Posted on March 26, 2012
Here's the scenario: hundreds of thousands of people live through a tumultuous period unlike any other in the course of human history. Their experiences are unique, will never be repeated, and would die with them if it were not for the fact that they document their thoughts and deeds, and store these records in a place of safety. Gradually, over a more than a century, the archive transcends its initial function as simple recordings, start to function as evidence or proof, and begin to be used creatively for intelligent and critical understanding: a cornerstone of the evolution of humanity. One day - for reasons that vary from ignorance to disinterest to malice - the records are taken from their place of safety to a location unsuited to their longevity. They are exposed to destructive elements, covered in obscuring layers of dust, rained through and sun-bleached into illegibility. Accessible only to the tenacious, and sometimes not at all, the potential for their interpretation is diminished. On a number of levels, these invaluable recordings are lost forever.

This could be the scenario at the Eastern Cape provincial government archives in Mthatha, one of the three legislated custodians of documents of how ideological oppression wrenched apart Xhosa families, communities and societies, leaving in its wake disjointedness, dislocation, instability, and sometimes a poverty of spirit and purse from which recovery is difficult. The archive - initiated during the expansion of British colonialism, continued through the era of apartheid's Transkei and into a time of post-liberation - was initially housed in the Bhunga Building, a structure built in 1927 in the Late Edwardian ‘Administrative' style and which remained its home until the year 2000. Up until then, its location in the basement strong room afforded it the conditions required for a collection of records of this elevated stature. In the year 2000, when the building was re-assigned as one of the three sites of the Nelson Mandela Museum (the others being at Qunu, Mandela's home town, and Mvezo), the archive was moved into a wholly inadequate structure alongside where the natural elements combined with a generally depressed atmosphere - characterised by a deficient logic and limited capacity - to create a situation shocking in its near complete lack of consideration for records conservation. This initially temporary measure has dragged on for nearly 12 years, and the archive is currently in an advanced state of degradation.

The Mthatha archive is one of three within the Eastern Cape Province. However, unlike the historically established but limited collection of the Port Elizabeth repository, or the relatively new head centre in Kingwilliamstown (formed after 1994), the Mthatha archive is unique in its holdings dating back to the 1800s.

The objectionable condition of the Mthatha archive may be partly explained by the convoluted shifts in legislation and responsibility over the past 100 years. In their 'Review of Heritage Legislation' (2007), the Heritage Agency notes that the foundations for the Mthatha archives would date back to 1876 with the Cape Government commission to control public records in South Africa. This was followed by a series of laws which moved the custodianship between provincial and national structures, and various ministries: the Public Archives Act 6 of 1922 called for the provincial decentralization of archive services whist still lodging their responsibility with central government; the Archives Act 22 of 1953 transferred custodianship to the Chief Archivist of the Union; the Archives Act 6 of 1962 moved the portfolio to the Ministry of Education, Arts and Science, which established, according to the Heritage Agency (2007) a number of 'interim depots'. This Act was amended in a number of shifts, but until the 1980s still maintained central control of the four provincial archives, whilst archives in the apartheid homelands were left to function independently (governed by homeland legislation). In 1994, the National Archives and Records Service was lodged with the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. The National Archives of South Africa Act 43 of 1996 devolved archival functions to the provinces with support from a national structure. The Cultural Laws Amendment Act 36 of 2001 created the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa Act. This fluctuating legislation understandably caused a confusion exacerbated by the movement of records between colonial repositories, later between apartheid and homeland repositories, and more recently between national and provincial responsibilities.

This is the context from which the Mthatha archive has emerged, uprooted from its home in the Bhunga Building, and left to sink into tatters and ruin. It is especially ironic that an evident lack of value of these records has come about partly because of the transformation of the Bhunga Building into the Nelson Mandela Museum.

