A Ground of Struggle: Four decades of Archival Activism in South Africa
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This Report was commissioned in 2015 by the Atlantic Philanthropies, who, for nearly two decades, funded projects that combined activism and archiving in South Africa. The commission was designed as a contribution to assessing the scope and impact of activist archiving in post-1994 South Africa and to illuminating the contexts within which Atlantic Philanthropies’ support took place. In the course of the research for the commission a new wave of archival activism gathered force in South Africa that shifted its purpose beyond Atlantic’s original brief. The commission was given to the Archival Platform, an organisation funded from its inception in 2009 until 2016 by Atlantic Philanthropies.
The Archival Platform’s Report, State of the Archives: an analysis of South Africa’s national archival system, also funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, was published in March 2015. The analysis concluded that, simply put, the system is in trouble and not able to deliver on its mandate.In the face of these problems, the archive work done by activists in civil society is especially critical. The Archival Activism Report shifts focus from the national archival system, looking at democratic and social justice efforts concerning archives that lie outside the national archival system, making it a vital complement to the 2015 Report.
The Archives Activism Report is intended, firstly, to provide an overarching assessment of the scope, state and effects of archival activism and the ways archival activism has shaped public debate and had an impact on perceptions of nationhood and citizenship over the last two decades. Secondly, the new Report highlights the important work done by a small cluster of archival activists in relation to the challenges of reconciliation, social cohesion, social justice and memory building, and the development of political accountability, pointing both to where their reach is constrained, and to the significant impact of the release of strategic records into the public domain. Finally, the Report reflects on what political developments in the three years immediately prior to the Report mean for archival activity, assesses the capacity available to address this, and considers where additional support or initiatives are required.
The Archival Platform views the assessment as a timely exercise in the kind of evaluation needed to respond to increasingly forceful challenges to established archives and archival practices, the problems of unaddressed legacies of political damage, and demands on records to ensure democratic accountability. These are challenges and demands that are especially sharply etched in SouthAfrica, but discernible in many settings across the globe. The Report thus has a relevance beyond South Africa. It is Atlantic Philanthropies’ wish that the Report be used to promote public discourse about the important work of archives in relation to issues like social justice and political accountability and to act as a source of information for archivists, educational institutions, the media and the general public. The Report further presents an opportunity for stock-taking by the various activist entitles discussed. The Platform itself has used the Report as an opportunity to reassess its own activism.