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State of the Archives: an analysis of South Afrca’s national archival system

This comprehensive report details dysfunction and distress in the state’s record-keeping across a wide variety of sectors, from local government records to historical archives. This has serious implications for a range of essential processes in South Africa that depend on records, such as land claims, local governance, infrastructure development and corruption prevention. The report also notes the disappearance of important historical documents and a disintegration of many existing archives.

The State of the Archives report was produced by research and advocacy organisation The Archival Platform, a joint project of the University of Cape Town and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, after two years of research and investigation. It is being launched on March 25 in Johannesburg.

The report identifies a number of underlying problems that have led to a situation that is close to becoming “a national disgrace”. These include a lack of coherent policies, inadequate mechanisms for the regulation of archives, a confusion of structures, and chronic underfunding and lack of resources.

An Act promulgated in Nelson Mandela’s presidency in 1996 provided an initial framework for the establishment of a post-apartheid system of record-keeping. The National Archives of South Africa Act No 43 aimed to turn archives into an accessible public resource, use them to support programmes of redress, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and to contribute to transparent government record-keeping. The system was also intended to document the voices and experiences of those who were excluded in prior regimes and take archives to the people through imaginative public programmes.

However, 15 years later, few of these aims have been achieved. The report highlights a number of alarming problems. For example,

•  Archives remain the domain of elites. Public archives do very little outreach, and only a fraction of their holdings are accessible online.

•  Swathes of documentary memory are being lost, especially in electronic environments. While 21st century record-keeping is primarily electronic, public archives remain geared to paper. Numerous cases have been reported of records ‘disappearing’. Public archives are authorising the destruction of about 95% of public records.

• Access to archives has become more restricted. The Promotion of Access to Information Act is routinely used as gatekeeping. The impending Protection of State Information Act has already fostered new cultures of secrecy within public archives and revived the apartheid practice of using records classification as grounds for refusing public access.

•  There is a lack of political will to deal with the problems of record-keeping and archives.

The report calls on the Minister of Arts and Culture, whose department is responsible for archives and record-keeping, to act decisively and review the current system. It needs fundamental changes in order to provide the basis for democratic governance in South Africa and a decent historical record for its people.

The preparation and publication of this report has been made possible through the generous support of The Atlantic Philanthropies for the work of the Archival Platform.




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