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The Politics of Memory: A Case Study of the South African Archival Landscape

  • Posted on December 18, 2013

Foreword
The background of this paper is the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) funded project between the National Archives of Sweden and the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation in South-Africa. The purpose of the project is to perform a study of the situation concerning Desmond Tutu’s archives. This study will be finalized by the end of November 2013 and its aim is to give recommendations for a strategy to securing and making available the archival legacy of Desmond Tutu. In this project the National Archives of Finland, represented by myself, is a partner of the National Archives of Sweden, and as a part of the study I and my Swedish colleague Mr. Håkan Lövblad made a two week visit to South-Africa in January, to investigate and document the present situation.

Those two weeks in South-Africa, and the discussions with several South African colleagues, were a unique professional learning curve for me. Instead of an archival discourse similar to Finland, which can only be characterized as administrative or bureaucratic, we were confronted with a professional discourse with a strong social and political tone. Things, which had previously been familiar to me as captivating but still only abstract concepts in theoretical texts, found concrete or physical shapes in South African archival reality. In many ways I was convinced that what archives and archivists do, is not just an academic or administrative professional discourse (in the Foucauldian sense of the term), which I feel is the position of many Finnish professionals. In South-Africa, it was evident that what archives and archivists do have very real political and social consequences, and instead of equalizing professionalism with the widely contested concept of “impartiality”, we should also become aware of them, even if we do work in a very different social context.

To get acquainted with the South African archival landscape was an invigorating professional experience. In this paper I am discussing this experience under the title of “politics of memory”. I use this concept to represent the notion that what archives and archivists do have political and social consequences. I use the term “politics” in a sense defined by the world famous guru of postmodern archival theory, South AfricanVerne Harris whom we had the pleasure to meet. He has stated that politics is the engagement of power with principle and this engagement defines what is considered to be “ethical”. Thus, the ethical and the political are always implicated in one another. (Harris 2011, 119). I will first discuss how the politics of memory are displayed by the development of archival sector in South-Africa during and after the Apartheid- period. I will then move on to the transformation discourse in archives as it is presented by Verne Harris and explore the concept of politics of memory from a more theoretical perspective. Finally I will reflect on how politics of memory affect the Desmond Tutu Archives project which I am involved with. In giving this account I draw heavily – and often verbatim - on Verne Harris’s articles on archival discourse in South-Africa published in international archival journals during 1996 and 2011. Most of these texts were familiar to me even before the visit to South-Africa but reading them again afterwards gave me a totally different insight on what Verne Harris is talking about. I use these texts as a framework, which puts the slivers of archival reality I encountered in South-Africa to a coherent context, and which voices my personal experience in a more analytical way than I could be able to voice myself in English language.

Archival Sector and Transformation from Apartheid to Democracy

In the South African context, it becomes evident that even the simple fact that a public archival service is an organ and an instrument of the state has a strong connotation of politics of memory. In South-Africa, the
state enforced a social and economic system based on legalized racial segregation, the Apartheid-system, from 1948 to 1994. Apartheid was first and foremost a form of racial capitalism and its roots were in the segregation of the races already in the colonial times. After 1948, though, laws were passed which formalized racial classification and separated races on designated areas in all dimensions of social life. Higher education and skilled jobs were reserved for the Whites, who thus had a control over economic resources and a monopoly on access to the state. Black, Indian and Colored –groups formed a subordinate section. Besides people native of South-Africa, this section consisted of former slaves from other areas of Africa and 19th century immigrants from India and other Asian countries. The resistance of this section was easily contained because of its complex interplay of ethnic, gender, social, cultural, linguistic, political and class identities.(Harris 2002, 66-68)

