Posted on August 2, 2012

In a previous blog, the Brat analysed the fraught relationship between the Nelson Mandela Museum and its former lodger, the Mthatha Archive, a research topic he further evolved into a presentation at the Archives of Post-Independent Africa and its Diaspora Conference, Goree, Senegal, 20-22 June 2012. Still not content, he interviewed five of the key players in the sorry saga, thereby unavoidably coming face-to-face with the horrid, horrid act of transcription. A very brief attempt (30 minutes max) was sufficient to taste its extreme occupational hazards, an act of bravery that sent him reeling between remorseless boredom and the irritable snap and, within the deceptively calm eye of the needle, to give him a goodly taste of those twisted uncertainties that torment the overly-concerned: 'Should one note the emphasis? Are interjections meaningful? The mumble: a chance to skip ahead, or a deciphering challenge? Can a lapse in concentration be compensated for by the ellipse, or will it come back to haunt you as three accusatory dots loaded with unnoted meaning? Worse still, will it force you back to the audio file, in the dead of night?' Yes, this was the reality of the loathsome task, resulting in an immediate outsourcing (costly but gratifying). In a career field renowned for diligence, the transcriber soon rewarded him with reams of lovely text that he could cut, paste and splice together into a document of expert first-hand evidence, analysis and solutions. Here, in this blog, he presents the fruits of his labour as a further step in a situation analysis of the state of Mthatha Archive. (The Brat would like to apologise for constructing something that may resemble a conversion between interviews conducted at different times and places, and requests that you write that off to editorial license.) Part advocacy and part activism, the study is proffered with the optimistic hope that something can be done, immediately, to save the irreplaceable record and, with it, evidence of the Transkei's central role in the first experiments towards the rooting of both British colonialism and the apartheid homeland system. And, he concludes, all this requires is for someone to pick a solution from the many offered by the experts, and manage its implementation. It's not rocket science; it's really just logical packing.

A bureaucratic divorce

Denver Webb: In 1994 I was [appointed as] the first [Eastern Cape] Provincial Director for Museums and Heritage. At the time there was talk about establishing a museum in Mthatha that would house the gifts for Nelson Mandela, [a discussion which] gained momentum when they brought in Gordon Metz.

Gordon Metz: I was [the] Project Director for [establishing the Nelson Mandela] Museum [in the year 2000]. We identified the Bungha Building in Mthatha [which, although] wasn't in great shape, in large parts disused, it was a good building because [of the] symbolism of converting the [seat of parliament of an] ex-homeland government [into] the Mandela Museum. We had to quickly put together a concept.

Denver Webb: There was a huge amount of pressure to get the museum up and running, because that was a political flagship project. People were looking for intermediate, stopgap solutions. [But] nobody really worried about the archives downstairs in the bowels of the Bungha building. [That] was [where they] stayed until the museum was fully established.

Noel Solani: The first time we made a visit to the Bungha, [in] late 1998 or early 1999 [before my appointment as the Head of Programming at the Nelson Mandela Museum], part of it was unused. The archives were there, but abandoned (in the sense that there was no proper care). There was uncertainty [about] where they would go.

Gordon Metz: At [that] time the archives were stored in a dark basement [with] no conservation considerations. As I recall there was nobody supervising it. One of [our] jobs was [to] turn the basement into a proper conservation storage place [for] Mandela's gifts. It wasn't my decision, [but it] was obvious the archives had to move in order for us to renovate the building.

Denver Webb: There was a lot of opposition from some people in Mthatha when it became clear that the building was going to be converted into a museum. They wrote a letter to the Committee, which accused us of seeking to do away with the Transkei identity. (At the time there was [a] movement called the Tenth Province Movement in the Eastern Cape, where people in the Transkei were angling to become a tenth province in the country.)

Gordon Metz: It was my recommendation that the archives get moved out of the building to a safe place, and in [that] process not just dumped [but] properly archived and catalogued and organized. (It was never organized; it was just sitting in cardboard boxes.) And I made a strong recommendation that [they] get moved back. There was clearly space in the basement in this beautifully renovated, very expensive space. My suggestion to the Provincial Department was [that the] Mthatha Archive was indelibly linked to the history of that building, and would add value to the collections and to scholarship.

Denver Webb: But then what seems to have happened is that Gordon [Metz] and others completed their work. A Council and staff were appointed in the museum and they felt that they needed that space to [store] the gifts [given to Mandela]. In that transition [is] when the ball was dropped, and the archives were not brought back again. The Provincial Department, which is ultimately responsible for the archives, didn't really pursue the matter. They didn't come up with alternatives; they preferred to pretend that they were victims rather than solve the problem.

Noel Solani: At the time of handover, an alternative venue for the archive would have been made.

Denver Webb: When these archives were moved [from the Bungha to the building alongside], they just got labourers off the street, temporary workers, and they moved them without any system, without any care. I can't begin to think what must have got lost or damaged in [that] move. It was so casually done.

