Archives and Records Management: striking a balance

Posted on April 30, 2013

Hendrick Verwoerd Drive named after the architect of apartheid, is no longer. the road has been renamed Uys Krige Drive in honour of the celebrated Afrikaans poet and writer. Photograph credit: Courtney Africa. Published in the Cape Times Monday 14 April 2013

Hendrick Verwoerd Drive named after the architect of apartheid, is no longer. the road has been renamed Uys Krige Drive in honour of the celebrated Afrikaans poet and writer. Photograph credit: Courtney Africa. Published in the Cape Times Monday 14 April 2013

National and provincial archives are tasked with two key responsibilities: 'the proper management and care of the records of governmental bodies' and 'the preservation and use of a national archival heritage'. While there is obviously a degree of overlap, these tasks involve engagement with distinctly different clients and stakeholders and require different skill sets. The degree to which one is prioritised over the other, when resources are scare and capacity limited, reflects to some extent the authorities attitude to the relevance of the records entrusted to their care: some choose to focus on ensuring that the current records of government are well managed, others to preserve the records of the past. While it's unfair that many have been placed in this invidious position, it's critical to strike a balance.

It's often said that 'today's news is tomorrow's history', similarly speaking, the records that are created in the resent are the archival resources of the future. Consider this. Name changes have been in the news again in recent weeks. The City of Cape Town marked Human Rights Day by renaming six streets and a civic centre after a six-year consultation process. In Pretoria, Afriforum announced that it has been informed confidentially that of those polled in the Tshwane Metropolitan Council's public participation process regarding the changing of Pretoria's name, 81% had expressed support for the current name to be retained. According to Kallie Kriel, CEO of Afriforum, the company has made an application to the Minister of Arts and Culture and the Council, in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) for the report on this process to be made available to them.

When the City of Cape Town announced in August 2012 that the Council had adopted a recommendation by the City's Naming Committee to change street names after a process described by Executive Mayor Alderman Patricia de Lille as 'the most inclusive in the country', the Archival Platform decided to put the Council to the test and access the records required to back up this statement.

The first stop in this quest was the City of Cape Town's website. A search for 'street name change' produced several hundred results and I was quickly able to put together a timeline of various meetings held and decisions taken. Information available on the website includes Naming Committee meeting agendas, minutes and reports, Council decisions, speeches, media releases and various other supporting documents. All well and good, but in many cases these were secondary sources reporting on or analysing information gathered through the public participation process.

Probing more deeply, contact was made with the City's Public Participation Unit, asking for more detailed information, more specifically the comments submitted in response to an invitation to 'Have your say' or gathered through other processes.

A wonderfully helpful official handed made an impressive report available to us to peruse. This detailed the public participation process, which ran for 30 days, included four public meetings for streets which transverse the city, door-to-door surveys for streets contained within one ward, Sub-council participation and a 'thorough' media campaign. According to the report, his process resulted in the following outcomes: 15,346 door-to-door surveys, 3,206 City website submissions, 69 clicks on Facebook, three shares on Facebook and one comment on YouTube.

Annexure A to this report was a street-by-street breakdown of responses to the proposed name change. In the case of Andries Pretorius Street (the first on the list) for example, 18 Comment Forms and 437 Survey Forms were completed. Of those surveyed, 129 were specifically in favour of changing the name to Orange Street. 43% of those who objected did so on the grounds that the exercise would be a waste of resources, 10% cited directional confusion as the reason for their objection and 9.3% the high cost to business. Interestingly, only 1% of those polled found the current name offensive or hurtful.

While statistics are useful, we were keen to see the actual comments made by participants. Annexure B, which included a spreadsheet of comments received, certainly made for interesting reading. One participant, supporting the name change from Andries Pretorius to Orange Street, commented simply that, 'It was the original name and should be re-instated.' One of the more vociferous objectors, in a lengthy comment, noted that 'History is history, whether good or bad it cannot be undone!' and went on to suggest that streets be named after people who had made a specific contribution to the neighbourhood rather than serve a political purpose. Ever sceptical, we queried whether the officials tasked with capturing the data had transcribed the comments directly from the forms, or summarised them. We were shown a row of files, each holding several hundred comment forms, and invited to make a comparison. In the few cases we looked into, the comments on the spreadsheet matched those on the forms, word for word!

While it is obviously not possible to comment on the way in which the information was gathered, it is possible to conclude that the City's records provide convincing evidence to support the decision to change or retain street names. Hopefully the process adopted in Pretoria has been equally well documented! For the record, Andries Pretorius Street was not renamed.

While this was an interesting exercise on many levels, it provides an opportunity to reflect on the work that records are employed to do at various stages of their existence and for different ends.

Firstly, the records were created through a process implemented by City officials to gather opinions and comments to inform the deliberations of and proposals of the Naming Committee. Though created specifically for this purpose, these records contain peripheral information which might be of interest for researchers at some time in the future because they reflect values, attitudes and opinions related to a particular time in our history.

Secondly, the records were collated and analysed to support the recommendations put before the Executive Mayor and the Council - a politically charged process that requires information contained in these records to be framed selectively. While comments made about street names were carefully categorised in the report, many of the remarks made by participants referred to other issues which participants wished to bring to the attention of City officials and decision makers: the housing shortage and improved street cleaning, crime and traffic services, for example, as well as complains about the rising price of fuel and electricity. There is no indication whether these comments were referred elsewhere.

Thirdly, the original records were arranged and stored in the Public Participation Unit registry so that they could be accessed as evidence to support claims made or decisions taken by the council, should it be held to account for these at any time. Name changes have been hotly contested around the country, and those responsible have been called to account by their political principles, opposition parties, civil society interest groups and active citizens, and various courts of law have been tasked with making rulings on the matter.

Finally, the records will be lodged in the City's archive where they may one day be consulted by researchers interested in interrogating the processes through which the City's streets have been named and renamed, or to cast a light on the diverse attitudes of citizens to a conflicted past during a period of transition.

It's clear that responsibility for the safekeeping of records shifts over time from records managers to archivists. But the question is how to maintain a balance: to ensure that records are available to active citizens striving to hold government to account in the present and to ensure that they will be held safe for future generations.

In circumstances where resources are scarce and capacity is limited it's all too easy to favour one activity over another: to work diligently to monitor record-keeping in the present while neglecting the records of the past; or to conserve and protect historical records and turn away from the chaotic present. What's at stake if the balance is not achieved is the loss of the records that are required to understand the past in the present, now or in the future.

Jo-Anne Duggan is the Director of the Archival Platform