According to Verne Harris, another key element in sustaining the apartheid hegemony was the state’s control over social memory (Harris 2002, 69). Under apartheid this, as well as all social space, was a site of struggle not only of a narrative against narrative, but also of remembering against forgetting in the very crudest sense (Harris 1996, 7). The state sought to destroy oppositional memory and apartheid’s public memory institutions, the State Archives Service of South-Africa (SAS) being one of them, legitimized apartheid rule. The SAS status as an organ of the state combined to ensure that many of its services, whatever the intentions of the SAS or of individual archivists might have been, were fashioned into tools of the apartheid system (Harris 1996, 8). As a consequence of this, also the private collections of the SAS contain material only from the establishment aligned sources. Until the early 1980’s, when the anti-apartheid organizations and individuals active in the struggles against apartheid began depositing archival materials with private collecting institutions, particularly university libraries, the South African archival terrain was dominated by the SAS. At that time, the central anti-apartheid activist organizations founded also a private repository, the South African History Archive, with the mission to preserve the memory of the struggles against apartheid. (Harris 2002, 69-70; 74-75)

The apartheid regime was not overthrown; instead between 1990 and 1994 the apartheid government and the opponents of apartheid negotiated a transition to democracy. From the point of view of the archives, this meant that there would be no reconstruction of the apartheid archival system but the new would be built out of the old through a process of transformation. (Harris 2002, 75) According to Verne Harris this process was eased by a significant shift in the balance of power in the SAS’s senior management. When in 1990 all twelve most senior positions were occupied by Afrikaners and only one of them was female, in 1994 there were four women and three English speakers in the top eleven positions; Verne Harris himself being the Deputy General Director. During the Apartheid-period only whites could be appointed to professional posts, but by 1994 five professional staff positions were occupied by blacks and in 1995 was the first appointment at senior level. (Harris 1996, 9; 11) After the general election of 1994, and the formation of the new Government of National Unity, the SAS was converted into the National Archives and Records Service operating at the central level of government, and nine autonomous provincial public archives services were created. The new National Archives and Records Service Act were passed in 1996. After 1990 private institutions acquired significant quantities of records documenting anti-apartheid struggles, from both within and outside the country (Harris 2001, 75). Another significant factor was the ending of the international isolation, in which the South African archival profession had been during the Apartheid-period. The membership to ICA was admitted in 1991, and it was followed by participation in The Eastern and Southern African Branch of ICA (ESARBICA). (Harris 1996, 11) The constitution of the South-African Society of Archivists (SASA), which was previously supported and dominated by the SAS and thus never adopted an anti-Apartheid stance, was changed in 1990 allowing room for non-SAS members on its board. Under this new leadership The Journal of the South African Society of Archivists, published by the SASA, became the main forum for the archival transformation discourse. SASA also participated actively in public debates concerning the interests of the archival profession in building up the new government structures after 1994. (Harris 1996, 13)

All in all, the late 1990’s and early 2000 were a time of an invigorating transformation discourse also for the archival sector in South-Africa. Unfortunately, the political developments of South-Africa since the general election of 2009 have downplayed the role of archives in the democratization process. Many of the people we talked to during our visit expressed a deep concern for the corruption and lack of leadership and expertise in all government levels. This naturally has an impact also on archives and records management in public sector, which according to many sources is in a state of crises. There is a dearth of recordkeeping education and consequently of trained professionals, as well as a serious lack of proper storage facilities for paper records and a strategy for capturing and maintaining digital records. (Marks 2012) There is also a little hope for remedying this situation as the strategic leadership in the recordkeeping sector has been paralyzed. After the 2009 election, the new government has failed to appoint the National Archives Advisory Council and the General Director of the NARS has been suspended since 2010, based on charges of administrative misgivings. His case has been discussed in South African media2, where it is represented as an example of the corrupt situation in the government; similar to the false allegations made against some other civil servants in the position of “watchdogs” for government accountability.

