Toward an understanding of archives as a feature of collective memory
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- Josias, A. Arch Sci (2011) 11: 95. doi:10.1007/s10502-011-9136-3
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This paper reviews important aspects of the literature on collective memory, how some of these concerns have been expressed in archives, and contemplates how these issues relate to the politically transformative South African post-apartheid context. It highlights the erosion of boundaries between archives, museums, and other less-institutionalized memory projects in post-apartheid South Africa. It notes ways in which archival activity is taking place outside of traditional archives, as part of a changing and evolving memory landscape. It acknowledges the significant gaps in the written record that are a result of apartheid practices and cites different approaches that were overlooked by apartheid’s official archival systems. This paper offers a way of contemplating the ‘social constructedness’ of collective memory and the social and political dimensions of archives.
KeywordsCollective memory Social memory Personal testimonies Political transformation Politics of memory South Africa
The memory studies literature demonstrates that there are many things that can be said about collective memory. The topic has been debated, deconstructed, and given multiple meanings over the past 20-plus years. This is quite evident in politically transforming environments where a “singular” view of collective memory that tends toward the creation of “a stifling homogenous nationhood” no longer holds sway (Asmal and Roberts 1996, p. 9).
The complexity of collective memory comes from its analysis across several disciplines, wide-ranging interpretations and definitions, and many categorizations. Observations from collective memory scholarship include the metaphorical versus literal uses of collective memory; debates about the role of collective memory as serving the present or the past and acknowledgment of a more dynamic relationship between present and past (Coser 1992, p. 28); its interchangeable use and often blurry distinctions with terms, such as, social memory, public memory, cultural memory, popular memory, historical memory, living memory, narrative memory, official memory, public history, lived experience, national heritage, and collective remembrance (Zelizer 1995; See also Coombes 2003); the perspective that individual memory cannot be separated from collective memory and that all memory is evoked within a social context (Halbwachs 1992; See also Zelizer 1995); memory’s relationship to history (Cubitt 2007; Nora 1989; Wilkinson 1996; Zelizer 1995); questions and controversies on the authenticity of memory (Said 2000; Soyinka 2000); the politics of memory—including how far back collective or group memory should go, its damaging and/or divisive aspects, and its role as a form of reparations for previously marginalized groups (Soyinka 2000); and memory’s relationship to issues of “identity, nationalism, power and authority” (Said 2000, p. 176).
Misztal’s (2003) classification of social remembering into “presentist”, “popular”, and “dynamics of memory” approaches further captures the debates that have pervaded the literature. The presentist view has been associated with Hobsbawm and Ranger’s “invention of tradition” perspective or the belief in a politics of memory in which “the past is moulded to suit present dominant interests”, and which points to who is responsible for memory’s selectiveness and its causes (Misztal 2003, p. 56). This view has come under criticism for being deterministic and for suggesting that the past is entirely shaped by the concerns of the present (Schwartz 1982, p. 376). The popular memory perspective adds another layer through its emphasis on a bottom-up approach to collective memory formation, thus factoring in oppositional or counter-memories to dominant constructions of the past (Misztal 2003, p. 61). Thirdly, the dynamics of memory approach is based on the premise that collective memory is a negotiation and that there is a “relationship between remembering and transformation” (Misztal 2003, p. 68). According to this view the emphasis should not be as much on commemorative activities as it should be on “narrativization,” or story-telling, and negotiating between what is known of the past and contemporary political and social agendas (Misztal 2003, p. 71). Finally, a marked emphasis in the memory studies literature on exclusion and the need for more inclusive collective memory approaches and/or practices highlights Barry Schwartz’s identification of multiculturalism, postmodernism, and hegemony theories as three influential intellectual perspectives that “shape the terms in which we debate collective memory.” He notes that even though all scholars may not explicitly align themselves with these perspectives, they still address similar issues (Schwartz 1996, p. 278).
There are many angles that one could take to look at the relevance and application of collective memory concerns for archives. Foote’s (1990) and Cox’s (1993) early writings on the topic provide direction on the placement of archives in collective memory, as well as the space that collective memory occupies in archives. The writers are clear on the connections between the two, but Cox expresses reservations on the kind of engagement with “public memory” that is possible for archives in their everyday work.
