, King William's Town and Umtata. Each operate independently of each other and are tasked with the registration and management of deed information for their specific area.

A Deeds Office is a government office tasked with maintaining public records and documents, especially those relating to real estate ownership such as deeds, transfer of estates, freehold and quitrent grants, survey diagrams and maps amongst other things. The amount of history and heritage than can be unearthed at the DO is vast. Local researcher Kathy Schulz explains the valuable material housed at the DO in Cape Town:
'I could happily spend weeks and weekends in the Deeds Office - all that information, the name of the purchaser, the names of the neighbours, and the fascination of knowing that this place had already been named before it was registered.' (Places at the Cape, p. 94)

In the Cape Town DO's collection, property records from the earliest land grants at the Cape (at the time of its occupation by the Vereenigde Oost-Indiesche Compagnie [VOC] in the 1660s) to the present and a large amount of maps and plans can be found. The first grants in freehold at the Cape were signed in 1657. This material can be complemented with other sources, including survey diagrams that can be obtained from the Surveyor- General's Office (SGO) in the same building and records in the Western Cape Archives repository in Roeland Street.

The duties of registrars of deeds are not limited to the registration of titles to land and mortgages over land. Today the registrars are enjoined by legislation to register grants, transfers, various certificates of title to land, mortgage and notarial bonds, and various transactions affecting such bonds, servitudes, ante nuptial contracts, deeds of donation, powers of attorney, Land Bank and Government charges, usufructs, rights to minerals, leases including Land Settlement Leases, prospecting contracts and mynpachten (mining leases). In other words an office of record is an office which is responsible for documents which require special treatment in order to ensure that the authenticity and legality of the contents cannot be questioned. Generally the custody of such records is assigned to a specific functionary by legislation.

There are three major pieces of legislation related to the preservation of historic paper, namely the National Archives Act (NAA), the Deeds Registry Act and the National Heritage Resources Act. The Deeds Office is regulated by the Deeds Registries Act (Act No. 47 of 1937 as amended) and it takes precedence over the National Archives and Records Service of SA Act (Act No.43 of 1996, as amended) insofar as the transfer of records into archival custody is concerned. The National Archives Act provides in section 11(2) as follows: Public records identified in a disposal authority as having enduring value shall be transferred to an archives repository when they have been in existence for 20 years: Provided that (a) no other Act of Parliament requires such records to be kept in the custody of a particular governmental body or person. Section 3(a) of the Deeds Registries Act, No. 47 of 1937, provides as follows: The Registrar shall subject to the provisions of this Act, take charge of and, except as provided in subsection (2) or (3), preserve or cause to be preserved all records which were prior to the commencement of this Act, or may become after such commencement, records of any deeds registry in respect of which he has been appointed'. Subsection (3) authorizes the registrar to preserve copies of documents for record purposes instead of the originals. The copies can be produced by microfilming or means of any other durable process. There is no specific provision for conserving and archiving the original documents.

The measure of control which registry offices possess over its own records is further illustrated by the following provisions:

(a) Section 3(y): The registrar has to keep such registers containing such particulars as are necessary for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of the Act or any other law and maintaining an efficient system of registration calculated to afford security of title and ready reference to any registered deed. The nature of the documents to be registered in registry offices is stipulated in section 3 of the Act:

(i) Grants or leases of land issued by the Government or other competent authority.
(ii) Deeds of transfer of land and certificates of title to land.
(iii) Mortgage bonds.
(iv) Notarial bonds.
(v) Ante-nuptial contracts.
(vi) Notarial deeds of donation.
(vii) Grants or leases of rights to minerals issued by the government.
(viii) Notarial cessions, leases or sub-leases of rights to minerals.
(ix) Mynpachtbrieven.
(x) Personal or land servitudes.
(xi) Notarial leases.
(xii) Notarial prospecting contracts.
(xiii) Real rights.
(xiv) General plans of erven or subdivision of land.
(xv) Powers of attorney.
(xvi) Recording of notices, returns, statements or orders of court lodged in terms of any law.
(xvii) Orders of liquidation or sequestration.
(xviii) Registrations, modifications, extinctions and cessions of the above, where authorized.

