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The Archival Sliver: A Perspective on the Construction of Social Memory in Archives and the Transition from Apartheid to Democracy

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Refiguring the Archive

Abstract

Understanding of and feeling for a concept are shaped inevitably by the weighting of experience. In my case, both as a South African and as a practising archivist, experience has been dominated by the drama of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy. This drama has absorbed the complex elements of personal experience, and has transcribed my thinking around the word ‘archives’ into an indelible metaphor — ‘the archival sliver’. As process, the transcription probably began in the late 1980s, when I did volunteer work for an organisation providing support to political detainees, trialists and prisoners. At the time we needed no documentary evidence to demonstrate that organs of the state were conducting a dirty tricks campaign against opponents of apartheid. We knew they were. Now, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) unfolds the details of that campaign,1 it is oral rather than documentary evidence that carries the story. The archival record, both oral and documentary, is but a sliver of social memory, and the archival residue in documents is but a sliver of the documentary record. Between 1996 and 1998 I represented the National Archives in a TRC investigation into the destruction of public records.2 This investigation exposed a large-scale and systematic sanitisation of official memory resources authorised at the highest levels of government. Between 1990 and 1994 huge volumes of public records were destroyed in an attempt to keep the apartheid state’s darkest secrets hidden.3

This essay draws heavily on four articles by me published previously: ‘Towards a culture of transparency: public rights of access to official records in South Africa’, American Archivist 57, 4 (1994); ‘Redefining archives in South Africa: public archives and society in transition, 1990–1996’, Archivaria 42 (1996); ‘Transforming discourse and legislation: a perspective on South Africa’s new National Archives Act’, ACARM Newsletter 18 (1996); and ‘Claiming less, delivering more: a critique of positivist formulations on archives in South Africa’, Archivaria 44 (1997). I am grateful to Ethel Kriger (National Archives of South Africa) and Tim Nuttall (University of Natal) for offering sometimes tough comment on an early draft of the essay. I remain, of course, fully responsible for the final text. It was prepared originally for a book Archival Truths and Historical Consequences edited by the Canadians Terry Cook and Joan Schwartz. I am grateful to them for permission to use an adapted, shorter version for this book.

The 17-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 and is anticipated to continue through 2001.

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References

  1. The work of this investigation is reflected in the following sections of the final report (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, Cape Town, 1998): vol. 1 ch. 8, and vol. 5 ch. 8, paragraphs 62, 66, 67, and 100 to 108.

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  2. 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. TRC Report, vol. 1, ch. 8, p. 219 (par. 60).

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  3. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 100.

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  4. During the 1980s, for instance, the Popular History Trust in Zimbabwe collected oral history and other documentation related to the struggle in South Africa. Julie Frederikse, ‘We look back to move forward: making oral history popular and accessible’, Innovation 14 (1997).

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  5. Ibid., p. 18.

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  6. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), p. 84.

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  7. TRC Report, vol. 1, ch. 8, pp. 217 (par. 50) and 236 (par. 105).

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  8. For instance, I remember the Pretoria Black Sash Branch destroying its records in 1988 after one of its members was detained. See also TRC Report, vol. 1, ch. 8, p. 205 (par. 17).

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  9. Excluded from this mandate were the South African Defence Force, the homelands, and so-called ‘offices of record’. The last 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 (Pretoria, 1991), pp. 15–35.

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  10. Almost every area of thinking and practice was dominated by a discourse cemented in the 1950s and 60s. Primary influences were the 1898 Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives by Samuel Müller, Johan Feith and Robert Fruin (as late as the 1980s, new archivists were given a copy of the Manual as their fundamental training text), later Dutch literature (Afrikaans-speakers are usually comfortable readers of Dutch), the English archivist Sir Hilary Jenkinson (particularly his 1937 A Manual of Archive Administration) and the American T. R. Schellenberg.

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  11. Academic users were predominantly historians. Even today, the discipline is dominated by white males, with South Africa in 1997 possessing less than twenty black History PhDs. G. Cuthbertson, ‘Postmodernising history and the archives: some challenges for recording the past’, South African Archives Journal 39 (1997), p. 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.

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  12. 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.

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  17. 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, p. 30.

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  18. Albert Grundlingh, ‘Historical writing and the State Archives’, p. 83.

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  19. For a fuller account of macro-appraisal, see my ‘Appraising public records in the 1990s: a South African perspective’, ESARBICA Journal 16 (1996).

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  22. ‘Introduction’, Negotiating the Past, p. 3. The editors mistakenly identify André Brink as a proponent of this view.

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  23. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), pp. 5, 45 and 51.

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  24. 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.

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  25. Andre Brink, Imaginings of Sand (London: Minerva, 1997), p. 4.

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Authors

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Carolyn Hamilton Verne Harris Jane Taylor Michele Pickover Graeme Reid Razia Saleh

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© 2002 Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht

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Harris, V. (2002). The Archival Sliver: A Perspective on the Construction of Social Memory in Archives and the Transition from Apartheid to Democracy. In: Hamilton, C., Harris, V., Taylor, J., Pickover, M., Reid, G., Saleh, R. (eds) Refiguring the Archive. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-010-0570-8_9

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-010-0570-8_9

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