Archives in the Public eye in Thaba Nchu and Durban

  • Posted on October 19, 2012

Two significant events to do with archives took place simultaneously in the week of 8 October 2012. From the 8th to the 11th the Oral History Association of South Africa (OHASA) held its 9th annual national conference in Thaba Nchu in the Free State themed “Oral History, Communities and the Liberation Struggle: Reflective Memories in Post Apartheid South Africa”. On the 9th and 10th the province of KwaZulu-Natal held a colloquium under its Heritage Liberation Route programme in Durban themed “Archives to Deepen Democracy”. The colloquium was in preparation for the international conference in East London at the end of October and beginning of November, “Archives Deepening Democracy”, which is being organised by the National Heritage Council.

I spent a day at OHASA conference interacting with the organisers and delegates. I interacted with members of the OHASA executive committee, including Profs. Sekgothe Magoatsana and Sekibakiba Lekgoathi, Provincial Archivists from Limpopo and Mpumalanga staff from the National Archives in Pretoria, and conference delegates from South Africa and Zimbabwe. The 9:00 start of the conference saw a pretty empty room as most of the delegates were still making their way to Thaba Nchu from different parts of South Africa and neighbouring countries. When it did finally start, the conference was opened by the Acting National Archivist, Mandy Gilder, and addressed by Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture, Dr Joe Phaahla. What I took away from Phaahla’s address was that he had much to say about heritage and little about archives in their own right. While it was encouraging to see a conference organised by and concerning archives – specifically the use of oral history to build inclusive archival holdings – was getting support from the political principals of the Ministry and the Department of Arts and Culture, it was somewhat disheartening to realise that the same political principals barely understand the function of the archives and what support they need.

High profile political support was on offer at the colloquium in Durban as well in the form of the Premier of the province, Dr Zweli Mkhize, and the MEC for Health, Dr Sibongiseni Dlomo. It was breathtaking to hear how Mkhize gets the importance of the archives holdings – from the colonial archive (he talked about Simon vand der Stel and the Great or Boer Trek, as well as the conflict between Zulus and Boers among other things) through the importance of oral history collection and archiving as a way of expanding the archive. His was a spontaneous and passionate address about how archives can be an agent of social cohesion for future generations by helping them understand how they are all South African even though different. His reference to van der Stel was brought in to say people came to South Africa from Indonesia and Malaysia; that their descendents are now as South African as anybody else; and that this is a sure indication to all of us that unity in diversity is our inevitable future.

The colloquium then got down to business. The programme on each day was structured in such a way that four or five provocative papers were presented in the morning followed by breakaway sessions (or commissions in the latest fashion of government speak) in the afternoon. Speakers included Muzi Hadebe from the KZN Archives Service speaking on “Silenced, Disavowed, Neglected or Vulnerable Archives”, Colonel Mhlongo and Debra Queen from the Missing Persons Task Team of the National Prosecuting Authority speaking on exhumations, Noel Solani from the Nelson Mandela Museum on “Curation, Presentation and Creative Imaginings” of the archive, as well as Thula Bophela who spoke about his military service in uMkhonto weSizwe. The commissions discussed topics ranging from digitisation, through “Truth and Reconciliation”, to the state of the archives in KwaZulu-Natal. On the first day I was assigned to the commission on social cohesion, and on the second to one on “Overcoming Colonial and Apartheid Legacies in the Archive”.

Discussion on the first day focused mostly on heritage, identity and how to tell the stories of those who were excluded or marginalised under previous regimes. In the end the discussion tended towards what have become familiar stereotypes: whites are villains; heroic ANC cadres liberated the country; we must collect stories and oral poetry from our elders to learn who we are. The commission on social cohesion was a bit of a typical talk shop. Commissions were meant to come up with resolutions at the end, which will be used by government to chart the way forward for how to support archival institutions. Many grand ideas of the ‘the government must do such and such’ type were put forward without much debate taking place on why the government should do any of what was being proposed.

On the second day the discussion got messier as the speakers challenged stereotypes, presenting fine-grained arguments for reading the colonial archive rather than neglecting it. The commission on overcoming legacies of colonialism and apartheid was combined with what was meant to be a separate one on military archives. The small group had a robust debate, driven by excellent probing by Prof. Sihawu Ngubane from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Resolutions presented to the closing plenary session were supported by robust thinking.

There is a move to turn the colloquium into an annual conference. Hopefully robust discussion will take place on the merits of the proposed conference. If the conference is indeed launched, it is my hope that it will not go on beyond its usefulness, as the criticism of the OHASA conference we keep hearing from people around the country suggests.

Mbongiseni Buthelezi is the Deputy Director of the Archival Platform

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