Posted on September 18, 2012
This is the next in a series of posts about the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa. Its focus is the role of the National Archives in addressing the biases and gaps in the inherited archive. It revisits the vision of the National Archives Act no. 43 of 1996 as amended and the founding document of the National Oral History Programme adopted in 2001. It assesses what the current state of the intervention envisioned in these documents is.


An abiding challenge of almost every country emerging out of a period of colonial rule is that its state archives holdings usually are the records of previous governments (where governments existed) and/or of trading companies that governed those areas before the establishment of national boundaries and governments. Such records are commonly thin or even silent on the pasts of peoples who were under the colonial rulers or their proxies who produced such records. Exceptions are in cases where some people entered the colonial record, such as when they rose against colonial authority in whatever form and appeared in court or when they attended government or mission schools. In many cases, 'natives' only entered the record more fully as specimens of what their 'tribes' were like or how their 'tribal' cultures were practiced with the establishment of, in the South African case, departments of Bantu Studies at universities and a state Ethnology Department. Other than this, they were mostly undifferentiated tribal masses as far as colonial records tell us.

The archives in South Africa faced this perennial postcolonial problem in the transition to democracy. Like most other state institutions, the archives had to be re-imagined in order to deal with and overcome the legacies of colonialism and apartheid. The National Archives and Records Service of South Africa Act (Act no. 43 of 1996), as amended by the Cultural Laws Amendment Act 36 of 2001, attempted to foster the archives of the future. Section 3(d) of the Act states, 'The objects and functions of the National Archives shall be to 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' (emphasis added).

The questions to ask at this point are: Is due regard being given to the aspect of the nation's past that was neglected in the past by the archives? What form was this 'due regard' meant to take as envisaged by the Act? That is, what was neglected in the past and what should paying it due regard take entail?

One way of giving substance to the need to change the archives was the establishment of the National Oral History Programme (NOHP). The founding document adopted in September 2001 states, '... the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology (DACST) has been mandated by Cabinet to conceptualise and spearhead National Oral History Programme (NOHP) for South Africa... The Programme seeks to yield information that will be added to the information already existing in the country's archival holdings' ('Background', p. 2). Part of the rationale for such a project is that 'in South Africa, as a result of colonialism and apartheid there are gaps in the public records and public knowledge, which are caused by deliberate omission of African knowledge, technologies, stories and philosophies from the mainstream of South Africa's body of knowledge' (Section 2.1, p. 3). The document goes on to name some of the aims and objectives of the programme as '[t]o assist the communities in retrieving neglected indigenous and community knowledge as a way of promoting social, economic and cultural development...' (5.1, p. 4) and '[t]o promote, co-ordinate, fund and monitor local, regional, provincial and national projects and initiatives in the field of oral history and oral tradition' (5.5, p. 4).

The implementation strategy of the programme entailed co-ordination by a Task Team from the then Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology (DACST); with partners being relevant local, regional, provincial and national structures; and regular reports being submitted to these bodies and to the DACST, as well as a workshop being held annually to evaluate the progress of the Programme (Section 6, p. 5).

Finally, the Programme was going to be considered successful if, among other things, at least fifteen oral history workshops per year were held; at least twenty oral history projects per year were screened, funded and monitored, the National Register of Oral Sources (NAROS) was reviewed and updated, oral history was included in history curricula and textbooks, and a national oral history association was established.

Eleven years after the adoption of the document, what is the status of the National Oral History Programme? What have been its successes and what obstacles and challenges does it face?

Successes: Training, Association, Partnerships and Funding

The NOHS began on a high note with the training of a team from the National Archives in oral history methodology by the Sinomlando Centre in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal along with researchers from other institutions, including the KwaMuhle Museum in Durban. The trainees from the National Archives then ran a pilot project in which they collected the memories of people who participated in or witnessed the 1956 Women's March on the Union Buildings in protest against the requirement for women to carry passes.

In 2004 a move got under way to set up the Oral History Association of South Africa (OHASA). The association was inaugurated in 2005, bringing together a range of oral history practitioners. These practitioners include academics and independent researchers from all walks of life. The Association holds an annual conference, which rotates to the different provinces of South Africa each year. The annual conference is co-funded by the National Archives and the archives service of the province hosting the conference in that year. OHASA and the National Archives have been engaged in establishing collaborations with traditional leaders and politicians in the provinces. Moreover, OHASA has established relationships with the Departments of Traditional Affairs, Education and Tourism. The partnership with the Department of Education entails working with provincial coordinators to conduct oral history training in schools. Each year workshops are also conducted by staff from the National Archives in the provinces where the annual OHASA conference is hosted ahead of the conference. Learners who take part in the workshops are subsequently invited to the conference. Moreover, the Department of Education runs the annual Albert Luthuli Award schools oral history competition. The winner of this national competition gives a presentation at the OHASA conference.

In addition to the activities focused on OHASA, in the early years of its existence, the NOHP screened, funded and monitored one or two projects per year. These were such initiatives one by church members who wanted to document the history of their church. In these projects, staff from the National Archives conducted training in the communities, helped formulate the projects and the kinds of questions to be asked in the investigation, and recorded the interviews. They then took the recordings with them back to Pretoria where they are meant to be archived, duplicated and put onto the NAROS. This process has not been as effective or successful as it could have been. Some of the reasons for the lack of effectiveness and success follow in the next section. Others will become clearer in our focus on the National Film, Video and Sound Archives next month. A project that continues to run is on the history of the Kruger National Park, focusing on its use as a route out of and into the country by underground fighters for liberation.