In this situation the private archival sector has taken a collaborative effort to reinstate the archives and records management profession in South-Africa. This effort is best displayed by the Archival Platform website. The website is “a civil society initiative committed to deepening democracy through the use of memory and archives as dynamic public resources”. The Archival Platform was established by the University of Cape Town and the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and it is funded by an international trust, The Atlantic Philanthropies. On one hand, the Archival Platform is intended to draw attention to the political and social role of archives in deepening democracy, encouraging the exercise of active citizenship, and facilitating the work of building social cohesion in a historically fractured society. On the other hand, it is intended to address the specific concerns of the archival sector: the practical challenges of digitization, poor communication and coordination and uneven or inadequate funding and training opportunities.3

The Transformation Discourse in Archives

The reading of Verne Harris’s texts from 1996 to 2011 is an odyssey along the turns of the archival transformation discourse in South Africa; reflecting the wider political and societal developments, as well as the personal professional experience of Verne Harris himself during this time period. By transformation discourse Harris refers to the starting point of the early 1990’s that archival endeavor in South-Africa requires reinvention to be able to support the country’s post-apartheid societal dynamics.

In his 2011 article Jacques Derrida meets Nelson Mandela: archival ethics at the endgame Verne Harris reflects the archival transformation discourse of the past 20 years and labels it as the “South African tradition of archives for justice”. This discourse flourished in the 1990’s within a broader movement of “memory for justice” which was symbolized by the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South-Africa. This discourse in and about South-Africa was emblazoned by the concepts of noble struggle against apartheid, of post-apartheid reconciliation and of nation-building. Its political background was the 1990’s postapartheid government’s policy of building the future through engagement with memory of the colonial and apartheid eras. The symbolic moment representing all this memory work was Archbishop Desmond Tutu handing the report of the TRC to President Mandela in 1998. (Harris 2011, 116) The defining concepts of the “archives for justice” discourse were the archivist as a memory activist, either for or against the oppressive system, and creating space for the voices silenced by apartheid and countering the dominant metanarratives of the regime, as ethical imperatives. (Harris, 2011, 114)

Already in his 1996 account of the transformation discourse Verne Harris asked if “in finding ourselves as active shapers of social memory, will we provide space – will we be allowed to provide space – for competing narratives?” (Harris 1996, 20) and this was to become the major theme of the transformation discourse for himself. One of the anti-apartheid rallying calls had been to take archives to the people and the need to transform public archives from a domain of elite into a community resource (Harris 1996, 18; Harris 2002, 81). In the early days of the new post-apartheid regime this approach was expressed in the view that the shaping power of archives should be harnessed to promote the new metanarratives of reconciliation and nation building (Harris 1996, 16; Harris 2002, 78). For Harris, this represented politics of memory similar to the ways of the apartheid regime. Verne Harris felt that the primary measure of the contribution of archives to the enrichment and democratization of the nation’s memory will be the extent to which archives give voice to the voiceless, whoever under different power relations they may be (Harris 1996, 20).

Verne Harris saw South-Africa’s transformation from apartheid to democracy as a “powerful opportunity for refiguring and re-imagining archival endeavor”. For him, the epistemological framework for this refiguring and re-imagining was postmodernism, and more specifically the Derridan deconstruction with its central concept of “the other”. Over time he became disappointed that this approach was not generally embraced but the emerged archival discourse has been embedded in epistemological approaches which he refers to as the Western Positivist paradigm. (Harris and Hatang 2000, 42; Harris 2001, 10; Harris 2002, 82) Verne Harris has questioned especially the exclusion of “African ways of knowing” in the archival discourse in South-Africa, as well as in African countries in general (Harris 2002, 77; 83). In line with his theoretical framework he has asked that should an African archival discourse not question the clear-cut conceptual divide and the binary opposition of the Western ways of knowledge construction (Harris and Hatang 2000, 54). In Verne Harris’s opinion, the work of archives will remain elitist and as such a marginal force in the weaving of social memory in South-Africa without conceptual frameworks for meaning construction which are rooted in South African societal realities and indigenous pasts (Harris 2002, 83; Harris 2011, 119).

