Our new minister is responsible for archives too!

  • Posted on June 6, 2014

We have followed the furore resulting from the appointment of the former Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa, as Minister of Arts and Culture with a great deal of interest.

Comments have come from at least three quarters. Some object to the appointment on the grounds that Mthethwa was the Minister of Police under whose watch the Marikana miners were massacred, but this argument has not gained much traction.

National Arts Festival Artistic Director Ismail Mahomed has expressed the concern that the appointment is intended to “increasingly advance ‘official art’ over and above free creativity”. We join our colleagues in the arts in hoping sincerely that this fear is not realised and that the values of our Constitution are upheld.

The issue that has attracted the most attention is the perception that the reassignment of Mthethwa to arts and culture is a demotion. Mthethwa has been described as the one of the “biggest losers in the cabinet”, and it has been suggested that he has been placed at the “helm of a ministry that was always put on the back burner” or sent into a “political Siberia”.  In a similar vein, the DAC has been described as “funeral home of cabinet”,  a “dumping ground”, and a “junior department”.

Outrage is all very well, but the furore has had a positive effect. Arts organisations are stepping up to affirm the role of arts and culture in society and to dispel the perceptions of the DAC as a ‘junior’ ministry of no import. The Arterial Network issued a statement arguing that,“The Department of Arts and Culture serves as steward of South Africa’s public culture and identity and hence stands at a critical role in our national development – affirming our constitutionally entrenched values, facilitating a national conversation about who we are as South Africans and about our place in the world. We believe it is insulting to these constitutional values to belittle the arts and culture portfolio in this way.” 

In a similar vein, Michelle Constant, Business and Arts South Africa (BASA) CEO, in a letter published in Business Day, says that describing the appointment as a demotion does a “huge disservice to the cultural workers in this country, of which there are many, and to the role that the arts play in growing a country’s emotional and cultural intelligence as well as its economy”.

The African Arts Institute hosted a public debate in which many expressed strong opinions on all these, and other issues. 

The DAC too stepped into the fray, issuing a media release decrying “the perception created in the media that Arts and Culture is a junior department and that the appointment of Minister Nathi Mthethwa ought to be seen as a demotion” and welcoming the new minister. 

While arts practitioners have been vocal in drawing attention to the valuable role they play in society, we would like to remind everyone that the minister is also responsible for archives. We think that the Minister and the DAC have an important job to do and an important role to play in our society and we worry that this has not been sufficiently aknowledged or understood. Archives are, after all, the resourcs that citizens and government draw on to understand the present, think about or reckon with the past, and plan for the future.

Until about 1994 South Africa’s public archives had largely to do with history, with the custody, care and control of the records of government and other non-public records for the purpose of historical research. Today, archives and records occupy a very different place in government and in society and perform, or have the power to perform, very different roles. They sit at the heart of some of the fundamental concerns of South Africa’s fledgling democracy: accountability and good governance; access to information; social justice and the right to truth; historical memory; and national identity. 

Since 1996 national and provincial archives have been charged with the “proper management and care of all pubic records”, not simply the records in archival repositories but all records of government, from the time they are created until their disposal or transfer to an archival repository is authorised by national or provincial archivists. This is a weighty responsibility and we, and others, are concerned that the role that national and provincial archives play in upholding democracy, and in giving substance to the constitutional right to access to information, has not been sufficiently acknowledged or understood.

As a result, archives are often insufficiently resourced and capacitated, which means that it is just about impossible for even the most conscientious officials – and there are many – to ensure compliance with archives and records management legislation.

While there are pockets of excellence and we have been hugely impressed by the work that many of our colleagues in the national and provincial archives are doing, and the dedication with which they do it, the state of record-keeping across government is still a matter of great concern.

We hope that our new minister seizes the opportunity to address these challenges before too long!

Jo-Anne Duggan is the Director of the Archival Platform

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