Opinions

Is the NFVSA in a Position to Preserve our Audio-visual Heritage Properly?

  • Posted on October 23, 2012

According to the website of the National Archives and Records Service, “The aims of the National Film, Video and Sound Archives are:

  • To collect audio-visual and related material that was made in or about South Africa.
  • To preserve the audio-visual heritage of South Africa.
  • To make the audio-visual heritage accessible to all South Africans.
  • To promote audio-visual material and the audio-visual industries of the country.”

For further information see the National Archives website

The website, which will be replaced by a new and up-to-date one in the not-too-distant future, goes on to state the role of the NFVSA in transforming the conception of, and access to, the archives: “The NFVSA has an Outreach Section, which makes resources available to the previously disadvantaged communities. In forging screening partnerships with other institutions, it tries to reach all South Africans, especially those in rural communities…. Educational institutions are invited to view films and have discussions on any topic they feel necessary to cover. This is done in liaison with teachers and lecturers. The main aim of the Outreach Section is to take the “Cinema to the people” where the disadvantaged communities can benefit from it. This is done in conjunction with other organisations such as schools, churches, communities, etc. The NFVSA targets the rural communities that do not have any idea about audio-visual archives, since they have a right to access information.” Furthermore, according to the website, “The NFVSA intends utilising the Community Art Centres, which were built by the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, to fulfil this mission. Churches, schools and community halls will also be used. We urge communities or anyone who is interested in the audio-visual heritage of South Africa to contact us if they have requests to utilize the NFVSA’s services.”

These are lofty intentions from a heady time in the late 1990s when the post-apartheid future was being imagined into being. But how have these good intentions turned out? What are the successes as well as the constraints and challenges facing the NFVSA?

It takes approximately R40million to set up a minimally-equipped audio-visual archive. According to the latest UNESCO guide, a national audio-visual archive requires 54 staff members. THE NFVSA has just 20 professional staff, employed across 5 divisions: i) Film and Video Preservation; ii) Sound Preservations; iii) Legal Deposits and Cataloguing; iv) Arts Collection, and v) Public Programming, Client Services and Special Projects. 5 of the 20 are cleaning staff. The amount of work each division does requires at least 10 people per division. The best the 15 people can do is simply try to keep their heads above water.

The challenges are many and varied. There are more than 120 000 reels of film and more than 60 000 in the holdings of the NSFVA, only some of which have been inventorised and described. Many have not and the enormous backlogs will forever remain due to al lack of capacity, unless something drastic is done. New material comes in all the time to add to the backlog. People donate material. What remains of the National Oral History Programme (NOHP), as discussed in the previous post Overcoming Legacies of the Past?: The National Oral History Programme

Yet, the NFVSA does not even have a properly equipped and functional studio. As a result, for example, video footage recorded under the NOHP cannot even be duplicated. Protocol dictates that at least two copies of each video should be produced in addition to the master copy. But because they have to rely on old and outdated equipment where each copy has to be made in real time, no staff member has 10 hours to spend copying footage of a set of interviews that are 5 hours long. The tapes simply pile up and everybody lives in hope that one day something will happen. A bit like hoping for a miracle, it seems.

The burden of the staff is made heavier by the fact that THE NFVSA is a place of legal deposit according to the Legal Deposit Act (Act No. 54, 1997). As if trying to clear the backlog that already exists is not heavy enough, each year thousands of newly-published music and films are deposited by compliant music corporations and filmmakers. While trying to make a dent in the existing backlog, the staff has to deal with new deposits piling up all the time – and don’t have the resources to even begin to tackle the issue of non-compliance, leaving glaring gaps in the record.

What adds to the plight of the NSFVA is that we live in the digital age. VHS or sound tapes are all but obsolete, let alone any technology that’s older. Digitisation, digitisation, digitisation is the new gospel for anybody who wants to keep material for the future. Again, the NFVSA can only live in hope that one day it’ll have the means to digitise its collection before it becomes obsolete or irretrievably degraded. Moreover, the migration to digital TV is around the corner. The NFVSA needs to upgrade its infrastructure to be able to receive digital material in the near future, with all the budget constraints it faces.

The challenges affect the NFVSA’s ability to work with stakeholders. Even people in other institutions trying to work with the NFVSA are frustrated because, as one librarian from the University of Cape Town put it, “It’s impossible get anything out of there.” And it’s not for lack of effort or for lack of will on the part of overstretched staff members to respond. People are stopping just short of sweating blood because of how desperately hard they try against odds. Yet the odds will remain insurmountable if the current status quo persists.

There is a price to pay for all this. Researchers, filmmakers and anybody trying to find images, footage or films that shed light on certain moments in the country’s past may struggle to access such material. Even if the material does exist, if it’s not properly inventoried nobody will know that it does exist.