The Deeds Registries Act clearly gives the Registrar of Deeds the responsibility to take charge of and to preserve certain categories of records described in section 3 of the Act. Only records not covered by section 3 of the Deeds Registry Act are subject to the records management requirements of the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa Act for example, normal correspondence created or received by the Deeds Office in its pursuance of its activities filed according to its approved file plan. The latter should be handled according to the records management requirements stipulated in section 13 of the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa Act.

In terms of records which are defined as public records in terms of the National Archives Act, it is the policy of the National Archives that all records in paper format dated before 1910 are archival in nature and are not subject to the normal appraisal process. Due to the age of the records it can safely be assumed that their intrinsic value far exceeds the value of the information they contain.

In her article, published on the Archival Platform in March this year, Dr. Antonia Malan explains that the National Archives are not directly responsible for the preservation of records of certain government sections (such as offices of record) which includes Parliament, the Deeds Office and Surveyor-General's Office, since their holdings are not 'public records' as defined in the NAA. The NAA is subservient to the Deeds Registry Act. The National Heritage Resources Act does not apply either. In the subsection describing categories of paper-based 'heritage objects' (for example books, records, documents and photographs), it states that 'public records' (as defined in terms of the NAA) are specifically excluded from the national estate. An office of record (or registry) guarantees that the legality of the contents of documents cannot be questioned, and that the DO Registrar is responsible for 'preserving' (but not conserving) relevant records. Despite the National Archives' understanding that 'all records in paper format dated before 1910 are archival in nature', the DO Registrar does not have an integrated conservation management plan on how to handle historic documents in heritage conservation terms.

Another major problem with the current digitisation process is that digital images do not reproduce the physical resource. All the records relating to the same property or issue will no longer be directly associated with each other (as is the case with a bound volume) or with a sequence of transfers (tracking from volume to volume), which hampers the research process. Malan elaborates:



'Thus, the value and usage of records by those who seek verification of an official event or action is very different to those who research them for clues to human behaviour or historical processes, e.g. a conveyance's clerk vs. a land claims researcher. The former can download schematic redrawn versions of title deeds online and then go to the originals to simply follow the trail of ownership. What, where, when, what conditions? The latter inspects in detail the entire corpus of interrelated and interfiled document(s) with the understanding that the context(s) in which they are made, amended, preserved and queried is mutable and must be interrogated and interpreted. What, where, when, who, how and why?'

Although the bulk of sources and documents are housed in this building some records have gone missing over time. This was first noted by historian Leon Hattingh in the late 1970s. The DO is not unique in this regard, missing documents is a problem that faces most archives, and now National and Provincial archives are equipped with surveillance cameras. The DO has none and no human resources to ensure that material is not removed. In fact, the whole digitisation process does not seem to be monitored by internal staff. Whether or not the Anderson Group is monitoring the movement of documents remains a mystery at this stage. Digitisation - scanning - is problematic in itself to which this article now turns.

Storage methods, conserving paper and the question of digitisation

Storage methods to record registry entries include paper, microfilm and scanned copies stored on a computer. The SGO's office has computerised data for a number of years but the DO has only recently commenced with this process. According to the Department of Land Affairs' Annual Report for 2005 deeds registries at six centres started to convert from dual-head microfilm cameras to digital scanners for use in archiving by microfilm. The decision that prompted this was explained by the then Agriculture and Land Affairs Minister Thoko Didiza:


"As these items [dual-head microfilm cameras] are no longer being manufactured, replacement is impossible ... which will eventually culminate in the digitisation of all deeds registry archives as part of the department's proposed scanning solution ... the filming of records (including title deeds) will be replaced by a scanning process while the scanned images will still be converted to microfilm format for archiving purposes."