Archives – as records – wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory, and national identity, over how we know ourselves as individuals, groups, and societies. And ultimately, in the pursuit of their professional responsibilities, archivists – as keepers of archives – wield power over those very records central to memory and identity formation through active management of records before they came to archives, their appraisal and selection as archives, and afterwards their constantly evolving description, preservation and use (2002, p. 2).
Post-colonial framings of archives, concerned with exclusionary practices and representations in traditional archives, and that advocate for reconsideration of the nature of archives, have also helped to illuminate collective memory concerns in archives. Very recently, Jeannette Bastian’s “experimental” paper on archives and “cultural performances” in the context of the US Virgin Islands makes the argument that “if archives are to truly capture the essence of our global society and remain relevant in a post-colonial world, then archivists must actively pursue the records of the many marginalized and often unrecognized communities within that society.” In this context, Bastian views festivals as a “living cultural archive” that helps to perpetuate collective memory (2009, p. 115).
Discussions such these find resonance with collective memory developments in the South African post-apartheid context. Even though the usage of terminology may differ, a central concern has been about the making of memory as a way of countering deeply institutionalized and apartheid-shaped historical frameworks. At the same time, contemporary social and political frameworks help to determine the pace and directions of collective memory development. The last 16 years has seen the emergence of private, often university-based, projects with the primary goal of recovering marginalized histories; an unprecedented growth in community memory projects not associated with formal government initiatives; and the 1996–2001 Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the most direct national government-driven process to document and acknowledge the past. Older institutions such as the National Archives and many public museums have been guided by new discourses and policy agendas for heritage development and have undertaken significant transformation projects. Post-apartheid institutions, such as the Robben Island Museum, Freedom Park, the District Six Museum, the Constitution Hill Heritage Project, and the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue, have all established significant archival projects that not only play a collecting role, but which also engage with communities through oral histories and other forms of dialogue. Through their public programs, they connect individuals and communities with a wide range of ‘memory traces’ such as documents, photographs, sound recordings, moving images, visual art, and sites of significance. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, built on oral testimonies of victims and perpetrators of human rights violations under apartheid, highlighted the work of memory in healing and nation-building (Minkley and Rassool 1998; Christie 2000; Buurs 2002; Coombes 2003). Memory projects with growing archival components have also been initiated at the level of local communities.
In the remainder of this article, I conduct a review of collective memory scholarship, look at how these writings resonate with ideas and practices that emerge from archival literature, and contemplate how these issues have been playing out under conditions of political transformation in post-apartheid South Africa.
Perhaps, we have learnt through the Museum that the very process of recalling community is to involve oneself in refiguring the archive. This connection, however, needs to be much more self-conscious in the work of the museum. The archive that is underway is not defined entirely by the contents of its collection but by the shape it gives to the idea of community, to a democratic public sphere. This is the idea of a community at loose ends, open to new ways of existing, casting aside apartheid categories and creating productive and meaningful ideas of difference and identity. Unlike the archive of the state, which produces prepackaged communities with labels and postal addresses, the Museum inaugurates the concept of the archive that envisages the meaning of a post-apartheid community through the remnants of one that apartheid destroyed. But this notion of the archive is tied to the work of the Museum and is, indeed, the work of the Museum. The Museum gives meaning to the suggestion by the historian Michel de Certeau…that the transformation of archivistic activity is the beginning of a new history …” (2008, pp. 164–165).
Definitions of collective memory in the memory studies literature are not standard. How collective memory is defined, and in some instances whether it is defined at all, is dependent on whether the term is being referenced in abstract or literal terms. A large part of the definitional debate on collective memory concerns its relationship with personal memory. Gedi and Elam (1996) view the term collective memory with skepticism, labeling it as myth and equating it with “social stereotypes”, arguing that if it is to be used at all its use can only ever be justified metaphorically. They argue that “all ‘collective’ terms are problematic…because they are conceived of as having capacities that are in fact actualized only on an individual level….” (Gedi and Elam 1996, p. 34). They believe that memory is completely personal.
