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Histories Lost?

Posted on June 25, 2013
George Bernard Shaw's famous words that 'Who controls the past controls the present, who controls the present controls the future' ring true in many areas of South Africa. In Mpumalanga many municipal archives are in a state of chaos and disarray. The current state of many of these archives makes it very difficult for researchers and students to find relevant depositories and documents. The task of writing local histories becomes increasingly difficult. Mismanagement of smaller municipal archives effects research as many areas of history become blurred and may even disappear. Without accurate information about specific areas in our country certain periods in time could become vulnerable to be manipulated by contemporary powers for political gain and public support. Through the mismanagement of archives some histories are even lost and forgotten.

Many municipal archives in Mpumlanga are in a very serious state of decay. On a recent research trip to Ermelo finding documents relating to the transition period, when the ANC took over the running of the municipality, was a challenge. Lever arch files had been tossed in a pile on a damp and dirty floor. These files piled up a couple of metres and the only way to find the relevant documents was too climb to the top of the mountain of files and pull files out at random. Some documents were lying on the floor in puddles of water slowly decomposing. There was quite a bad rat infestation and many documents had mould growing on them.

These archives resembled a dumping ground for old seemingly unwanted documents. The old South African flag lies crumbled in a corner, information posters about 'terrorism' are tossed aside, and photos of Verwoerd and other Aparthied leaders collect dust in their broken frames. Along with these controversial Aparthied symbols other documents have been tossed aside. These include photos, letters and diaries of the town's first white settlers as well as photos of the destruction of the South African war.

After the democratisation of South Africa many symbols of the Aparthied government were discarded or discredited. Apartheid historical myths constructed an Afrikaner nationalism that viewed Afrikaners as victims. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in many ways inverted this. The TRC brought the horrific crimes of Apartheid into public discourse and the history of white settlement became a history of perpetrators. Many South Africans view apartheid symbols negatively and with great pain. For this reason it was necessary for these symbols to be redefined or removed, for example, the renaming of Verwoerdburg to Centurion.

Many of the statues, photos and public art that symbolised the Apartheid regime have been removed. Many of these sculptures are housed in the archives of the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. There are also other private organisations that collect and keep these sculptures. One such is the Afrikaner-kultuurbond (AKB), a conservative Afrikaner Cultural organisation based outside Pretoria. It seems fitting that the worst symbols of a painful past should be confined in these museums and archives. Symbols of division have no place in a country that is dependant on the unity of its people. It also seems necessary that these symbols should be kept and remembered.

When the painful symbols of the past and other documents that might be associated with the past, are discarded, our communities are bound to forget about them. Historians who want to write with a fresh perspective, debunking the myths of the past need to have access to these documents. If we are not able to read primary sources with a new perspective we are left with Afrikaner nationalist history which may exclude and offend many South Africans. Surely the point of re-defining our national identity was partly to avoid this exclusion from history.

Some parts of history might even disappear due to the mismanagement of archives. A colleague recently went on a search to find the records of a Dutch Reform pastor who was the overseer of a Labour Camp in Middelburg, Mpumalanga, during the early 1900s. These documents used to be housed in Nelspruit, and were later moved to Stellenbosch to be housed in the Dutch Reformed Church Records. However, after visiting both of these archives the documents could not be found. It was assumed that they went missing during the time when the documents were moved. This part of our history is now lost. All record that we have of these inhabitants of Middelburg is a MA thesis completed in the 1950s. What other documents have gone missing, and subsequently what other histories have been erased due to mismanagement?

Although it is necessary to re-define our country as one which is inclusive and democratic it is not necessary to forget our past. South Africans need to come up with pragmatic solutions when we remove symbols of Apartheid. Moving these symbols and documents to places such as the archives of the Voortrekker monument might be one solution. Allowing these documents to get lost, damaged or destroyed seems counter productive. Decoding and re-writing history in an inclusive manner depends on our communities' safeguarding this information. Mismanaging a municipal archive today has repercussions for many years to follow.

References:

Sean O'Toole, 'Where apartheid statues go to die', The Mail and Guardian, 17 June, 2011

Carolien Greyling is a Master's student in History at Wits University attached to the History Workshop examining the effects of coal mine closures on a community.