Lessons from Madiba’s archives

2014-12-14 15:00

The recent attempt to auction documents relating to the deaths in police custody of anti-apartheid activists Steve Biko and Ahmed Timol has received intense public scrutiny.

For me, four critical questions have been raised in the discourse: What is the legal status of the documents and their contents? Who are the lawful owners of the documents and their contents? What are the lessons to be learnt from the matter? What impact does it have on our greater nation-building project?

I would argue that the meaning and significance of what is happening emerges from an understanding of five interrelated historical phenomena in South Africa.

Firstly, there was the danger for activists and those associated with anti-apartheid structures of keeping documents.

Police arrests and raids frequently resulted in the confiscation of documents and their subsequent use by the state in identifying other activists and as evidence in trials, as happened during the Rivonia raid and the subsequent Rivonia Trial.

It was common in these contexts for activists to destroy documentary trails or to disperse materials to “safe houses”.

The result was the widespread phenomenon of “fugitive archives” – materials outside of organisational purview and in the possession of private individuals.

The second phenomenon was the widespread practice of apartheid functionaries and operatives removing state documents and keeping them in their possession. The reasons for such removal were many – from supporting personal research projects to covering tracks, from securing an “insurance policy” against prosecution to generating an income through sales.

Thirdly, as was documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), in the last four years of the apartheid era, the state orchestrated a massive systematic destruction of records in state custody, including an accumulation of materials confiscated over the years from anti-apartheid activists and structures.

Fourthly, when “truth recovery” began in post-apartheid South Africa, led by the TRC, efforts were frequently hampered, if not completely frustrated, by the phenomena mentioned above.

Finally, post-apartheid South Africa has been characterised by the phenomenon of documents being put up for sale by those who have come to have them in their possession.

Numerous cases can be cited. One with particular relevance to Nelson Mandela was the sale of Rivonia Trial prosecution records, including a copy of Madiba’s personal 1962 diary.

So, the case of the Biko and Timol documents is not an isolated incident. It is an expression of our painful history and of a profound dysfunction in relation to South Africa’s documentary heritage.

The courts will rule on the questions of legal status and ownership in this particular case. But South Africans need to understand the deeper ethical imperatives defined by our histories of dispossession. They need to consider the needs of individuals, families and communities whose stories are interwoven with the contents of documents.

For some families, the sale of such archives brings back the pain of loss that many are still trying to come to terms with, particularly in cases where sales are undertaken by descendants of those who inflicted pain in the first place.

It can also be argued that such sales can be an insult to the memory of those who sacrificed so much for our freedom. Those intending to sell the documents need to contemplate the array of rights – for instance, to intellectual property and privacy – in any document.

Possession is seldom as straightforward as it seems. It is time for our archival and heritage authorities to undertake robust public education initiatives in this regard and to use the instruments available to them to ensure that societal, rather than financial, value determines the fate of South Africa’s fugitive archives.

A good example of how healing and long-term investment in memory work can be achieved was the return of two of Madiba’s prison notebooks by a former security police officer in 2004. This helped Madiba close a chapter of dispossession that pained him.

During the handover ceremony, Madiba expressed a wish for the establishment of a Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.

Today, the centre serves as a hub for interrogating and understanding Mandela’s life and times, and the two notebooks constitute an important part of the centre’s archival collection.

In the contexts described above, when one finds records left by family members who might have passed on, the instinct should not be to sell and make money, or to destroy such records.

I would argue that one should first seek advice from a relevant state authority on the ownership of such records. The state must create an enabling environment for such advice to be sought without the danger of prosecution.

May we all take responsibility for using the archive for the continuing work of restoration and reconciliation.

Hatang is chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and an Archbishop Desmond Tutu Fellow

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