Nokwezi Ganya, Assistant Manager at the Kingwilliamstown archive, worked at the Mthatha archive from 1983, until she assisted in its relocation from the Bhunga in 2002. Ganya notes in an interview (2011) that, 'The area that was now identified was very small. There was no office space for the officers, there was no reading room area, and it's still like that. We created a space in the passage for people to access the records, but it is not friendly. There is no air conditioning. I don't remember seeing any fire extinguishers… It's almost like [being moved] to a shack.' Today, the environmental conditions at the archive means that, 'We keep on restoring the records that are in Mthatha, and returning them back to Mthatha, for them to be destroyed, again. We are destroying the same records that we are supposed to be preserving'. Identifying and reporting these shortcomings has yielded no action, and Ganya notes that, 'We made those recommendations three years in a row, and I do not see any point of submitting [them] again.'

The Bhunga building is currently undergoing yet a further renovation and expansion, whilst its former charge continues to whither. It may help, now, to examine just how the assignation of heritage status to the Bhunga, and its consequent benefits, stand in stark contrast to the lack of value afforded the archive.

In my travels through the apartheid homeland of Transkei, the Bhunga building remains a rare and beautiful find. An aerial photograph from 1938 (from the archive of National Geo-Spatial Information, Surveys & Mapping) shows the structure located in a prime position in Mthatha, the city that today serves as the vital contemporary epicenter to the deeply rural countryside of the Eastern Cape Province. The historic photograph highlights the building in its intimate proximity to the early architectural accouterments of British colonial expansion: the grid-referenced town plan, the central square, the town hall, the magistrates court, the Anglican cathedral, the river-fronted park, the commonage, the pavements for perambulations.

The Surveyor General Diagram (from the strong room of the Deeds Office, Mthatha, 1894) shows the erven granted by the Crown Colony to the (then) Umtata municipality, and it was thus, in the town established in 1876, that the Bhunga obtained the land upon which it was to be built in 1927 to accommodate the increasing need for council chambers and offices for the Transkeian Territories General Council, the colonial government bureaucracy that presided over the area. In this way, the origin of the Bhunga building is intertwined with the relationship between early colonial politics and its African context, a complexity that manifests in the Bhunga's matador's dance between form and function.

These are the facts as found by William Martinson in his meticulously referenced document that examines, not only the colonial origins of the Bhunga building, but also its shifts through apartheid and post-apartheid, and into its current assignation. Martinson is an architect and architectural conservationist with Osmond Lange Architects and Planners, and the author of 'The Bhunga Building: A Heritage Impact Assessment' (2010) prepared as a precursor to the museum upgrade currently underway. His document is rich with archival illustration, and he maximizes on the diversity of material and its sources. William Cullen Library at the University of the Witwatersrand, for example, provides the photograph of the 1909 Annual Session of the TTGC held in the former St. James' Church, as evidence of the increased need for space that accompanies colonial bureaucratic expansion. Architects Cordeaux, Farrow & Stocks are exhumed by examining their blueprints for the original building, their neoclassical colonial allegiances mirrored by their columns, domes and symmetrical order. Archives of correspondence demonstrate the seemingly exclusive contribution of British engineers and construction companies. The archives of the local 'Daily Dispatch' newspaper offers evidence of that ever-popular ceremonial laying of the foundation stone, incised with text as the mark of colonial indelibility, whilst an archive of correspondence reveals a telegram from General Smuts as a congratulatory harbinger of things to come.

Arrogant pride is demonstrated in the meticulousness with which the colonial project documented and archived its endeavours, evidence that Martinson delights in unfurling to provide telling detail of people, their aspirations and emotions. Proceedings and special proceedings, reports and annual reports give more than just facts: they weave for the reader a feel for that time. But it is especially in the nuanced way Martinson uses the archives of photographs that he is able to show that the physical qualities of the Bhunga, its architectural persona, were essential in the enactment of colonial principles.

