Archival Science

, Volume 2, Issue 1–2, pp 63–86 | Cite as

The archival sliver: Power, memory, and archives in South Africa

  • Verne Harris


Far from being a simple reflection of reality, archives are constructed windows into personal and collective processes. They at once express and are instruments of prevailing relations of power. Verne Harris makes these arguments through an account of archives and archivists in the context of South Africa's transition from apartheid to democracy. The account is deliberately shaped around three themes — race, power, and public records. While he concedes that the constructedness of memory and the dimension of power are most obvious in the extreme circumstances of oppression and rapid transition to democracy, he argues that these are realities informing archives in all circumstances. He makes an appeal to archivists to enchant their work by engaging these realities and by turning always towards the call of and for justice.


apartheid archival system archival legislation discourse justice memory construction positivism postmodernity power race recordness South Africa 


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  1. 1.
    My disclosure of the major shaping pre-impressions carried in my head as I started writing this article reflects a recognition that no observer, no writer, is exterior to the object of his or her observation. In my case the complicity verges on the obscene. I was, and am, an active participant in virtually every process which I critique in the article. So I am irrevocably caught in the tensions between the archival record conventionally defined, Foucault's assemblage of society's discourses, and the psychic archive explored by Freud, Jung, Derrida, Hillman, and others.Google Scholar
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    The seventeen-member Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in 1995 with a four-fold mandate: to establish as complete a picture as possible of the causes, nature, and extent of gross human rights violations committed in South Africa between 1960 and 1994; to facilitate the granting of amnesty to perpetrators of gross human rights violations associated with a political objective; to recommend appropriate reparation for the victims of gross human rights violations; and to compile a report of its activities, findings, and recommendations. The Commission's final report was submitted to President Mandela in October 1998. However, the work of the Commission's Amnesty Committee proceeded well into 2001. A Codicil to the final report will be submitted at the end of this process.Google Scholar
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    The National Intelligence Service headquarters, for instance, destroyed an estimated 44 tons of paper-based and microfilm records in a 6–8 month period during 1993. For a detailed account of the 1990–1994 purge, see my “‘They Should Have Destroyed More’: The Destruction of Public Records by the South African State in the Final Years of Apartheid”,Transformation 42 (2000).Google Scholar
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    The appraisal programme of the National Archives of South Africa, for instance, aims to secure the preservation of 5 per cent of records generated by the state.Google Scholar
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    And this sliver of a sliver of a sliver is seldom more than partially described.Google Scholar
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    In 1910 the British colonies of the Cape, Natal, Orange River, and Transvaal joined together to form the Union of South Africa, an independent state within the British Commonwealth.Google Scholar
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    Stanley Greenberg,Race and State in Capitalist Development: Comparative Perspectives (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), p. 30.Google Scholar
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    I use the term “black” here to incorporate three of apartheid's “population groups”: “Africans,” “Indians,” and “coloureds”. The apartheid state, however, used the terms “black” and “African” synonymously.Google Scholar
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    Michel-Rolph Trouillot,Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), p. 84.Google Scholar
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    These includedinter alia theArchives Act, Criminal Procedure Act, Disclosure of Foreign Funding Act, Inquests Act, Internal Security Act, Nuclear Energy Act, Official Secrets Act, Petroleum Products Act, Protection of Information Act, andStatistics Act.Google Scholar
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    Excluded from this mandate were the South African Defence Force, the homelands, and so-called “offices of record”; the latter were defined as offices ”responsible for documents which require special treatment in order to ensure that the authenticity and legality of the contents cannot be questioned.” State Archives Service,Handbook, 15:35.Google Scholar
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    The apartheid government allocated a homeland to each of South Africa's major African ethnic “groups”. In terms of separate development policy, Africans were to exercise full political rights only in these homelands. The ultimate goal was to establish each homeland as an independent country; by 1994, four of them had taken “independence”. Although excluded from my analysis, it should be noted that the SADF Archives and the homeland archives services in both conception and administration faithfully reflected apartheid logic. Under a system awarding inordinate power and autonomy to the military, it is not surprising that the SADF Archives, although legally subject to the professional supervision of the State Archives, in practice sustained an independent operation. Nor is it surprising, in the context of apartheid homeland policy, in particular the inadequate professional, financial, and administrative assistance made available by central government, that the homelands either neglected public archives entirely or maintained only rudimentary services.Google Scholar
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    Academic users were predominantly historians. Even today, the discipline is dominated by white males, with South Africa possessing less than twenty black History Ph.D.'s. Greg Cuthbertson, “Postmodernising History and the Archives: Some Challenges for Recording the Past”,South African Archives Journal 39 (1997): 13. From the 1980s, the State Archives Service began shaping its user services around the needs of its largest clientele grouping, genealogical (almost exclusively white) researchers.Google Scholar
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    In the 1980s, the senior public servant in a government department held the rank of a director-general. As a director, the head of the State Archives Service was three levels lower.Google Scholar
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    Notable examples were the Department of Foreign Affairs and the National Intelligence Service.Google Scholar
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    An incident from my own experience illustrates this. When I and some of my colleagues in the State Archives Service discovered in 1993 that state offices were destroying classified records in terms of a Security Secretariat authorisation, we pushed the Director of Archives to intervene urgently. When he did not do so, I leaked the authorisation first to the press, then to Lawyers for Human Rights. The latter challenged the authorisation in court, and were able to secure an out-of-court settlement in which the state agreed to manage the disposal of classified records strictly in terms of theArchives Act. See also my “They Should Have Destroyed More.”Google Scholar
