Social cohesion: a challenge to archivists. How do we ensure that everyone in the country feels not only ‘at home’ in South Africa, but in the archive too?

In 2012 my colleague Mbongiseni Buthelezi and I travelled around the country visiting archives as we drove lengthy distances to faraway places we talked about many of the things we had seen and heard in the places we had visited. One of our most memorable conversations was sparked by an altogether different incident. Caught in one of a stream of endless “stop-go’s” Mbongiseni gazed out of the window at a bored looking woman half-heartedly waving a flag to alert us to the road-works ahead and asked idly, “I wonder what archives mean to her”. It was a profound question and one we considered for many hours thereafter. We, and many of you reading this, understand the value of archives and records, but what difference can they really make to the lives of the majority of our country’s citizens.

I was reminded of our conversation this month as I listened to and read reports of a number of high profile interventions aimed at promoting social cohesion.

President Michelle Bachelet of Chile presented the 12th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in a packed Cape Town City Hall on 9 August. Focusing on the theme Building Social Cohesion through Active Citizenship. Bachelet’s lecture focused on building social cohesion through active citizenship, with the sub-themes of education and community participation in democracy. It was an inspiring event and a reminder that our country has much to learn from others who have walked the same path from violent and oppressive regimes to democracy.

A few days later the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISRA) launched a research report, Nation Formation and Social Cohesion: An Enquiry into the Hopes and Aspirations of South Africa at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The report concludes that the greatest challenges facing South African society is the eradication of historical and emerging inequalities and argues that the attainment of social cohesion depends critically on a sense of belonging that is related to material conditions of life an overarching common identity that recognises diversity. It argues that that nation formation is a process not an event and requires the public and the private sector, and all citizens to pursue a common vision and consciously pursue non-racialism, inclusivity and redress. At a time when there are so few ‘good stories’ being told about South Africa, and allegations about corrupt leadership, and compromised integrity dominate the news headlines, I felt a surge of hope listening to speakers of the calibre of former president Kgalema Mothlanthe, MISRA’s executive director Joel Netshitenzhe, cultural activist Andries Oliphant, Nelson Mandela Foundation CEO Sello Hatang and DAC DDG, Vusi Ndima, speaking on behalf of Minister of Arts and Culture Nathi Mtethwa. What these speakers share is a vision for a future in which all citizens feels ‘at home’ in South Africa and they feel that they matter because: their basic needs for a decent standard of living are met; and their rights to dignity, equality and freedom are respected, as are their diverse cultural practices, their pasts and their histories and where all citizens valued by the state and each other, see themselves as free, equal and dignified. This vision they said, could be achieved when all South Africans – government, the private sector and active citizens – work hand-in hand to give substance to the values enshrined in the Constitution.

The Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) launched a Nation Building and Social Cohesion Community Conversations programme focusing on the theme “Transforming Society, Uniting the Country’’. This programme, follows up on the DACs 2012 National Social Cohesion Summit and is informed two key policy documents: Chapter 15 of the National Development Plan 2030 (NDP) which deals with implementing redress, promoting economic and social inclusion, social cohesion, active citizenry and broad based leadership and, the crafting of a social compact and:  Outcome 14 of the medium Term Strategic Framework adopted by government which identifies a number of interventions necessary to achieve the five long nation building goals identified in the NDP for South Africa. These include: fostering Constitutional values; equalising opportunities, promoting inclusion and redress; promoting social cohesion across society through increased interaction across race and class; promoting active citizenry and broad-based leadership and; forging a social compact that will lay the basis for equity, inclusion and prosperity for all. We look forward to hearing more about these are the programme rolls out to all the provinces.

All the initiatives above stem from a commitment to giving effect to the Constitution, which, as the Preamble states, is intended to: Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and human rights; lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law; improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person and; build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.”

The challenge to all of us, archivists and records managers, is how do we contribute to this challenge? How do we ensure that everyone in the country, including the construction worker waving her flag on the side of the road, feels not only ‘at home’ in South Africa, but in the archive too?

This month we’ve added a pile of new resources to inspire you! Some of these deal with the creative use of archives and with issues of transformation. Others document the lives and stories of people and groups whose voices need to be brought into the archive if it is to be truly inclusive.