Most studies of collective memory are influenced in one way or another by Maurice Halbwachs, who argues that personal memories are evoked within social frameworks such as language, the family, religious group, and social class. A dynamic relationship between individual and collective memory is therefore being propagated. Coser (1992) notes that for Halbwachs, “…the framework of collective memory confines and binds our most intimate remembrances to each other” even if these individual memories are not remembered or known by each member of the group (p. 53). Zerubavel (1996) similarly uses the term “mnemonic communities” to describe units or larger collectives that help to define and shape individual memories, and upon which individual memories have influence. These larger collectives, he argues, are responsible for our “mnemonic socialization” that influence the way the past is remembered (p. 286). He notes that collective memory “involves the integration of various different personal pasts into a single common past that all members of a particular community come to remember collectively” (pp. 293–294). Evidently then, his definition of collective memory is at an abstract level, despite the fact that he makes concrete links with “mnemonic communities” and what he terms as “mnemonic transitivity” through sites of collective memory such as poems, legends, documents, stories, photo albums, and archaeological ruins (p. 291). From the field of communication studies, Zelizer (1995) underscores the fluidity of collective memory, acknowledging that it is inherently social, and therefore “presumes activities of sharing, discussion, negotiation, and, often, contestation….” (p. 330).
A significant component of the literature on collective memory addresses notions and implications of a “politics of memory” perspective that explicitly engages the political uses of collective memory with reference to particular cases. Said (2000) cites the example of the political pressure that led to the dismantling of the Enola Gay exhibit from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in 1995. For him, this is not solely about what gets remembered, but also how memory is represented. Soyinka (2000, p. 28) alludes to ongoing contentious and uncomfortable realities as they concern these same issues of content and representation in regard to the role of Islam and African complicity in the slave trade. He contends that memory can be both a triumph and a burden, a triumph in the sense that “preservation [of memory] is itself is an act of reparation [or justice],” and a burden in the sense that memory can be damaging and divisive (pp. 31–33). In the latter instance, Soyinka provides an example of collective or social memory’s damaging role in de-personalizing individual experience as in the case of the Rwanda genocide, and makes reference to the often divisive nature of claims for reparation be they monetary or non-monetary. Rabinbach (1997) describes setting up the Holocaust Memorial Museum in the United States as a process of lengthy negotiations that addressed highly divisive questions such as what form the memorial should take, the influence of contemporary American politics and values weighed against the testimonies of survivors and witnesses, the architectural design of the memorial, and who would be included as the key stakeholders.
In yet another kind of case that highlights the practices and politics of institutionalizing collective memory at national and regional levels, Hamada (2003) provides a comparative analysis of three Japanese middle-school history textbooks and one from the People’s Republic of China in terms of their narration of past events. She concludes that this process of constructing national memories through text-book production was strongly underpinned by political ideologies that served “to both voice and silence” (p. 144), practices that became evident in language usage, representations of colonizer and colonized and subsequent narratives of heroes and villains, varying levels of detail, the extent to which conflicting accounts of events are presented, and the “linear temporal model” (p. 136) or sequential structure along which the narratives are constructed.
it is a method for using collective memory selectively by manipulating certain bits of the national past, suppressing others, elevating still others in an entirely functional way. Thus memory is not necessarily authentic, but rather useful (p. 179).
The relationship between memory and history has not always been an amicable or comfortable one. Pierre Nora (1989) suggests that “the two now appear to be in fundamental opposition” (p. 8). The emphasis here tends to be on memory’s ‘fluidity’ or ‘continuity’ as opposed to fixed, storage-box models of history (Trouillot 1995). Zelizer (1995) suggests that traditional historians see memory as a challenge to history’s authority, while others have been open to “a more complex relationship” between the two acknowledging that it “can be complementary, identical, oppositional or antithetical at different times” (p. 216). Cubitt (2007) is concerned with three kinds of history–memory relationship: the role of memory in the historical process; memory as an object of historical study; and the relationship between memory and history as forms of knowledge (pp. 3–4). Fentress and Wickham (1992) are critical of an approach to memory as an object of historical study, suggesting that this may result in the devaluation of memory as a source of knowledge. And Wilkinson (1996) undertakes a thorough investigation of the relationship between history, memory, and evidence, highlighting two contrasting views of evidence. The first relies strongly on textual materials and represents traditional history, and the second expanded view operates from the premise that “evidence is everywhere.” Wilkinson references Nora’s “sites of memory” as indicative that sources of evidence are expanding (pp. 80–81).
