Archives in a Diverse Country

  • Posted on February 4, 2013

What are archives really? Are they merely buildings with documents in them? Are they the documents, objects and other things in the buildings? And if this is what they are, then indeed people who historically didn’t keep (and largely haven’t come to regard the keeping of) documents in storehouses, with other people employed to look after them, don’t have archives. So whose are the archives in their most common form? But, what are archives or, more accurately, what is archive if we expand our definition beyond the narrow traditional version above? Are grandmothers archives, as Dineo Skosana has suggested ? Are they archives in the same way as stored papers?

In his piece this month, Vuyani Booi makes an accurate point one hears regularly at conferences and seminars on archives: under colonialism and apartheid, Africans were said to have no history, no culture, no heritage. The discussion usually then proceeds: it is the task of scholars and government to correct this misrepresentation. The answer is oral history: record old people, they can tell us everything we need to know. Record, record, record! The discussion doesn’t go on to consider whether what such old people say is true or how we make sense of it once it’s recorded. Of course, going back to Jan Vansina’s seminal Oral Tradition as History historians have developed sophisticated methods for reading oral testimonies for historical detail.

Booi raises two important points that are worth pursuing further. He point to the importance of circumlocution as a manner of keeping knowledge alive about respect for certain people and things, as an archive of sorts. The same point continues with his reference to places that are respected, which cannot be entered or foot set on.

Booi goes on to make his second important point: people do not trust the state to be the guardian of their heritage. This is a key observation. But before I ruminate on these points further, let me take a step back. Booi’s piece is in response to a provocation we set ourselves for us at the Archival Platform to think about what archives mean in a diverse country. Specifically, we wondered what even the term for archive(s) in different languages is, or if it even exists. In advocating for archives, in attempting to change the conception of the archive to include landscapes, cultural practices, film should we not go back further back and think: what is archive? In going around saying archives matter to researchers and other people, shouldn’t we think, what are archives to the majority of the population in the first place? And so we ended up with a provocative piece like Booi’s.

We know archives in the form of paper and electronic records matter to researchers – historians, genealogists, etc. We know they matter to the Auditor-General. How do they matter to someone working in a mine? How do we make the case to people to whom archives in the storehouse sense have never mattered? Why should they start to matter now?

The archival material about which Booi writes sits in the domains of culture, heritage and the ancestor veneration. How then do we read such material as archive? It appears to me that we need to recognise and harness the archival possibilities of such cultural practices beyond the stereotype that old people can tell us about the past in authoritative ways that are unquestionable because they come from our elders and, by extension, from our ancestors. Booi’s piece verges on making such an assumption.

What questions do we ask of circumlocutory ways of speaking that still keeps intact the secrets or observes the respect with which what is not spoken about is treated? And what happens when all those who once knew how the circumlocution had come about or why a certain place is not to be trodden on have all passed away? What are we respecting in a family when we no longer know why we don’t call a certain thing by a particular common name, for instance? What is the state of our family’s archive of knowledge in such a case? These are some of the questions we need to ask ourselves about our ancestral archives/inheritance.

Mbongiseni Buthelezi is the Deputy Director of the Archival Platform

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