The decision to digitise was made at national level without consultation with the National or Provincial Archives Services and without a Conservation Management Plan. This daunting task has been outsourced to the Anderson Group which transports the records to its storage facility in Paarden Island for scanning without the supervision of a qualified conservationist. Malan stresses three main issues with this process: responsibility, accessibility and damage. She elaborates:


(1) Responsibility. In terms of both the Archives Act and the Deeds Registration legislation, it seems that, at the least, this is tantamount to extreme neglect and irresponsibility in heritage resource management practice, if not an illegal act. For example, in terms of the Deeds Office requirements (sections 2 & 3), the Registrar of Deeds is responsible for ensuring old fragile documents are managed, copied and cared for by the Archives. In terms of the Archives Act (section 9 Records Management), "no public record under the control of a governmental body may be transferred to an archives repository, destroyed, erased or otherwise disposed of without the written authorisation of the Head of the Service". On enquiry, officials at the National Archives Service, the Western Cape Provincial Archives Service, the SGO and the DO have each failed to consider or acknowledge responsibility for protecting the documents.
(2) Access. But even more serious, crucial records are being taken out of public access for an unknown period (anticipated to be two years), and this makes property research impossible. The current agreement between government and the scanning company is that DO documents will not be returned to the strong rooms, but kept in storage and retrieval will be managed in a Paarden Island warehouse. Researchers have been told that if they require to see a document, they must apply and it will be retrieved and brought back to the DO for viewing within a week if not longer.
(3) Damage. The implications for document conservation are horrendous. Concerns about damage and loss have been expressed by researchers and conveyancer's clerks. Damage to the documents is inevitable as volumes have to be unbound or flattened, and already general plans are being returned to the SGO with tears.

Among conservationists, today, there is a debate whether to scan or not, although scanning is generally favoured as a preservation tool because as documents are less likely to be exposed to harmful light and heat. The scanned copies can then be kept as reference material for researchers to handle, and the original be kept in and managed according to archival/museum principles. An archival box, with acid-free tissue paper and interleaving loose papers is desirable. This is does not appear to be happening at the DO. Furthermore, if researchers can ask for original volumes to be brought out of storage, trucked to the DO and then returned again, what is the purpose of archiving them?

As alluded to earlier, the scanning process is one of many problems at the DO. Despite an improved and more friendly public help desk system and a few helpful and informed individuals. Through our casual interactions with staff members and users and our observations on our visits over time we have identified a number of challenges: staff morale is low; there seems to be a lack of communication between upper management and other staff; many staff members are inexperienced and / or under-trained; security and surveillance systems are poor; inventories are inadequate and storage conditions are deplorable and there does not appear to be

We have a number of suggestions that might assist the DO to remedy the situation before it reaches crisis point: 

  • The development of an integrated conservation management plan (ICMP) would provide a framework and strategy to ensure that the DO operates effectively as the receiver of and custodian of deeds. Valuable and delicate records require both short and long-term management strategies including the provision of controlled environments and improved storage facilities. We know that concerned practitioners would be willing and eager to assist in this process.

  • A SWOT analysis should be undertaken to identify priority areas and highlight long term conservation issues. Various conservation principles including but not limited to minimal intervention and authenticity is critical to conserve this important tangible paper based heritageA detailed and sound Disaster Management Plan should be prepared to spell out various strategies to prevent disaster and to enhance the security of the collection and ensure its survival for future generations.

  • Clear staff development programmes and professional training in heritage, management and conservation may ease the vulnerabilities that staff members encounter on a daily basis.

To reiterate it is shocking and depressing that records held in trust by a government department should be in such a state of disarray. We would like to know who should be called to account for this dismal state of affairs? DO management and staff, the national Archives, or any other branch of government? We would alos like to know how to alert the relevant officials and urge the government to intervene before it is too late and our heritage is rendered inaccessible and ultimately irretrievable?


C. Cornell and A. Malan, Places at the Cape: A Guidebook for Beginner Researchers, (Historical Studies Department, University of Cape Town, 2008)
Integrated Conservation Management Plan, 2007 - 2012, Robben Island Museum
Burra Charter: Conservation of Places of Cultural Significance', Article 3, Australia, ICOMOS, 1999 (accessed 20/11/2012)

The authors of this post are professional researchers who make regular use of the records in the care of the Deeds Office and other archival repositories.

C. Cornell and A. Malan, Places at the Cape: A Guidebook for Beginner Researchers, (Historical Studies Department, University of Cape Town, 2008)
Integrated Conservation Management Plan, 2007 - 2012, Robben Island Museum
Burra Charter: Conservation of Places of Cultural Significance', Article 3, Australia, ICOMOS, 1999 (accessed 20/11/2012)

NOTE: This post was sent to the national and provincial departments for comment in December, and again in January. No acknowledgement of our communication has been received to date.