The mediational aspects of collective memory runs through the literature, sometimes implicitly and other times more directly addressed. The shared, negotiated, dialogic, politically motivated, identity-forming, selective, generational, narrative, story-telling, and representational aspects of collective memory all imply that processes of mediation are at work in collective memory development. The main issue addressed here is how collective memories are formed and “gain wider meaning” (Eyerman 2004, p. 162). Eyerman, who addresses the relationship between collective memory and collective identity, sees narrative and discourse as framing structures for articulating the past, “with memory itself being a product of both.” He argues that narrative, unlike discourse, enables the development of counter-memories and “new meaning[s]” (p. 162).
Wide-ranging interpretations and approaches to collective memory have resulted in a body of literature in which collective memory is referenced in both abstract and literal ways. Jelin (2003) notes these as analytical and concrete perspectives. These perspectives are not necessarily in opposition to each other, but help to illuminate the multi-layered nature of collective memory studies, and provide a venue for debate that factors in contemporary social issues (Brothman 2001). However, the fragmented nature of collective memory and the resultant tendency to study memory as isolated topics of inquiry have drawn attention to a need to study collective memory as process, an approach advocated by Confino (1997) and Olick (1999, 2007). Confino argues that the study of memory “explains little if we do not place this memory within a global network of social transmission and symbolic representations” (p. 1399). Olick (2007) argues for a “process-relational concept of memory” that addresses both the “media of memory” and “conceptualizes memory as mediation” (p. 98). These assertions draw attention to a need to study collective memory in cognizance of the relationship between the whole and its component parts, and the relationship of component parts or “symbolic representations” to each other.
Some media produce permanence, others repetition, some constant change; some unify collectivities, others mark off particular fractions; some strive for supremacy (e.g. some versions of academic historiography) whereas others celebrate multiplicity. Remembering as the mediation of past and present changes with context, technology and epoch. Which pasts are remembered is thus only one question next to the more basic one of what remembering is and does (p. 99).
Collective memory and archives
Communication scholar Zelizer (1995) writes that new approaches to memory studies “have made the past a product of our collective memory, rather than the other way around.” This social constructionist view of collective memory provides an explanation for “why one construction [of memory] has more staying power than its rivals” and why memories are constructed “in a particular way at a particular time” (p. 333). Brothman (2001) makes a similar case for archives, arguing that analyzing the past in a memory framework opens up a space in archival work for connecting the past to “contemporary social and organizational concerns and interests” (p. 50). This approach resonates with the work of many others writing about archives (Harris 1997, 2002; Brown and Davis-Brown 1998; Lynch 1999; Hedstrom 2002; Nesmith 2002; Burton 2005) as they articulate how archives both “consciously (or unconsciously)” (Cox 1993, p. 123) can be implicated in memory formation for political ends.
Nesmith (2002) has described the impact of postmodernist thought in archives as a “changing intellectual place” that “helps us to see that contrary to the conventional idea that archivists simply receive and house vast quantities of records, which merely reflect society, they actually co-create and shape the knowledge in records, and thus help form society’s memory” (p. 27). Along the same lines, Burton (2005) writes that “… archives do not simply arrive or emerge fully formed; nor are they innocent of struggles for power in either their creation or interpretive applications … all archives come into being in and as history as a result of specific political, cultural, and socioeconomic pressures …” (p. 6). And, in a similar manner, Brown and Davis-Brown (1998) address the “politics of archives” as reflected not only in the socially constructed nature of archives, but as an underlying current in the technical and practical features of archives. They argue that “this ‘sub-politics’ is the normal professional practice of archivists” (p. 30). For example, interpretations and representations that are imposed through systems of cataloging and classification.
