Madiba’s archivist

2008-09-03 00:00

Shelves of dusty documents in the care of humourless, rule-bound bureaucrats? That’s a popular view of archives. But you have only to meet Pietermaritzburg-born Verne Harris, currently head of the memory programme at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Dialogue, jazz enthusiast and political activist, to see them in a very different light.

For Harris, archives are an extension of the human experience. He uses an appealing, domestic analogy: “Recounting the day’s events at home, we select and discard from our memory bank what is appropriate to our audience. The archivist does much the same and calls it document appraisal.” So the archives is a place of selective remembrance and forgetting. But Harris is also a novelist, and sees his archival role as that of “storyteller since the way evidence is shaped determines interpretation”. In those apparently dry documents and artefacts Harris believes fantasy and the release of imagination are to be found.

He’s particularly sceptical about the concept of closure when applied to archives, arguing that their true role is the continued interpretation of meaning about the past. For the archivist “memory is a key, but more important is the concept of power, as the archivist is a maker of space for contestation”. He reckons hostility to this idea is the greatest challenge facing this country’s archivists today.

“My father was a musician and I grew up with jazz in the air,” he says recalling the early sixties in Pietermaritz Street at his parents’ home with “wild parties just before apartheid destroyed even the semblance of casual non-racial socialising”. What he refers to as a “brutalising experience on the border” as a mid-seventies army conscript was redeemed by studying history on the local campus and exposure to revisionist historiography. This led to involvement with the Black Sash and detainee support groups.

In 1985, he had started a career in the national archives service and by the late nineties he was the link between the national archives and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). This involved investigation of the destruction of apartheid-era records about which he wrote in the final TRC report. He recalls: “Military intelligence lied to us and held back most of their records, while the police did much the same and still possess a vast archive of film. Then, even after the December 1995 moratorium on records destruction, shredding of bantustan documents carried on under the new regime.”

The military continued to haunt him. He left the national archives in 2001 after delivering a conference paper in which he referred to intelligence service malpractice and dishonesty. For this he was threatened with a misconduct charge. “I decided that I could contribute more outside the structures of the state,” he comments, but there was more to it than the spooks. “After Madiba stepped down in 1999, the public service rapidly became a space in which contestation and dissidence were not tolerated.” As head of transformation at the archives, he became frustrated that this was often seen as little more than the demographics of post-filling with little interest in addressing the many faults of the old system. He has summed this up in the past as “post-apartheid triumphalism”.

For three years he worked for the South African History Archive and lectured at Wits University in the heritage studies programme before becoming Mandela’s archivist.

“The presence of Madiba — and the attendant energies — inspires, complicates, concentrates and distracts in ways impossible in other environments,” he says. The name continues to carry great authority: the recent controversy over the reclaimed papers of Percy Yutar, prosecutor at the Rivonia trial, which were sold to the Oppenheimers’ Brenthurst Library, “was ultimately determined by Mandela’s insistence that they belong to the nation and its archives”.

Harris is a prolific writer and lecturer and the most prominent and challenging archivist in South Africa. In the euphoria of the 1994 transition he co-authored an article entitled “Towards a culture of transparency”. Asked how far South Africa has moved away from the secrecy of the past, he offers little cheer: “Not significantly yet. Post-apartheid South Africa has inherited powerful cultures of secrecy across traditions, communities and movements.” Expanding on this, he names the ANC underground and in exile, remnants of the apartheid system and indigenous cultural taboos. But he’s surprisingly upbeat about the controversial Protection of Information Bill about which he recently testified in Parliament on behalf of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. It’s an advance on existing legislation, he believes, but the definition of “national interest” needs considerable tightening and the primacy of the Promotion of Access to Information Act has to be established.

He looks forward to the day when “we embrace the notion of participative democracy. Only then will people’s archives begin to emerge in South Africa. And wherever they flourish, they will do so beyond the ambit of government.” For Harris, the pinnacle of his career would be “to become a public servant again in an environment where public service is regarded as a sacred duty. But in my view we’re seeing a return to the milieu dominant in the apartheid era characterised by entitlement, patronage and inertia.”

Who is Verne Harris?

Verne Harris’s earliest formative memories are of music and he remains a man of jazz. He sums it all up as the “jazzification of experience, trying to bring imagination, humour and the unexpected and push the boundaries in all my work”.

Harris was born in 1958, was educated at Maritzburg College and the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, and wrote his Masters thesis on land issues in northern Natal. Until 2001, his career in the national archives service in Pietermaritzburg, Pretoria and Durban took him to the level of deputy director.

After three years as director at the South African History Archive, he joined the Nelson Mandela Foundation as archives project manager in the Centre of Memory and Dialogue in June 2004. He is now part of the foundation’s management team.

He has written widely on archival matters and has presented lectures and conference papers in over a dozen countries. Author of two novels, Where They Play the Blues and Cool Anger Blowing, both shortlisted for the M-Net book prize, he is also a jazz critic for the Pretoria News.

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