Due to constraints discussed below, the National Oral History Programme subsequently merged with the Indigenous Music Programme at the Film, Video and Sound Archives. The joint programme runs a travelling exhibition on indigenous music and oral history that is shown at relevant conference around the country.

Challenges: Resources, Resources, Resources

From the above it appears that the Programme is vibrant and is doing significant work in filling in the gaps in the archives. Yet if one scratches the surface, the Programme has not reached the goals that were envisaged in its formulation. Of the anticipated outcomes, OHASA is the most successful. There are even moves to establish regional or provincial associations. Yet OHASA itself faces challenges. The biggest challenge it faces is that it is not yet self-standing and self-sustaining as most professional associations are. Hence the association still draws most of its funding from the very limited budget of the National Archives. The funding of the association's annual conferences by the host provinces is very uneven such that one year the National Archives might be leaned on heavily by OHASA and less so another year.

Funding is also a major challenge for funding of the at least twenty projects per year that were envisaged when the Programme was set up. As mentioned above, only one or two projects are funded per year. The National Archives are simply not allocated enough money to run even their core operations each year, let alone fund a programme that has become as peripheral as the National Oral History Programme has. What is more, the Archives do not have the human resources to screen and monitor any projects they fund. The work falls on two people at the National Archives and another two at the National Film, Video and Sound Archives. Most of the staff trained in the initial stages of establishing the Programme has long moved on to better-paying employment elsewhere, leaving a stretched few who cannot cope with each doing the jobs of three or four people as vacant posts have not been filled for some time. The same two staff members who are meant to be working on the Programme are also responsible for the general marketing of the Archives in line with the National Archives Act that mandates the promotion of the use of the archives. Quite simply, too much is being asked of the staff members.

Another challenge faced by the Programme is that the NAROS has so far stuttered along because of a lack of support from private archives. The shortage of human resources at the National Archives has meant that barely any active work of seeking the involvement or support of private archives in developing the NAROS has been undertaken. The NAROS remains on the list of things those involved in its management wish they had the capacity to work on. This means that the work of collecting non-public records envisaged by the Archives Act is barely being undertaken.

While some work has been done to foster the inclusion of oral history in school curricula and textbooks, largely through the work of academics and activists involved in OHASA, the broadcasting of oral history records on national and local radio and television envisioned at the founding of the Programme has fallen by the wayside altogether.

What is even more alarming eleven years after the establishment of the Programme is that outside of the goals set by the Archives Act and the founding statement on the Programme, a major limitation has been the non-existence of archives in some provinces. The mandate of the National Archives to give policy guidance and set standards for provincial archives cannot be fulfilled. In that way, the National Archives cannot devolve responsibility for the Programme to the provinces where archives do not exist. Even where provinces do have archives, as the Archival Platform's visits to several provinces continue to reveal, these archives are embattled places that are terribly neglected and under-resourced.


While the National Oral History Programme appears to have been a good attempt at addressing a problematic archival inheritance, it seems to have been doomed to fail from the start. Like many projects and institutions we have seen set up in the last decade and a half, the sustainability of the Programme does not seem to have been given much attention. Instead the programme was appended to the National Archives and left to fend for itself. Even more glaring is that the Programme was never properly aligned with the statutory roles and responsibilities of the National Archives in the first place. Hence we have ended up with national archives staff trying to run projects themselves when their role should be to set guidelines and norms, and to archive what material is collected in the provinces.

If we return to section 3(d) of the National Archives Act, what it states is that the objects and functions of the National Archives include collecting non-public records that address the neglect of certain aspects of the nation's experience. Perhaps the focus ought to be on collecting records that have been generated by others (such as people's history, social history, etc. projects that churches, museums, universities and individual researchers have run all over the country). One of the biggest problems currently is that many researches and institutions like the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation sit with a lot of recordings that have never been archived or made accessible to a wider range of users. The National Archives can be of great use in encouraging the archiving of such material and making it more widely accessible.

Given all of the above, we recommend the following:

  • The National Archives reorient the National Oral History Programme to focus on archiving: for example, the Department of Arts and Culture gives funding to organisations for projects that record stories. A case in point is the African Identities initiative of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. The core work of the National Oral History Programme may be to archive the films produced as well as the raw footage from such projects;

  • An audit of oral sources across the country: For NAROS to be successful it is essential to establish what collections exist in the country. A comprehensive audit of collections in provincial and university archives, museums, and those held by individuals would point the way forward. Some university archives, such as the Centre for Popular Memory at the University of Cape Town, have recently published catalogues of their oral source holdings;

  • Lobby support for NAROS: An audit of oral sources in the country would be an opportunity to lobby private holders of oral collection to put them onto NAROS.

To make this work possible, larger structural problems need attention from the Department of Arts and Culture. Jo-Anne Duggan previously made the following recommendations that have an important bearing on the National Oral History Programme: the archives need -

  • Visionary leadership: including a Council that brings the sector's finest minds to bear on leading the institution into the future;

  • A political champion: one who understands that archives play an important role in addressing the country's skewed history and are critical to democratic accountability and who is able to speak out loudly and passionately for archives in policy and decision-making forums at the highest level;

  • Either a massive cash injection: such as the one-off conditional grant given to libraries to facilitate capital projects and capacity building OR a new model / vision for the custodial function of the National Archives;

  • Professional capacity: an expanded corps of archivists, records managers, conservators, information technology staff, etc: with the skills and dedication to deliver a National Archival system that meets the need of the state and its citizens to collect, manage, preserve and make records accessible.

Mbongiseni Buthelezi is the Deputy Director of the Archival Platform