With reference to the Haitian slave revolt in the late 18th—early 19th c., anthropologist Trouillot (1995) reflects on the role of archives in shaping “historical scholarship.” According to Trouillot archives impose “constraints on debatability” in regard to what constitutes credible sources (p. 52). Wallace (2006) reaches similar conclusions in relation to the case of King Leopold’s colonial expansion in the Congo in the late 19th–early 20th c. In extreme attempts to distort historical scholarship, the Congo state archives were burnt for 8 days in 1908 under Leopold’s orders, and the records of a 1904 Commission of Inquiry into his rule were held in a “closed section” of the Belgian state archives until the 1980s to hide reports of human rights violations (p. 15). The second case cited by Wallace is of the 1950s Mau Mau uprising in Kenya and the subsequent intentional destruction of at least 240 000 individual detainee case files that documented human rights abuses in British detention camps.
Many case studies highlight the ongoing tension between written and oral sources of memory, and the impact of this tension on narrative and/or collective memory development (Trouillot 1995; Pohlandt-McCormick 2000; Austen 2001; Harris 2002; Bastian 2003; Kluchin 2007). In an article that focuses on the compatibilities and incompatibilities of written and oral sources, Austen (2001) examines the Transatlantic Slave Trade dataset located at the DuBois Institute in light of oral accounts of the slave trade as it relates to slave trafficking from Gorée Island, Senegal and Douala, Cameroon. Even though the collection at the DuBois Institute has been an integral source to several research projects on the slave trade, and represents an official account, the primary tension between written and oral accounts appear to be between the “political economy” and “moral economy” of the slave trade, with oral traditions providing more insights into the latter and text-based official sources providing more on the former (p. 236). Goodall (1997), writing of the legacies of information control in colonial Australia and its impact on memory formation, notes that oral histories “revealed events which had never been recorded at all or which has left documentary traces which could not be interpreted without oral accounts” (p. 79). In another case that is highly relevant, but that does not make direct reference to any form of memory construction, Kluchin (2007) examines eugenic practices in the United States between 1960 and 1984, contemplating what it means “to recover a voice or story” when the records were not created by those who were directly affected (p. 132). She notes that all of the sources—which included medical records, court cases, trial transcripts, depositions, legal dockets, and newspaper articles—“had to be read with full knowledge of their limits” (p. 139).
both oral and physical expressions, marked by speeches, parades, presentations, monuments, and group events … [that] generate a plethora of records, such as commemorative booklets, posters, mementos, photographs, videotape, and Web sites, all of which reflect as well as document the ways people celebrate the event” (p. 54).
These themes underscore the social dimensions of archival work, but vary contextually. This contextual variability has been highlighted by Hedstrom (2010) in relation to the different ways in which societies “sustain important information” (2010, p. 176) and may provide some explanation for the limited consistency in scholarship that addresses the relationship between archives and collective memory.
the impact of recording and communication technologies on the transmission of memory, the use of tangible and intangible traces of memory as sources for understanding the past, the role that archivists play in shaping collective memory through appraisal and description of archives, the relationship of archivists to other purveyors of memory, and the use of archives to reconstruct memories that have been suppressed or lost (p. 170).
Two key dimensions surface in writings that make connections between archives and collective memory. The archival process is being interrogated for its role as a contributor to collective memory, or as a “symbolic way station on the road to collective memory” (Cox 2004, p. 234), and collective memory is being viewed as a framework that might shed light on a conception of archives that is more broadly encompassing of multiple voices.
South African perspectives and experiences
To begin with the documents are as partial as you can get. They were documents that were collected by a ruling minority, confident and assured in relation to its right to rule, and not only to rule but in the right to record their own history, the story of the world in which they functioned, from their own point of view, which they saw as the natural point of view. As for the majority of the population, they weren’t agents of history, they were subjects of anthropology. They didn’t live in time, but existed as units of unchanging social structures. And if any information at all was collected from what were called the native people, it was assembled not with the view to understanding their society as it understood itself, but with a view to more effective administration through cooptation, control and subordination. And so this apparently neutral collection of documents called the archive immediately appears to be as partial as you can get …” (Sachs 2006, p. 3).
