Looking back at 2013: Looking forward to 2014

Posted on April 30, 2014
As the year ends we pause for a moment of reflection to consider the state of the archive - the good news, the challenges and the way ahead.

The good news:

The National Archives Advisory Council has been appointed and is up and running - although a few provinces still have to appoint representatives. We wish the council strength in their endeavours!

The National Archivist post has been advertised and we look forward to an announcement from DAC in the near future. We offer our support to the incoming National Archivist and offer him/her our full support.

We hear that progress is being made with the upgrading the National Automated Archival Information System (NAAIRS) and we hope to see this being lunched in the near future. This is a daunting task but once the system 'goes live' it will go a long way to fulfilling the National Archives mandate to make archives accessible to all! We wish the developers well as they fine-tune the system, train operators and transfer existing data.

We're delighted to see that new provincial archives repositories have been constructed and handed over in the Northern Cape, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and North West. These provinces, unlike the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal did not inherit existing repositories or depots when the National Archives and Records Services Act of 1996 transferred responsibility for the records of provincial government from national to provincial archives.

We're also pleased to hear that Gauteng and the Mpumalanga legislatures have passed provincial archives and records services act!

We are inspired and awed by the attention paid by universities, heritage institutions and civil society organisations and associations to the collection and protection of non-public records. Collectively these constitute a veritable treasure house!

It is gratifying to know that an increasing number of powerful institutions and organisations are raising concerns about the state of the records of government and stepping in to address specific issues related directly or indirectly to the mandate of the archives: The Auditor-General of South Africa engages with record management specialists, archivists and financial officers from government institutions to promote the importance of good record-keeping systems, especially as they relate to positive audit outcomes; The Human Rights Commission of South Africa engages with the National Information Officers Forum which is aimed at increasing the capacity of various stakeholders in utilising and enforcing the right to information under the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA); NGO's including the South African History Archive (SAHA) and the Open Democracy Advice Centre have initiated programmes to assist citizens to access information.

The challenges - in brief

The role of archives in a democratic society is insufficiently understood or appreciated: Many of the challenges facing the archives can be ascribed to an insufficient understanding of or appreciation for the important role of archives in a democracy. In our engagement with the sector we have found that the under-appreciation for the role of archives within a democracy is linked to a the widespread perception that archives have only to do with history, with the past rather than the present and the records management - and that the archives continuum is misunderstood.

Archives, heritage and history are entangled in complex ways. Archives sit side-by-side within the sector broadly defined as 'heritage': This sector is largely fragmented, uncoordinated, under-resourced and poorly managed. Legislative mandates overlap and policies are incoherent, inconsistent or non-existent. We argue that an integrated archival policy and delivery framework is required to create an enabling environment within which the mechanisms for engagement are articulated and roles and responsibilities defined

The institutional status and location of the National Archives needs to be reconsidered: The National Archives has been established as a branch of the public service, under a Chief Director, accountable to the Minister of Arts and Culture. The National Archives Advisory Council is mandated to advise the Minister, the National Archivist and SAHRA. The National Archives is a 'branch of the public service' despite the fact that it is mandated to deliver an oversight function - unlike the National Library, 'National Museums' which have executive councils, the Public Service Commission which is 'independent and impartial' or the AGSA which as a 'Chapter Nine' institution has been established to 'support constitutional democracy'. We are concerned that the location and status of the National Archives as a 'branch' of the Department of Arts and Culture limits its credibility and influence and recommend that this be reconsidered.

The location of provincial archives needs to be reconsidered: Provincial Archives are generally located as sub-directorates within directorates of archives and libraries in provincial departments of sports, arts and culture. The relatively low rank of Provincial Archivists within the provincial government hierarchy - many sit at a lower level that departmental records managers - means that they are generally excluded from departmental decision making structures and not able to exercise their oversight powers effectively. Another consequence of this ranking is that provincial archives are not able to retain competent and experienced staff members who move on to higher positions in records management in provincial or national government when the opportunities to do so arise.

National and provincial archives are insufficiently resourced to deliver effectively on their mandates: The National Archives and Records Services Act of 1996, as amended, provides the framework for the delivery of an excellent national archival system. Unfortunately, the National Archives have not been adequately resourced to implement this Act fully. This applies equally to provincial archives.

Electronic records are at risk: Reports of the National Archivist dating back to the late 1970s have decried the lack of capacity to accept electronic records. While the National Archives has developed a policy and guidelines for the preservation of these, it is not able to accept and preserve records in electronic form. This means that these records are at risk. In 2014 the country will celebrate 20 years of democracy. Many of the records that carry evidence of the challenges government has faced and the victories it has won will be inaccessible because they exist only in electronic format

Public records beyond the remit of the National Archives are at risk: The glaring flaws, incompetencies, problems of leadership, political will and under-resourcing of national and provincial archives have diverted attention away from the situation of public records held in the offices of origin or other repositories and the extent to which these are, or are not adequately preserved and made accessible

Custodians of non-public records need guidance and support: An impressive number of institutions and organisations have taken it upon themselves to play a significant role in protecting and preserving records which might otherwise have been lost, or rendered inaccessible to citizens But while many are aware of the importance of records, few understand how best to collect, protect, manage and preserve them or to make them accessible; institutions receiving records decry the lack of support, standards and guidance from the national and provincial archives and records management services; on a micro level, organisations such as NGOs are increasingly aware of the need to maintain records and to document the important processes in which they are engaged, but need support and guidance to do this effectively.

We need a national digitisation policy: In the absence of clear guidelines and standards institutions are making ad-hoc arrangements to digitise their collections - a situation that is bound to prove problematic in the long-term.

Training and capacity building opportunities are insufficient: While academic institutions offer training in information management the number offering specialist programmes for archivists has decreased. In the absence of these, technical training is being conducted by provincial archives and offered by a range of private enterprises, not all of whom are credible. The closure of academic programmes stunts critical discourse. Shortage of capacity in national and provincial archives is exacerbated by comparatively low post levels and skilled personnel are constantly lured to better positions.

What do we need to address these challenges?

What do the archives need to remedy the situation before it becomes unsalvageable? The Archival Platform has identified five critical requirements:

  • Visionary leadership: including a strong executive Council that brings the sector's finest minds to bear on leading the institution into the future;

  • A political champion: one who understands that archives play an important role in addressing the countries skewed history and are critical to democratic accountability and who is able to speak out loudly and passionately for archives in policy and decision making forums at the highest level;

  • Visibility and status: as the governmental entity tasked with managing and preserving the records of government, the archives need to be promoted as one of the core institutions required to uphold democracy;

  • Either a massive cash injection: such as the one-off conditional grant given to libraries to facilitate capital projects OR a new model / vision for the custodial function of the National Archives;

  • Professional capacity: an expanded corps of archivists, records managers, conservators, information technology staff, etc.: with the skills and dedication to deliver a National Archival system that meets the need of the state and its citizens to collect, manage, preserve and make accessible the records of government.

  • An informed citizenry, able to exercise their democratic rights to information to elucidate the past, imagine the future and hold government to account in the present.

We are making plans to establish an 'archives army' to play a role in addressing these challenges. We look forward to sharing these with you and joining hands in this endeavour: together we will be able to make a difference!

With best wishes from the Archival Platform Team

Jo-Anne Duggan
Director: Archival Platform