One example of the exclusion of the “African ways of knowing” is the National Archives where transformation has increased the staff’s representativeness of South-Africa’s demographic profile but has not allowed in the “difference” offered by the black staff. The ethnical diversity is not challenging the established patterns, rhythms and processes but is being managed to conform to an organizational culture not fundamentally different from the one inherited from the times of White dominance. For the black staff, this means leaving not only their blackness at the front entrance but their “Africanness”, too, and it leads to conforming to being “the other”. (Harris and Hatang 2000, 50) In the heart of “Africanness” in this sense is language, in which all meaning construction is embedded. South-Africa has 11 official languages of which English is the one that is common to all and used in formal interactions. As such, those who are not native English speakers, as all black Africans are, have to construct their professional identities and expertise with a language which is a foreign language for them.

The only issue of “African ways of knowing” that has been integrated into the Western dominant archival discourse in Africa is the role of oral history in indigenous cultures. However, in public archives it is often seen as of secondary importance to records and may even be seen as a factor working against the practices of good recordkeeping. Likewise, the notion of exteriority draws boundaries between concepts of archives and memory in the Western archival discourse but from an African perspective there is no binary opposition. Given the high levels of illiteracy in Africa, orality is the medium in which most people express themselves. Also story as a mode of knowledge construction, and as bearer of memory, is part of the fabric of public discourse in this part of the world. The question then arises that are the tracings in people’s memories - shared and performed – then not an archive, too? (Harris and Hatang 2000, 54-55). For Harris, deconstruction, which is framed to subvert the Western epistemological mainstream and defined by its respect for “the other”, encloses the African way of knowledge construction. Deconstruction invites “the other” in and this hospitality towards every “other”; this welcoming strangers and giving them the experience of belonging, is what connects “Africanness” and deconstruction and, according to Verne Harris, it is this hospitality that leads to passion for justice. (Harris and Hatang 2000, 57; Harris 2002, 85-86)

Verne Harris’ disillusionment with the emerged archival discourse is also based on the feeling that presently the energies of the archives for justice -discourse are dissipating; it is still a root metaphor but no longer
the driving energy in South African archives. (Harris 2011, 113-115) He characterizes the present situation by the words of a Nelson Mandela Foundation report from 2005 which states that “democratization routinely is associated with bureaucratization [and] the ideals of a liberation struggle must, necessarily, be tempered by the need to manage competing priorities in contexts of limited resources”. From the perspective of the regime, the work of the archives and other memory institutions is done and the political support is waning and funding is drying up. In Harris’ words the South African archives

“… have been drawn into the slower, duller routines of a society “normalized”. Both our discourses and our work have been bureaucratized; discourses of business processes, information systems, efficient management and protection of privacy and security of information are running strongly” (Harris 2011, 115)

In the view of Verne Harris, South African archivists have lost their earlier hunger for justice, and those who still hunger, have become entrapped in an era forever gone with root metaphors, concepts, and idioms which articulate a particular struggle at a particular time. Like the whole country, also the archival profession needs to find a new vision and energy, which ensures continuity with the past while opening to the future. (Harris 2011, 119)

Politics of Memory around the Legacy of Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu is one of the best known anti-apartheid activists around the world. He did his professional career as an Anglican reverend within the Anglican Church of Southern Africa and the South African Council of Churches – becoming the first black Archbishop in South-Africa in 1986. In 1984 he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his role as a unifying leader figure in the campaign against apartheid. His last public position was the Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South-Africa from 1995 to 1999. After that, Desmond Tutu has been a global activist on wide range of issues pertaining to democracy, freedom and human rights. In South-Africa, Desmond Tutu has continued to be the “voice of the voiceless” – as President Mandela has characterized him – actively criticizing the government for corruption, ineffectiveness in dealing with poverty and suppressing the right to criticize itself.