Qondi Malotana, Head of the Eastern Cape Provincial Archives Service: [The archives were not moved] necessarily because of the museum. The space was already full to capacity; there was need to find alternative accommodation. But because state machinery moves very slowly and also priorities change, it got caught in that crossfire. Government administration has been battling to find a proper space [since then. The archive is now] sharing space at the back [of] the Nelson Mandela [Museum], temporarily housed there. Government is still trying to source funds to build a new archive structure in Mthatha.

Verne Harris: The first encounter I had with this issue would have been February or March of 2001. I was at the time Deputy Director in the National Archives [and, on] a routine inspection in the Eastern Cape I, for the first time, saw with my own eyes what had happened to the materials which had been in the Bungha building. It was unspeakable. I immediately put in a formal report to the National Archivist. What you do in a situation like that is get vehicles, go there and save the material.

Gordon Metz There is no real intrigue here. What this is, is a situation where people running the Eastern Cape, who have the responsibility, need to explain why they haven't found a proper place for the archive.

Qondi Malotana: How am I able to tell, because I am not government? Unfortunately I'm an employee. It may be [even more] years [before] government [is] able to source funding to put up a new structure. I'm not able to control that.

What are the key problems?

Verne Harris: The security systems are not adequate, the fire protection is not adequate, people who work there are not up for the task, they are depressed, there is almost no professional arrangement and description and related functions being performed. It is basically just marking time. It is waiting for an intervention, and that intervention has been a long time coming.

Qondi Malotana: Challenges [include the] case of us having to describe in depth, [and] because of lack of capacity our descriptions are not as yet in depth. We are still at phase 1 of describing what we have, so that you can't say for sure what the person is looking for is not available. Maybe once we get to a stage where we describe by subject we would be able to know exactly what we are keeping.

Quoted under request of anonymity: The Provincial Archive staff were just so inept, they were not able to really perform a proper records management role, they never really went around systematically identifying government records for placement in the archives and, in that situation, the Transkei archives just rotted away in that building in the back.

Qondi Malotana: We are very thin on human resources. Its just that government moves slowly, otherwise the process is on now to revise, to upgrade and expand the organizational structure. We are also struggling because we are a new function. Not many of us are fully trained archivists and record managers.

Verne Harris I left the National Archives in May of 2001. [At my] exit interview [I] listed a number of issues requiring urgent intervention by the National Archivist, and [the state of the Mthatha Archive] was on the list. The National Archivist intervened, and that was probably the most important factor leading to the upgrade. Now the upgrade is not much of an upgrade, but the Eastern Cape is struggling at all kinds of levels; it is not the biggest crisis being faced by Provincial Government. After [a] 12-month period of grace I did start taking up the issue in public forums. That reference in 'A Prisoner in the Garden' [2005, was] one way. I [also] raised it directly with the [Nelson Mandela] Museum, with the Provincial Archives in the Eastern Cape, [and] always in the context of the broader question of what happened, or what is happening, to the archives of the former Bantustan. But there is just [what] I would describe it as an inertia.

Qondi Malotana: [W]e are [lobbying the Eastern Cape government]. Maybe we're not doing it sufficiently. Maybe we need assistance.

Quoted under request of anonymity: The biggest problem is that Eastern Cape Provincial Archives function has never worked properly. The policy was never understood by decision makers. The function was never seen as being important. The staff that they appointed are singularly incompetent. The leadership of the archives component is singularly incompetent [and would] rather find a hundred ways not to do something than one way of making something happen.

Qondi Malotana: Competencies are a challenge. Archives [are] a new function, and the way it is supposed to operate [is] to support government. The memory story is a source from which to run things. At first you must have had things running properly and accurately for them to be able to build an accurate memory, not a distorted memory. That one comes later. At the moment, as we are building this memory, the challenge of capacity is very prime. If you want it to do what its supposed to do, you need administration that is properly run. You need records that must speak to audits. If audits are about how government resources are utilized, there must have been capacity first to make those things run properly, and records is one of them. Government is taking [its] time to respect [that, and] maybe it will realize that records must have integrity, they must have accuracy, they must be available timeously to speak to proper administration. You need people to do it and the capacity to do that is seriously lacking. People can't just do things when they don't know how to do them, and they have to be trained.

A major mistake

Verne Harris: The new National Archives Act came into operation early in 1997, which identified archives as an exclusive competence of provinces. In other words, each province would set up its own Provincial Archive service. What that meant in practice for the National Archives was that it would have to gift to provinces all its offices outside of Gauteng, and then the National Archives would take primary responsibility for assisting provinces - which had no archive all structures in place - to set them up.

Denver Webb: Everybody in government was setting up new systems, new departments, and nobody really understood the significance or the importance of archives. The initial intention was that the Eastern Cape would establish a fully-fledged archival depot [and] I was part of meetings where we were negotiating with the Western Cape to bring back all the Eastern Cape records, [once] the Eastern Cape had a proper facility. That intention didn't last long because the Eastern Cape never really got its archives service up and running.

