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The effects of an administrative and policy vacuum on access to archives in South Africa


Open access to information is an essential tool for combating inefficiency in the machinery of state and for the assertion of human rights. Access to archives is essential for ensuring long-term accountability and the learning of lessons from past events and past errors. Despite the constitutional and administrative importance of open access to archives, the sector is largely ignored in South African government policy formulation, although in-depth information and extensive recommendations are available on the subject, beginning with recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1998. This article focuses on a report entitled State of the Archives: An analysis of South Africa’s national archival system, 2014, and contrasts this document with the almost complete neglect of the National Archives in the Draft White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage published for comment in November 2016 and more recently in mid-2017. It is argued that one of the State of the Archives weaknesses is that it looks at the ‘national archival system’ and especially the National Archives of South Africa, in and of itself, while insufficient attention is paid to the National Archives as a functioning component within the greater bureaucratic machinery. It is further argued that there is a close correlation between the state of a National Archives and the state of a national government bureaucracy. In this context, a repositioning of archives to align the sector better in terms of the objectives of the National Development Plan and the exercise of constitutional rights is recommended.

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My thanks go to the organisers of the ‘Archives And Democracy’ Colloquium at the University of the Witwatersrand, on 24 August 2017, for arranging a critical and stimulating exchange of ideas between practitioners, politicians and activists. The colloquium was partly sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. PARI (the Public Affairs Research Institute) generously funded my trip to London to present an earlier version of this paper at the ACARM (Association of Commonwealth Archivists and Records Managers) Symposium ‘Government Secrecy in the Era of Openness’, Senate House, University of London, 19 June 2015.

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Correspondence to Graham Dominy.

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Dominy, G. The effects of an administrative and policy vacuum on access to archives in South Africa. Arch Sci 17, 393–408 (2017).

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  • Access to information
  • Policy formulation
  • South Africa
  • Truth and Reconciliation Commission