Desmond Tutu himself contacted the National Archives of Sweden (NAS) and asked their assistance in securing his archival legacy and making it available for future generations. Sweden was an obvious choice because of the country’s long engagement in supporting the democratization of South-Africa, and because of Archbishop Tutu’s personal contacts in Sweden formed during the time of struggle against apartheid.
Later, in June 2012 the NAS received a formal request by The Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, affiliated to which Desmond Tutu does his work today, and which is run by his daughter reverend Mpho Tutu. In this request the archival legacy was described as a vast collection of documents, photographs, audio and video recordings, which reaches from the early sixties to present, and is stored in several homes, churches, universities and other institutions. In the draft report we wrote after our visit to South-Africa, the objective of the assistance of the NAS is stated to give the Legacy Foundation recommendations for a strategy in order to attain a documented, structured, user-friendly and secure archive for the future.

In South-Africa we learned that the material referred to as archival legacy of Desmond Tutu translated to professional terminology as several collections of different provenance containing different types of material in the custody of several collecting institutions and the Legacy Foundation; in addition to material in the homes of Desmond and Leah Tutu in Cape Town and in Soweto. The collections both materialized and contested the clear-cut conceptual divide and binary opposition typical to archival discourse based on Western knowledge construction, which Verne Harris talks about. Besides records in different format and media, this material, which was labeled “archival legacy”, contained also artworks, artifacts and bibliographic material; in other words material, which traditional archival categorization would label museum and library material and exclude from a collection categorized as archival. And the typical archival material made it evident how difficult it is to divide in practice the records of any public figure into the binary categories of private or public. When visiting the custodial institutions, we found that the collections, with the exception of the material in custody of the Legacy Foundation and the Tutu family, were available for users; were held in secure archival storage, and were processed and described in a level making them accessible.

In South-Africa we also found out that in March 2011 the Google Corporation had granted 1.25 million dollars for Desmond Tutu Peace Centre in Cape Town to build up a Desmond Tutu Digital Archives –online service. The Peace Centre is one of the several non-profit organizations around the globe of which Desmond Tutu is a patron. It is also a trust, which Desmond Tutu himself was involved in founding in 1998, and he is
still a board member of the trust. The Peace Centre had established a project to digitize, preserve and make available online the archival legacy of Desmond Tutu. Presently the project is funding work in the custodial institutions of the collections to describe the material on item level and then digitize it. Some of the material in the custody of the Legacy Foundation had also been digitized to be included in the Desmond Tutu Digital Archives. So in effect, the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre was already doing what we had envisioned to be the practical implementation of the assistance that the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation had invited us to give. In our draft report to the Legacy Foundation, we are making a proposal of collaboration and co-operation with the Peace Centre and the custodial institutions in securing and making available the archival legacy of Desmond Tutu.

In his 2011 article Verne Harris, who presently works as the head of the Memory Programming Department of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg, discusses the legacy of Nelson Mandela. Harris writes that “the publishing space we name “Mandela” is an industry, arguably supporting a saturated market dominated by the coffee-table book reproducing the same basic narrative and the same well-known images”. Nelson Mandela himself as an active maker of legacy is gone and the pressing need, in Verne Harris’s opinion, is to find means of turning his memory into a resource for building a future in which social justice and cohesion are prioritized. (Harris 2011, 118) Verne Harris’s words offer me an appropriate metaphor with which to analyze my experience with the work around the legacy of Desmond Tutu; although the situation is not entirely similar with that of Nelson Mandela. The most meaningful differences are that Desmond Tutu still is an active “maker of legacy” and that he has been affiliated with more than one organizational structure in doing his work; one of which is run by his family member. The personal aspect is also present in the work of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, though, and in our meeting with Verne Harris he pointed out that we should be glad Desmond Tutu has only one family whereas Nelson Mandela has three!