The alterations and additions of 1934 heralded the merger of the TTGC and the Pondoland General Council into the United Transkeian Territories General Council, and Martinson uses this as a turning point from which to map how architectural changes reflected the needs of the changing political bureaucracy. He uses archival information from sources ranging from the international to the local - from the Smithsonian Institution, to the South African National Library, to the uncatalogued photo collection of the Mthatha archives - to guide the reader to the 1947 visit to the Bhunga by Gideon Brand van Zyl, the Governor-General of the Union of South Africa, as yet a further indication of the impending disaster of Afrikaner nationalism.

In 1956 the UTTGC, in turn, was disbanded in favour of the Transkeian Territorial Authority, a precursor for the granting of self-government to Transkei in 1961. This year also witnessed the commissioning of a series of as-built drawings (archived by the Mthatha Department of Public Works) in preparation for the building's second major extension in 1963, also the year that saw the disbanding of the TTA and the election of the Transkei Legislative Assembly, a gathering of the first major steps of apartheid, traditional chieftancy and a half-hearted nod to skewed democracy. As with the earlier colonial foundation stone, this ceremony was accompanied by the installation of a commemorative plaque that linked the new extensions of the building to the granting of self-governance to the Transkei. As befitted this political shift, the honour of designing the new extension was transferred from the British to the Afrikaner male.

In 1976 Transkei was granted full 'independence' from South Africa, and the Bhunga became the Parliament of the Republic of Transkei with Paramount Chief K D Matanzima installed as President. In 1994, after the fall of apartheid and before the return of the homeland to a South Africa ruled by the ANC, the building had a brief stint as local and district offices. In the year 2000, the building was assigned to the Nelson Mandela Museum.

More recently, the building has been emptied in preparation for further major refurbishment and additions, and the Martinson report forms the first step of a process that has informed Impendulo Design Architects. The renovation is currently underway, while the degradation of the Mthatha archives continues just next door… Qondi Malotana, Manager of the Eastern Cape Archive and Records Services, summarizes the challenges (in an interview in 2011) as follows: 'At the moment we are battling. We are very thin on the ground by way of staff [and] because we are a new function; we are also battling to build capacity.' Not many of us are fully trained archivists and records manager - We are still at phase 1 of describing what we have, so that you can't say for sure that 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.

Martinson's Heritage Impact Assessment does not discuss the Bhunga home of the Mthatha archive, not its relocation. This is possibly because the building is governed by the National Heritage Resources Act of 1999, whilst the archive is governed by the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa Act 43 of 1996 and the Cultural Laws Amendment Act 36 of 2001 (which allows the Public Protector to investigate unauthorized destruction of records otherwise protected under the Act). Thus it is understandable that slippages subsequently may have occurred. It is concerning, though, that Martinson was unaware that the archive had originally been housed in the Bhunga. He notes that, if he had known, he would 'have followed that line of enquiry and described another aspect of the complex history of the building'. This raises the question, then, as to whether there are principles of conservation, heritage and value that may be applied equally to the building and to the archive. Martinson notes that, 'Conservation relates to protecting valuable historic resources [and that] these principles apply equally to a building as a resource as they do to a fragile historic document. His comment is certainly in keeping with the National Heritage Resources Act that may interpret the Bhunga's earlier co-function - as home to the archive - as part of it's cultural heritage, and worthy of conservation. Thus, the current condition of the Mthatha highlights not only the gaps in the legislation and the lack of implementation and policing of the Acts governing South African archives, but also the fact that the disintegration of the records may be in direct contravention of the NHRA. It seems that there are two options. The first is the immediate construction of a new archive building, a possibility rendered unlikely, for a number of reasons. Malotana (2011) outlines the second option: 'Maybe we need a lobbying programme [to lobby] for proper structures.'

If we were to take up this challenge in the most desirable, possible and appropriate manner, it would be to lobby for the reintroduction of the archive back to its original home, an action that would be a giant leap forward toward fulfilling the Nelson Mandela Museum's faceted mandates of custodianship and conservation, and of research and public access to an invaluable an irreplaceable collection of South African heritage, one that tells a wholly more complete story of the ancestral home of one of the world's most loved and respected icons of freedom.

Brenton Maart is an Archival Platform correspondent.