The root causes of the problems include the following:

  • The budget of the NFVSA is too low. Approximately R10 million is spent by the Department of Arts and Culture in a year on archives, only a fragment of which goes to preserve the country’s film, video and sound heritage. The archives thus get less than what is spent on Heritage Day, an event that lasts a single day. And it must be noted that the audio-visual collection is worth billions of rands. Countless filmmakers would do anything to get hold of some of the footage and sound recordings held there. (Collections worth billions are also held by broadcasters like the SABC. Rather bizarrely, there is no link between the SABC archives and the NFVSA, which means two publicly-funded entities do not speak to each other, let alone to broadcasters like e.tv.)
  • At Deputy Directory level the leadership of the section is placed too low on the government scale. This leaves the head of the section without a weighty enough voice and the section having to share a budget with others that have their own struggles. The effect of this becomes glaringly obvious when one considers that it has taken over three years of lobbying for the NFVSA to get approval to purchase three Apple computers that are expected in the coming months. It can only be described as baffling that people who look after the entire country’s sound, video and film collection do not have Macs, something even any aspiring disc jockey scrapes together as her/his first piece of equipment.
  • Staff members at the NFVSA have no clearly defined career paths. Each one has to wait for the one above her/him to retire, move on or die to stand a chance to get a higher position.
  • The staff does not have access to opportunities for ongoing skills upgrading. For instance, there is nowhere on the African continent where one can train to be an audio-visual archivist. In-house training is the order of the day.

Despite these odds stacked against them, the people at the NFVSA are doing some commendable work. Things are getting done. A Quadriga digital resources management system has been purchased and is currently being installed. The NSFVA has recently moved back into their newly renovated building. Things have improved somewhat from what they were before 1994. The NFVSA also now gets new computers at the same time as everybody else in the Department of Arts and Culture when it’s time for upgrades. The staff is accessioning and inventorying what they can. The revamp of the National Automated Archival Information Retrieving System (NAAIRS) is going ahead. NAAIRS is now at the testing stage with a view to be launched it in 2013.

Work on oral history also goes on, though minimal and forced by circumstances to be disjointed. The NFVSA still manages to offer some support to people who want to collect oral historical narratives in their communities. When approached by a person or group, they provide assistance with training on how to conduct oral history interviews, drawing up interview guides, recording the interviews and preserving them. Among others, they have been involved in a project in Limpopo where forced removals took place to make way for the Kruger National Park.

In addition, other projects arise from time to time that, of course, the NFVSA still manages to get involved in. Currently the NFVSA is working with the Madibeng Municipality in the North West to train unemployed university graduates to do oral history work in the municipality.

From the above, it is clear that the NFVSA is under-resourced in many ways. It has little chance of being anywhere near as effective as it could and needs to be if the audio-visual archive of this country is to be appropriately preserved. Having seen and heard what challenges face the institution, what needs to be done by the Department of Arts and Culture is clear:

  • The National Film, Video and Sound Archives needs to be granted more staff when it presents the case for raising the number from the current 20 to 50
  • At minimum a properly equipped video editing suite as well as more up-to-date audio-visual archiving equipment have to be budgeted for and acquired.
  • The national digitisation policy urgently needs to be finalised and digitisation of records must start taking place before the records become entirely obsolete.
  • The staff needs opportunities for ongoing skills upgrading to be made available and funded.
  • Even something as minor as an exception for the NFVSA regarding the government-wide restrictions on access to websites like YouTube needs to be attended to. Otherwise, how are audio-visual archivists meant to keep abreast of trends in the wider world?

Again, we must emphasise our previous recommendations. For all the above to begin to fall into place, structural problems need attention from the Department of Arts and Culture. The archives need -

  • Visionary leadership: including a Council that brings the sector’s finest minds to bear on leading the institution into the future;
  • A political champion: one who understands that archives play an important role in addressing the country’s skewed history and are critical to democratic accountability and who is able to speak out loudly and passionately for archives in policy and decision-making forums at the highest level;
  • Either a massive cash injection: such as the one-off conditional grant given to libraries to facilitate capital projects OR a new model / vision for the custodial function of the National Archives;
  • Professional capacity: an expanded corps of archivists, records managers, conservators, information technology staff, etc: with the skills and dedication to deliver a National Archival system that meets the need of the state and its citizens to collect, manage, preserve and make records accessible.

For previous posts, see:

The National Archives: Holding the records of government safe?

Overcoming Legacies of the Past?: The National Oral History Programme

Mbongiseni Buthelezi is the Deputy Director of the Archival Platform

 

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