Processes of ‘democratization’ and ‘transformation’ of South African archives, memory, and cultural institutions began soon after the legalization of the country’s major liberation organizations in 1990. I argue that these processes are ongoing. They have been made visible in: a complete overhaul of apartheid legislation and policy; the establishment of new public or government institutions at national and local government levels; the emergence of private, often university-based projects with the primary goal of recovering lost or marginalized histories, memories, and cultures; an unprecedented growth in community memory projects not associated with formal government initiatives; and national government initiated projects such as the South African Democracy Education Trust (SADET).2 This is a dynamic and evolving space in which new discourses, processes, and practices of collective or social memory formation are emerging.
A prominent feature of the ‘new’ memory landscape in South Africa has been the blurring of traditional boundaries between archives, museums, and less institutionalized memory projects. A unitary feature has been the profiling of histories and memories that would not have seen the light of day under apartheid, many of which were completely shaped by apartheid. For example, from the early to mid-1990s, an Oral History of Exiles Project initiated by the university-based Mayibuye Center for History and Culture in South Africa saw the recording of more than 200 interviews with South Africans who were exiled under apartheid. The interviews provide powerful personal accounts of life in exile and contribute, perhaps, to a “collective consciousness” (Fentress and Wickham 1992, p. 26) around the issues that surface in these interviews. At roughly the same time, the Mayibuye Center partnered with the South African Museum, until then still a replica of what it had been under apartheid, to produce an exhibition called Esiqithini. The focus of the exhibition was political imprisonment on Robben Island, profiling personal stories, notebooks, and belongings which had never been publicly displayed before. The exhibition drew primarily from what came to be known as the “Apple Box Archives” housed at the Mayibuye Center. The “Apple Box Archives” was so named, since “prisoners were usually released carrying their possessions in cardboard boxes, often apple boxes” (Odendaal et al. 2001, p. 24). Later in the 1990s, the Robben Island Museum actively created an archive through reference groups that it held with former political prisoners. These reference groups in fact were a component of a bigger Memories Archive Project that included: the development of a database of former prisoners; recorded interviews with former prisoners, their family members, and prison warders; expanding, documenting, and conducting detailed research on the museum’s material culture collections; and the development of a text-based archive, mainly from the perspective of prisoners, about their experiences of, and the road that lead them to Robben Island. In other research-related efforts, the Museum also conducted detailed research on the site of Robben Island and its various uses in the past, toward the adoption of an Integrated Conservation Management Plan that would inform the Museum’s engagement with the site of Robben Island, its engagement with the former political prisoner community, other stakeholders, and the public. It is no surprise then that Shearing and Kempa (2004) refer to the museum as “a museum of hope.” The Museum has supported processes of nation-building, identity building, and the development of a social/collective consciousness in ways that have attempted to integrate personal and collective experiences, the larger environments that frame these experiences, observation by and ‘dissemination’ of these experiences to often concerned but sometimes indifferent onlookers, powerful currents and effects of trauma that are constantly present, sustainability, and often commercial imperatives. While addressing these issues have by no means been straightforward or easy, and may even have resulted in a near, arguably complete collapse of operations at the Museum, these are some of the critically important issues that underscore what it means to re-construct collective memories in a politically transformative environment still dealing with the legacies of a repressive past. Describing collective memory development then as complex or contested is certainly true, but ironically, a gross understatement or “oversimplification” of the issues.
However, the authors also note that “many [political prisoners] were reluctant to dredge up their extremely painful memories. Some refused to participate because of the horror of their experiences”(p. 20).
Many former prisoners had never considered using drawing as a means of recording and unearthing memory. Some were apprehensive about participating in this activity because they feared a lack of talent and ability. But as the process went along, the participants realized that the drawing process could be an effective way to understand the past for themselves as individuals, as well as for the group; the push and pull of lines on a paper stimulated debate and facilitated memory. The drawings have become valuable recordings that increased our understanding of buildings that have disappeared, patterns of punishment and humiliation in the prisons, as well as other deeply complex tissues of memory whose recall gives dignity to the past (p. 21).
