Lehman Chief Librarian Visits Apartheid Archives in South Africa

November 17, 2010 | News

In many respects, Nelson Mandela was the touchstone of this journey. 

–by Kenneth Schlesinger, Chief Librarian, Lehman College

Our first visit in Johannesburg was to the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which in a sense functions as a Presidential Library. We met with activist archivist Verne Harris, who has written persuasively on access challenges to post-Apartheid records.  Catherine Kennedy of South African History Archives [SAHA] also gave a presentation about her organization, which works with communities to both reclaim and create archival collections. Sello Hatang gave us a tour of the Mandela collections, where we were shown early photographs, arrest records, and facsimiles of letters he wrote to his family from prison. 

This was later brought to vivid life when we toured desolate Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned for 16 years.  We saw his tiny cell, as well as the garden he started, in which he hid his writings for other prisoners.  In fact, the tour guides were former prisoners, who shared details of their harrowing internment with us. 

We closed our visit to Johannesburg with a pilgrimage to the beautifully designed Apartheid Museum.  Often compared to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Apartheid Museum is organized along two parallel tracks:  documentation of political oppression and restrictive laws in conjunction with the liberation struggle and community resistance.  Successfully integrating text, photos and moving image, the narrative culminates in Nelson Mandela’s election as President of South Africa in 1994, the world’s first negotiated revolution.  The experience is overwhelming and unbelievably moving.

We spent a day in Pretoria, South Africa’s historic capital, about an hour from Johannesburg.  At the National Archives, we met with archivist Graham Dominy and his staff.  Our delegation had an in-depth discussion about the status of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Archives.  It is an immense collection [nearly one linear kilometer!] consisting of over 22,000 testimonies.  Due to privacy concerns, these sensitive records have been closed for 20 years.  There are only two archivists to process the collection.  Access requests must be made to the Department of Justice – the National Archives is only the steward of the records.  This is just one example of the contested archives we heard about repeatedly during the trip.

This was followed by a too-brief visit to the National Film, Video and Sound Archives, which showed us a reel of collection highlights.  Intriguingly, this repository also collects indigenous instruments.  They have a major mandate to bring archives to the people.  We were struck by the fact that – given limited resources and access issues – archivists bring films and exhibitions to local communities for screening and discussion.  In fact, we discovered outreach – lamentably an afterthought in many U.S. archives – is central to the mission of South African collections.

We continued our stimulating trip in Cape Town, considered one of the world’s most beautiful cities.  Our first stop was University of Cape Town’s Manuscripts and Archives, a more traditional repository in a leading university documenting the colonial era.  We toured their African Studies Library, government documents, and the Rudyard Kipling Room.

One of the high points was our meeting at University of Western Cape’s RIM Mayibuye Archive, which contains collections from Robben Island.  On display are photographs and materials capturing the liberation struggle, including comprehensive holdings of anti-Apartheid posters and artifacts.  Our colleagues were impassioned and articulate about the need to repatriate materials removed from the country for safekeeping. 

Even digital preservation is a controversial issue since researchers primarily outside South Africa benefit from it.  Moreover, multinational vendors [three guesses] are insistent on the transfer of ownership rights, which one practitioner termed digital colonialism.  The impulse for access is inhibited by unclear ownership [much material was created anonymously], coupled with respect for privacy and complex human rights considerations.

Our final visit was to the provincial Western Cape Archives and Records Service, a clean, well-organized facility with heavily used colonial records dating back to the late 17th century.  It featured an impressive conservation lab.  We had a lively conversation with archivists, as well as invited cultural heritage workers from the National Library and the local history District Six Museum. 

Participants were candid about specific difficulties facing South African archives involving government underfunding, limited hands-on professional training, as well as an aging workforce with a civil service mentality.  We were encouraged to hear about the resuscitation of the South African Society of Archivists, which will be holding a major conference this summer.

Our delegation also had some leisure time.  We took a day trip to the scenic Cape Peninsula, glimpsing ostriches and baboons in the wild, as well as visiting an African Penguin preserve.  The day culminated at the splendid Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.  At Lesedi Cultural Village we watched authentic reconstructions of tribal dances, followed by an African Feast where we sampled ostrich and crocodile!

South Africa is a fascinating country with a complex, troubled history.  It still faces overwhelming social problems:  an estimated 43% unemployment rate, the most extreme income disparities resulting in a digital and educational divide, as well as a devastating AIDS pandemic. 

Nevertheless, we were inspired by the knowledge and commitment of our archivist colleagues to embrace and document the rich multicultural heritage of this emerging democracy.

–A shorter version of this piece appeared in Lehman Today (www.lehman.edu/lehmantoday)