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    Unrestricted access was withdrawn to records less than fifty years old of six government offices, and to all post-1910 records of a further four offices. In terms of the 1962Archives Act, unrestricted access applied to records more than thirty years old, unless the responsible Minister imposed restrictions on the grounds of “public policy.” These restrictions were lifted in 1991, and in practice constituted only a minor infringement of public access to the records concerned. State Archives Service records indicate that between 1980 and 1990 requests for permission to consult 2,381 items in the archives of these offices was received, and access was denied to only nine items.Google Scholar
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    From 1963 reading room supervisors were under instruction from the Director of Archives to report the presence of any banned person (Circular instruction of 5 June 1963.) The evidence suggests that this information, together with details of the records being consulted by such persons, was passed on to the security police.Google Scholar
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    For accounts of this programme, see my “Exploratory Thoughts on Current State Archives Service Appraisal Policy and the Conceptual Foundations of Macro-appraisal”,Archives News 37.8 (1995), and “Appraising Public Records in the 1990s: A South African Perspective”,ESARBICA Journal 16 (1996). Between 1926 and 1953, the appraisal of public records was the function of the Archives Commission, a statutory body appointed by the responsible Minister. Thereafter, the function was assumed by the State Archives Service, although the Commission retained the power to authorise destruction until 1979.Google Scholar
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    The project was initiated in 1959 and continued into the 1990s.Google Scholar
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    Albert Grundlingh, “Historical Writing and the State Archives in a Changing South Africa”,South African Archives Journal 35 (1993): 81.Google Scholar
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    In 1984 the apartheid government introduced a House of Parliament for “Indians”, the House of Delegates, and the House of Representatives for “coloureds.” Each was supported by a similarly racially-defined “own affairs” administration.Google Scholar
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    For a brilliant account of the Mandela myth, see David Beresford, “Mandela's Greatness is From Being Here”,Mail and Guardian (7–13 November 1997): 30.Google Scholar
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    A survey of pre-1990 South African archival literature, for instance, reveals a predominance of work positioned comfortably within the status quo. The only significant exception was Jill Geber's 1987 University of London dissertation, “The South African Government Archives Service: Past, Present and Future,” which attempted an historical analysis of the State Archives Service and offered a vision for public archives in a post-apartheid South Africa. This seminal work marked the birth of transformation discourse, but its immediate impact was slight.Google Scholar
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    For an analysis of theAct as a product of transformation discourse, see my “Transforming Discourse and Legislation.”Google Scholar
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    In July 1998, the National Archives had 18 black professional staff members.Google Scholar
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    TheNational Heritage Resources Act (Number 25 of 1999) provides an additional mechanism for acting against the alienation from South Africa of records determined to be part of the national heritage.Google Scholar
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    Albert Grundlingh, “Historical Writing and the State Archives”, p. 83.Google Scholar
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    See note 8 above. There is no clear conceptual distinction, of course, between appraisal and collecting. Active documenting is an integral part of appraisal, and collecting presupposes appraisal decisions. But in South African archival discourse and practice, the distinction has been made firmly, with appraisal a function related to public records and collecting to non-public records. The National Archives' new appraisal programme is beginning to break down this distinction.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    Macro-appraisal first became an issue in South African archival debate during Eric Ketelaar's visit to the country in 1992. His account of the Dutch PIVOT Project was received with scepticism within the State Archives Service. However, subsequently, the writing of Terry Cook on appraisal and the Canadian macro-appraisal approach raised considerable interest. This was the primary consideration behind the State Archives Service's invitation to him to visit the country in 1994. His explosive impact led directly to the Service's establishment of an Appraisal Review Committee which in 1996 recommended the adoption of macro-appraisal.Google Scholar
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    The State Archives Service subordinated the collecting function firmly; in 1995, nonpublic records made up only 5.4 percent of the Service's total holdings.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    The National Archives has launched an automated National Register of Oral Sources, run its own pilot oral history project, and initiated discussions around the establishment of a national oral history programme.Google Scholar
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    TheNational Archives of South Africa Act reduced the restricted access period on public records in archival custody from thirty to twenty years. The new Constitution's recognition of the right of access to “any information held by the state” (section 32(1)(a)) was legislated for by thePromotion of Access to Information Act (Number 2 of 2000).Google Scholar
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    Antjie Krog,Country of My Skull (Johannesburg: Random House, 1998), p. 281.Google Scholar
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    André Brink, “Stories of History: Reimagining the Past in Post-Apartheid Narrative”, in Sarah Nuttall and Carli Coetzee (eds.),Negotiating the Past: The Making of Memory in South Africa (Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 42.Google Scholar
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    “Introduction”,Negotiating the Past, p. 3. The editors mistakenly identify André Brink as a proponent of this view.Google Scholar
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    An encouraging movement in this direction was marked by the joint University of the Witwatersrand/National Archives series of seminars and workshops, “Refiguring the Archive,” July–November 1998. The series was characterised by participants from many disciplines wrestling with the implications for the archive of electronic technologies and a range of competing epistemologies.Google Scholar
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    Jean-Francois Lyotard,The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), pp. 5, 45, and 51.Google Scholar
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    Quoted by Carolyn Hamilton, “‘Living By Fluidity’: Oral Histories, Material Custodies and the Politics of Preservation”, paper presented at the conference, “Words and Voices: Critical Practices of Orality in Africa and African Studies”, Bellagio, Italy, February 1997, p. 17.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Verne Harris
    • 1
  1. 1.South African History ArchiveBraamfonteinSouth Africa

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