It is evident that also the legacy of Desmond Tutu is an “industry”, a business, in the sense that there are quite a few people around the world who are dependent on earning their living out of it. My impression is that this industry has been successful, at least to a point, in turning “the memory into a resource for building a future”; in other words converting the “name space” Desmond Tutu as a resource in building up programs and initiatives, which carry on the work he himself has done. An essential ground work for programming is fundraising, the raising of capital for the business to thrive, and as it is with any industry, the more competition there is, the more difficult fundraising is for individual agents. This brings the questions of ownership into the equation, and in the area of the narratives and images reproduced out of a legacy, the ownership of the legacy is a pressing issue. However, it is not just an economical and juridical issue of property and intellectual rights over the work of a world famous “icon” but involves also the personal and sensitive narratives and images of a family and the way the family wishes to construct the memorizing of a husband and a father. I think it is human for a family involved in the “legacy industry” to feel that they hould be entitled to hold the exclusive right over the narratives and images reproduced out of this legacy and consider competition in this area as “unfair”. In this kind of “business context” collaboration and cooperation is not a self-evident strategy.

In conclusion

In this article I have tried to express my experience with politics of memory in the context of the South African archival landscape. At the beginning of the article I defined that I will use the concept of “politics of memory” to represent the notion that what archives and archivists do have political and social consequences; a notion that materialized for me during my two weeks visit in South-Africa. Furthermore, I defined “politics” as the engagement of power with principle that defines what is considered to be “ethical”. So in essence, the question is about understanding, also here in the context of our national professional
discourse, that in every issue we label “ethical”, and by doing this position ourselves as being “impartial”, there is always an element of power, of making a decision and thus exercising power, present as well. Ihave expressed my experience by words and expressions drawn from the writings of Verne Harris and letme conclude by a final quotation from him:

“The dimension of power in archives is made plain in the extreme circumstances of oppression, and in the heady process of rapid transition to democracy, as [in] South-Africa. However, even in the relatively calm backwaters of established democracies, we ignore the dimension of power at our peril. Archivists, wherever they work and however they are positioned, are subject to the call of and for justice. For the archive can never be a quiet retreat for professionals and scholars and craft persons…Here one cannot keep one’s hands clean. Any attempt to be impartial, to stand above power-plays, constitutes a choice, whether conscious
or not, to replicate if not to reinforce prevailing relations of power. In contrast, archivists who hear the calling of justice…will always be troubling the prevailing relations of power.(Harris 2002, 85).

Jaana Kilkki is an archivist at the National Archives of Finland

Notes:

(1) This text was first presented in the international seminar “Archives as Sites of Memory” held in Helsinki May 14th 2013 and organized by the University of Turku research project “Making and Interpreting the National Pasts – Archives as Networks of Power and Sites of Memory”.

(2) For example, Mail & Guardian 29.6.2012 and 6.7.2012 http://mg.co.za/article/2012-07-06-questions-that-needanswers/

(3) http://www.archivalplatform.org/

References

Harris, Verne (1996). “Redefining Archives in South-Africa: Public Archives and Society in Transition, 1990-1996.” Archivaria 42, 6-21.
Harris, Verne (1997). “Claiming Less, Delivering More: A Critique of Positivist Formulations on Archives in South Africa”. Archivaria 44, 132-141.
Harris, Verne and Hatang, Sello (2000). “Archives, Identity and Place. A Dialogue on What It (Might) Mean(s)to Be an African Archivist”. First published in ESARBICA Journal 19, 2000. CJILS/RCSIB 25 no 2/3 2000, 41-60
Harris, Verne (2001). “On (Archival) Odyssey(s)”. Archivaria 51, 2-13.
Harris, Verne (2002). “The Archival Sliver: Power, Memory, and Archives in South Africa”. Archival Science 2:63-86. Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Harris, Verne (2011). “Jacques Derrida meets Nelson Mandela: archival ethics at the endgame”. Archival Science11: 113-124.
Marks, Shula (2012). “Do not let our archives turn to dust”. Mail & Guardian 29.6.2012. http://mg.co.za/article/2012-06-28-do-not-let-our-archives-turn-to-dus

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