Verne Harris: Amalgamation and consolidation of structures [in Bantustans] was [also] a complete disaster. National Government declined to give any money to those provinces, which themselves had to cover the costs of setting up the structures [and] the buildings. And these provinces [had] massive challenges in terms of education, health and all the rest of it. Archives just wasn't on the list of priorities. What I really trying to suggest is that the problems in Mthatha have to be seen in a broader context of an archival disaster in our country.

How important is this archive really?

Denver Webb: It tells a very important chapter on the history of the Transkei homeland which, in terms of colonial processes, was at the forefront of experiencing all the initial colonial processes. But also it was at the forefront of the development of the Bantustan system, the homelands; all those things were experimented in the Transkei [first] before they were rolled out to other areas like the Ciskei and Bophuthatswana and Venda. So I think its really critical in that sense. If you just look at the problems [in] that part of the province today, you could make a strong argument for saying that one of the reasons government has not been able to develop the Transkei is [because] they have never really understood what caused the under-development in the first place. You really need to understand the historical processes of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century in order to address the problems. Government never really understood, really analyzed, the historical processes, therefore they were not able to come up with solutions that addressed the real issues in the Transkei.

Loads of solutions; please pick one

Noel Solani: There are many options. [The first is to] improve the conditions of those buildings that the archives are currently in. The second is [the proposal to] move them into the museum. There is [also a third] option: to close down the archives in Mthatha and relocate them to a proper archive in King William's Town. [A] fourth option is relocate [them] to the University of the Transkei, [which] already has conditions for the conservation of paper. All these are possibilities, but all will need certain administrative agreements.

Noel Solani: [From my] personal opinion, I do not see a reason why the archive could not be part of the museum. In terms of the national [and] provincial mandates, there [would] need to be a memorandum of agreement between the two institutions. Because of the separation of powers and mandates, the agreement would need to be between the MEC and the Minister of Arts and Culture, [and] would need to outline the [terms of] use [and] incorporation.

Noel Solani: [Could it be desirable for the museum to inherit the archive?] Take Gerard Sekoto [as an example]. If you have his art pieces you also want to have his history, you want to have his writings, also want to have all the other things related to him. It is a one-stop for research. And everybody wants the material within their institutions to be researched and written about. So is it desirable for the museum to have that material? Yes it is desirable, because it is going to bring prestige to the museum but it is also going to put everything in the museum in context, and what it represents will be understood better. That is desirable.

Noel Solani: If [the archive is lodged in the museum], obviously the museum will do whatever is in its power, as it has done for Nelson Mandela's objects, to ensure that those things are [kept] in good condition. It will [need to] ensure [appropriate] structures for accommodation. It [will need] to get people who are experts in archives. We [need to] prepare the conditions [to] be conducive for the [arrival of the] material. The space will need to be reconfigured. [Finally, if] we inherit the material, it does not necessarily mean [that we] also inherit human resources. [We] will need to get properly qualified [staff] that [are] dynamic.

Gordon Metz: The fact of the matter is that the relocation of the Mthatha archive could significantly revitalise the Nelson Mandela Museum.

Verne Harris: In 2001, when I discovered [that the archive had been moved from the Bungha], my immediate response was [questioning their] move, especially as it didn't seem that the museum needed that space. And I think the question remains that, if the space [is available], why not [move the] records back there? And certainly that would be a solution. And it would address [the] observation that local people from Mthatha are using the archive [mainly in their research of local land claims, border demarcations, and historical and judicial disputes about chieftainship]. [An alternative] immediate solution is to get that collection out of Mthatha, either to Port Elizabeth or to King William's Town where there are acceptable facilities.

Denver Webb: The political prickly pear that they need to grasp is to stop pretending that Transkei records are only important to the Transkei and therefore cannot be moved to a central depot. Whilst politicians are too scared to say [it], there is no more Transkei, and therefore the Transkei records can come to a central point. I think the best thing would be to take all those records to King William's Town. They've got a facility; they've got shelving; they've got strong rooms; they've got humidity and temperature control; they've got a gas system to put out fire… I think they should just move it all down there and then appoint archivists to begin to classify the stuff and catalogue it properly and take stock of what is there (rather than move it to the Bungha which is not under provincial control, [and because that would] be a temporary measure, you'd have to move the stuff again. [Rather] take it straight to King William's Town. They should employ a company that works with archives if they don't have the staff to do it. They should employ a company that is going to treat the stuff with respect.

Verne Harris: In the long-term though, one has to go back to the root causes. I don't believe that South Africa has the capacity to support Provincial Archive services. And my view in the 1990s was that - given the lack of capacity [for] something that would take generations to change, and given the other challenges being confronted by South Africa, you can't create nine new public archive services. We just won't be able to sustain them. The solution is for National Government to take responsibility for Provincial Archives. In other words, it shouldn't be an exclusively provincial competence. A single National Archive with offices in certain centers is the model that we should be looking [towards]. I think it is linked to the broader question of provinces. There are people who are arguing that we shouldn't have Provincial Government at all, and certainly that is [also] my position. [We should have] a National Government and then strong, Local Government. Provincial Government is a disaster from all perspectives.

Brenton Maart is an Archival Platform correspondent