In the case of the District Six Museum in Cape Town, a 7 × 5 meter floor map encourages formerly displaced District Six residents to mark their homes and other places of significance and to record their stories. In so doing, “they actively reconstruct District Six” (Layne 2008, p. 58). The museum also has a vibrant oral history program, and through participatory approaches to exhibitions that are inspired by the notion of being a “community museum,” it creates its archives. Layne (2008) notes that the museum also has a social justice mission, supporting land restitution claims of former residents (p. 61), thus supporting democratic transformation in post-apartheid South Africa.
These are just a few examples of many that underscore very different models and priorities from the apartheid “legacy” institutions. Foremost is that the work of memory is underpinned by an ethos with a marked emphasis on healing and nation-building that is “part of the processes of forging a democratic society” (Jelin 2003, p. xvii). Minkley and Rassool (1998) have noted the emergence of “a particular conception of individual and collective memory in South African historiography” in which “collective memory is seen as the collective meanings that belong to the political field, while individual memory is also seen to be primarily part of this field as it makes sense of historical details in direct relation to political legitimacy” (p. 99).
Through the creation of memory cloths, we are drawing on the collective experience of women who have known loss. Through the process of creation they will hopefully reach some level of catharsis through which they can grow both spiritually, emotionally and financially. This is a necessary, albeit humble, attempt to begin to transform the oral archive into a more formal record of South African history (p. 747).
As evidenced in all of these examples, South Africa’s changing memory landscape encompassed the wide acknowledgment of significant gaps in the written record as a result of apartheid practices, and a foregrounding of indigenous knowledge practices that were overlooked by apartheid’s official archival systems.
All of these projects give credence to Asmal and Roberts’ (1996) assertions on collective memory as a process of “sustained remembrance and debate” and as a process of historical accountability that involves “academic controversy, political debate, media revelations, processes of proof and of disproof” (pp. 9–10), all of which result in public attention. It is also these kinds of debates and practices that have pioneered the development of even newer memory projects that have added a relevance to the work of archives that was absent under apartheid.
Pohlandt-McCormick (2000) engages the South African State Archives Service at the end of apartheid. Using archival sources available at the State Archives to reconstruct the memories of the 1976 Soweto student uprisings, as well as oral history interviews conducted by her in the early 1990s with participants and those directly affected, Pohlandt-McCormick noted how the official memories of Soweto 1976 were characterized by the political agendas of the apartheid government, showing how “the repressive, authoritarian context of apartheid South Africa produced collective memories shaped around large silences and lies, sometimes obstructing the ability of individuals to place themselves in history” (p. 24). Through the 1977 Cillié Commission of Inquiry,3 “in some cases, even the most factual of information was exploited by the spokesmen of the government to prove the criminal and delinquent behavior of those whom it had killed” (Pohlandt-McCormick 2000, p. 32). Extracts from the Cillié Commission records demonstrate this, raising the issue of biased content representation in legacy institutions such as the National Archives, and a need for voices that were not heard under apartheid.
Harris (2007) writes of the process of “redefining archives in South Africa” with specific reference to public archives in the period between the legalization of political organizations in 1990 and the passing of a new National Archives and Records Service of South Africa Act in 1996. He speaks specifically of the challenges and dilemmas, and resultant “transformation discourse[s]” facing the State Archives Service as they changed its shape from an institution working within the red-tape of the apartheid bureaucracy to its role as the National Archives of South Africa in a democratic system of government.
The ways in which archives interface with collective memory concerns in South Africa are therefore grounded in historical realities and transformation moments. An observation by Coombes (2003) particularly to this point is that “the concept of community,” or the concept of collective for that matter, needs to be understood “as a strategy of unification [that] has the effect of emphasizing the local and internal dynamic of the debates around heritage and history … [that] shifts the emphasis away from the usual [international] interpretive framework …” (p. 5).
