Boxes in the Bantustan Basement :The Trajectories and Possibilities of the Lebowa Archive

Posted on October 25, 2013
The archives of the former Lebowa are housed in the basement of the old legislative buildings in Lebowakgomo, the former capital of the Bantustan. Spread between four rooms and along the walls of the passage, they are a bit of a shock to a researcher who has only ever spent time in South Africa's National or Cape Archives. Only very partially catalogued, certainly not digitized, and, at times, nothing more than a random heap of papers, finding one's way about these archives could be a life-long mission. However, the story of these archives is - of course - not one of mindless incompetence. Its disorder is the product of a very particular set of historical and administrative circumstances, which, once outlined, can perhaps shed some light on what one can expect to find in the archives; how one should go about finding these things; and what is likely to happen to them in the future. This is what this short and anecdotal piece seeks to do.

Bantustan archives
Prior to the creation of the Bantustans, the South African Archives were highly centralised with a head office in Pretoria and four archive repositories in the provincial capitals. This remained the case for central South Africa until the late 1980s, but the archives of the Bantustans were provided for with separate legislation governing the ten ethnic administrations. While each Bantustan's archival legislation was based on the central South African Archives Act of 1962, in reality there was a dramatic difference between the quality of the Bantustan archives and that of the central South African states'. For one, as Luli Callinicos and Andre Odendaal note, with the letting loose of the Bantustan archives, the State Archive Service provided rudimentary training to Bantustan archivists, but for the most part, they were without the skills or resources to effectively run a 'government' archive. Of course, this is completely unsurprising - we know that archives are a reflection of social, economic, political relations in society: as illogical, underdeveloped and poorly resourced as the Bantustans themselves were, so were their archives. That being said, there was some difference across the ten Bantustans in the nature and quality of the Archival Service. KwaZulu, for example, had an archives repository and records management service with 2 professionals and 1 non-professional, while Venda only had a rudimentary heraldry service - no archival service - and had one professional working there.

From what I can tell, it seems that each one of the Lebowa government Departments sent their documentation to the archive - in theory. In reality this often didn't happen. For example in the Department of Education files, the most well catalogued department of the Lebowa government, there is fairly decent preservation from the three levels of administration, departmental, regional and circuit level. Minutes from school committee meetings however rarely seem to have reached a higher level of administration and so remain in the individual school's archives, if at all. It also seems as though bodies that we think of being fundamental to the structure of the Bantustans - such as tribal authorities - often also did not submit theirs. Minutes from Tribal Authority meetings for example, which I know to have existed in at least some part of the Lebowa, have so far eluded me, apart from a few files in the boxes labelled 'Office of the Chief Minister.'

The transition from Bantustan to Province
With the clear signs of change in the early 1990s, a number of important things started happening to the archives. Perhaps of most significance was the mass shredding and burning of state documents thought to be potentially incriminating under a post-apartheid regime, as written about quite extensively by Verne Harris. However, because the Lebowa archives were not closely monitored there were some documents that went unnoticed. I suspect that this was partially because they weren't catalogued in obvious places. One afternoon, for example, as I was about to give up on finding anything of interest, among sheets and sheets of financial statements I came across a document with the thrilling stamp: SECRET. In amongst what I was assumed were mundane financial statements, was a report on the activities of the SADF in Lebowa - who they were watching and what they were doing.

I think there are likely to be several of these types of documents misplaced in files. That is one of the unexpected benefits of the chaos. Unfortunately, coming upon these kinds of gems is rare. The difficulties of dealing with Bantustan archives are more likely to be one's experience. Furthermore, there are legal limits on distributing these documents. If the Secrecy Bill is passed in its current form, the documents will retain their classification as confidential until reviewed and even having them in my possession would be criminal!

1994 was of course also an important moment in the life of the non-incriminating documents in the South African and former Bantustan archives. Under the Interim Constitution, all state functions that were thought to fall under the broad category of 'culture' were assigned to the Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. This included the legislation of the Bantustan archives, but provision was made for this legislation to be devolved to the provinces and quite soon, the former Bophuthatswana, KwaZulu and KaNgwane were re-assigned to their provincial administrations - North West, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga respectively. However, it was only in 2001 that Limpopo passed its Provincial Archival legislation. Thus, from 1994 - 2001, the Lebowa archives sat underneath the governance of the Department of Arts and Culture and for a year during this period, in which structures and processes either fell apart or had not yet reconstituted themselves for the new order, some documents still got sent to the Lebowa Archives.

With the 2001 legislation, space was made for the construction of a Provincial Archive. Mbongiseni Buthelezi and Jo-Anne Duggan went to meet the Provincial Archivist, Jabu Nkatingi, earlier this year and reported back on his one-man enthusiasm which has driven the creation of the central building for the province's archives in Polokwane. It took six years to build after initial approval and it is likely to take an equally long time to get all the documents from the former administrations in the province to collate in this space. While waiting for the move to Polokwane, the Lebowa archive started functioning as a partial repository for Venda and Gazankulu files, particularly - as far as I can see - for Department of Justice and Magistrate files. Despite the fact that out of the three Bantustans that have come to be integrated into Limpopo it was Gazankulu's archive that was best kept, it is the former Lebowa archive that now acts as the central repository. This is so because Lebowakgomo, in which the archives are housed, is where Limpopo's parliament sits and its buildings continue to be relatively well maintained and used. However, this has created quite a lot of confusion as there is still a repository for Venda files in Sibasa and an archive for Gazankulu. In theory however, the former Lebowa - under its full territory, the former Gazankulu and Venda as well as the former 'white parts' of what is now Limpopo will be housed in the Polokwane building.

It is also worth noting that what is going to be going into the Polokwane archive is the full administration of the former Bantustans in Limpopo. The same has also happened with the Bophuthatswana archives in North West. What this means is that, despite the fact the Bantustans were absurdly fragmented, their structural form is being reproduced in the archives. For example, I've recently been working in an education district called Mapulaneng that formed part of Lebowa. Today, it falls in the area known as Bushbuckridge, near the Kruger Park, and is in the province of Mpumalanga. As a historian working on the Bantustans, it suits me not to have to relocate from the Mpumalanaga archives to the Limpopo archives if working on Bushbuckrige and Seshego in one day - but it does make it a bit peculiar for someone working on a longer history of Bushbuckridge. If you want to work on Bushbuckridge from 1910 to 1994, you will have to start in the Transvaal Archives at the National Archives in Pretoria for the period from 1910 to 1972, after which you will move to Lebowakgomo to work until 1994, and back to the National Archives for a more recent history. I suspect this is not because of some ideological commitment to the continuity of the Bantustans, but a serious overlooking of archives within the Department of Arts and Culture and the provincial structures.

As it stands, these archives are of little interest to the Limpopo province at the moment - archives are thought to be useful for heritage and prestige projects, not deeper historical research. Thus those wanting to do this kind of research in the Lebowa archives need to do quite a bit of leg work - quite literally walking between store rooms, hunting down files, and digging into piles of paper.

Laura Phillips is a researcher at the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI) at the University of the Witwatersrand