Ensuring a past not forgotten

2013-08-29 00:00

SOME weeks ago, Witness reader Jay Jugwanth reminded the people of Pietermaritzburg of the origins of Allandale Primary School, once named Baijoo and Maharaj Government Aided School, and one of many examples of philanthropy and self-improvement in the Indian community.

He called for restoration of the largely forgotten old name, which had disappeared with the implementation of the Group Areas Act in the sixties. Subsequently, Bev Davidge of the Forum for School Museums and Archives, wrote to the paper to emphasise the importance of school archival collections.

Memory and archives: these were the main themes of the University of KwaZulu-Natal Special Collections open day that was held recently on the Pietermaritzburg campus under the theme Telling our Stories through Archives and Museums. Keynote speaker Verne Harris, of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, reminded his audience that memory institutions include not just the obvious collections, libraries and museums, but also historical sites and agencies dealing with justice and reparation. In addressing the past, society secures its future, although, as he has written elsewhere, justice and democracy are phantoms, something that “must always be coming”.

Similarly, archival practitioners include not just librarians, archivists and museologists, but palaeontologists (he could have added journalists and cartographers) and, an unusual example, prison warders. Harris told the intriguing story of Nelson Mandela’s warder at Victor Verster Prison, Jack Swart, who has kept every note written by Madiba that was left for him. The messages are banal, but this collection qualifies as archivally important by virtue of the significance of the writer and his times. Archives come in all shapes and sizes. And in a digitised age, the potential audience for these products of memory institutions is vast. The work of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory reaches millions of people globally every month through its social-media platforms.

In the South African context, there is the responsibility of archives in a post-apartheid nation to fulfil the desire for justice and the need to uncover hidden histories. A number of speakers at the open day spoke to this: for instance, the past struggles of women (Kalpana Hiralal) and present endeavours at land restitution (Mthoko Sibiya). Bill Guest, who is writing a three-volume history of the University of Natal, described the range and complexity of archival resources required to tackle such a project.

John Aitchison’s case study of the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness (Pacsa) made it clear that archiving is not an isolated activity. Pacsa’s mission at its foundation in the late seventies was to educate white citizens about the realities of life under apartheid for black South Africans. Its community activism was simultaneously an archival process that monitored, collected basic data and photographs, and communicated the results. When the Natal Midlands erupted in violence, in particular from September 1987 onwards, Pacsa co-operated with the University of Natal’s Centre for Adult Education to compile a database of information about perpetrators and victims, actions and consequences. From this, a quantitative picture was constructed that enabled trends to be identified. These have not been challenged in any significant way over the subsequent quarter of a century, although, as Guest pointed out, each generation has a tendency to re-evaluate the evidence and rewrite history from a fresh perspective.

KwaZulu-Natal is richly endowed with archives well-versed in international best practice regarding preservation and documentation, although access and usage are not always easy. The UKZN has no fewer than five: the Killie Campbell Collections in Durban, the Documentation Centre at Westville, and the Alan Paton Centre, University Archives and the Centre for African Literary Studies in Pietermaritzburg. The provincial archives has depots in Ulundi, Durban and Pietermaritzburg, the last of which has just been renovated. But as Aitchison said, from his experience in the adult-education sector, a great deal of valuable archival material has disappeared into thin air.

Julie Dyer’s impressive book on the history of public health in Pietermaritzburg was written out of concern that crucial records could disappear forever. There is the probability that a significant part of our national history has been destroyed as a result of a casual attitude towards archival material.

All significant institutions — government, educational, commercial, industrial, religious and sporting — have an obligation to preserve their archive to explain their role for posterity.

Harris is South Africa’s best-known and most influential archivist, but in the not-so-distant past, was known as the troublemaker of the archival world for his advocacy of openness and transparency in public life. Through his work at the South African History Archive (SAHA), he campaigned in robustly practical ways against what he describes as the hiding away of illegitimate secrets. Control of the archive, ultimately of human memory, is a tool of elites in modern societies. Ease of access to that store of memory is a measure of effective democratisation.

In the early nineties, Hilda Bernstein, the anti-apartheid activist and exile, evocatively described our history as one of “torn and missing pages”. The apartheid regime was inclined to opacity and erected a massive, multidimensional structure of censorship in order to ensure the dominance of its own propaganda. Its survival was built on secrecy, or “organised forgetting”, as novelist Milan Kundera described a similar process in Communist-run Czechoslovakia.

The post-apartheid state has also created impediments to access to and use of official records, and is about to enact legislation that could put impenetrable barriers around swathes of public documents declared confidential by myriad officials.

But there is another area of archival blankness: many anti-apartheid organisations imposed upon themselves a regime of self-censorship as a defence against state repression. This is a country of many secrets and hidden histories. The security police held what Albie Sachs described as South Africa’s most comprehensive biographical dictionary, but a great deal of it was destroyed. Ironically, if there had been a decisive revolution instead of a negotiated settlement, the archives could have been thrown open, as happened in eastern Europe where the people exercised the “Leipzig option”. Instead, the main negotiating partners had a mutual interest in closing ranks. The protracted struggle over access and use of the archive of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a salutary case.

As Harris wrote in The Natal Witness in April 2002, “freedom of information is never something that a society possesses … like all freedoms, [it] must constantly be worked for”. In this context, the holdings of non-state archives have attained a particular importance. The struggle continues: in the words of Raymond Suttner and Jeremy Cronin, a “struggle of memory against forgetting”.

And, as for the sceptics who dismiss the past as of no consequence, no one has put it better than the American writer William Faulkner: “The past is not dead and gone; it isn’t even past.” And before it departs, it needs to be understood, bearing in mind Bernstein’s warning: “Just one generation and the door on the past starts to close … your lives, too, will become that other country.”

• letters@witness.co.za

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