Working on this paper has offered a way of contemplating the “social constructedness” of collective memory, and the social and political dimensions of archives, and how this relates to an environment where the pace of and commitment to re-constructing collective memory is being pushed by social and political transformation. I have heard many people say that South Africa is an extreme example. As an instance in which historical frameworks of collective memory development were turned on their head as part of the rapidly changing political climate, it is an extreme example that “pushes traditional boundaries” (Harris 2009). It illuminates, concretizes, and gives meaning to intangible issues that are hard to grasp. For new memory projects and institutions, including those with explicit and less explicit archival dimensions, a combination of factors has helped to develop their visions of more inclusive and people-centered memory practices. While it is difficult to weigh or name all of these factors, there certainly seems to be a symbiotic relationship between a practice-based shaping of a new memory landscape, academic reflexivity, and a larger social and political commitment to historical and transformative justice driven at macro scales by democratic values and by new policy development and legislative change.
Given this context, the question of what collective memory is, has received less priority than what the notion of collective memory does and what it has the potential to do. Among other attributes, Barbie Zelizer (1995) notes that collective memory is useable. In South Africa, this has been demonstrated to be the case over time. Collective memory has served as a tool of manipulation that helped to reinforce apartheid ideology, as a “strategy of unification” (Coombes 2003) toward a non-racial democracy or “rainbow nation,” as a framework for healing, and as a potentially divisive mechanism as a result of competing interpretations.
Issues that have emerged in the literature as key in the debate between memory and history also feature centrally in post-apartheid discourses. However, the contrast between memory and history is not always quite as stark as is sometimes articulated in the collective memory literature. Challenges to traditional history have emerged within the history discipline itself (Glassberg 1996), in the form of people’s history or public history, and cover many of the same debates that have been labeled as history versus memory debates. One could argue that one of the most pressing issues is about the nature of evidence and its implications for giving or denying legitimacy for past events, thus surfacing the tensions between written and oral sources. Wilkinson’s (1996) assertion then that “evidence is everywhere” (pp. 80–81) takes on elevated meanings in the South African environment where there are large gaps in written records, and where legitimizing indigenous oral traditions and cultures necessitate a rethinking of “official” notions of evidence and authenticity. In addition, personal testimonies serve as a baseline starting point for memory projects that range from national-government driven processes such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the different examples cited above, not only because of the inadequacy of written records on their own, but as a way of mediating a “bottom up” approach to documenting the past that takes cognizance of a need for acknowledgment and healing.
These circumstances also centralize the relationship between individual and group memory, whether through personal testimonies that are part of larger documentation processes, or through dialogue. Here again, the question of what collective memory notions do, can be good or bad. As noted by Soyinka (2000), collective memory can sometimes play a damaging role in depersonalizing individual experience.
In many ways too, though not entirely, one could look at post-apartheid archives as being “reconstructed after the fact” (Burton 2005). This immediately calls attention to a multitude of issues raised in the collective memory literature, particularly on the “partiality” of memory, and of archives, and on the possibility of a different kind of hegemony. Therefore, concerns with memory methodologies that serve to account for the whys and hows of memory work, and propagated by institutions such as the District Six Museum, is emerging as a particularly critical feature of the post-apartheid South African memory landscape. It is important here to note the creation of archives that is taking place outside of traditional models of archival institutions.
The literature on collective memory provides a broad but productive lens for understanding the social and political relevance of archives. Additional case-based research will be useful in determining the impact of collective memory concerns on the nature and placement of archives in society.
Under apartheid laws, District Six was declared a ‘whites only’ area in 1966. This resulted in about 60,000 people being forcibly moved from their homes to the outskirts of the city of Cape Town. See Layne 2008.
The Road to Democracy Project originated in the office of the South African Presidency in 2000, in response to concerns “about the paucity of historical material on the arduous and complex road to South Africa’s peaceful political settlement after decades of violent conflict.” See: http://www.sadet.co.za/about_us.html#4. Accessed December 7, 2010. Originating in national government, and financed by the private sector, results are visible in four volumes on South Africa’s liberation struggle history.
I wish to acknowledge and thank the following people for commenting on earlier drafts of this paper and/or for discussions that have helped me to think through the issues raised here: my adviser Prof. Margaret Hedstrom, and Prof. Elizabeth Yakel, Verne Harris, David A. Wallace, Trond Jacobsen, Ricky Punzalan, and Joanna Steele.