What are our parliamentarians saying and hearing about archives?

Posted on August 7, 2014
In his State of the Nation Address (SONA) on 17 June 2014, President Jacob Zuma announced that, 'As part of our 20 years of freedom and democracy celebrations, records turning 20 years this year, such as those of the late former President Nelson Mandela's first days in Office will be transferred to the National Archives”. There's nothing particularly noteworthy about this announcement. The transfer of the records is happening in accordance with the National Archives and Records Service Act No 43 of 1996 and should be regarded as standard practice. Zuma's mention of the National Archives is noteworthy for another reason altogether, it's the first time the institution has been mentioned in a presidential State of the Nation Address!

The Archival Platform has on many occasions noted that significance of the archives, and the role that national and provincial play in ensuring the proper management and care of all government records, rather than simply keeping them safe. These functions are insufficiently recognised and acknowledged by our leaders and decision-makers in parliament. 'What', we've often wondered, 'do they really know or think about archives and what they do.' In seeking answers to this question, I turned to the Hansard, a verbatim report of parliamentary proceedings, to see what light it shed on what our political leaders are saying, and hearing about archives.

National Assembly budget vote speeches

Transcriptions of the Extended Public Committee meetings, at which the Minister of Arts and Culture presents the department's budget, offers a good starting point for interrogating what is or isn't being said about archives and what politicians are hearing. During what is commonly known as 'budget speech debates', ministers and deputy ministers review the achievements of the previous year and set out their plans for the coming year. Members of the Portfolio Committee on Arts and Culture and others, representing a range of political parties, are offered an opportunity to respond to the budget and to support or reject it. These debates provide interesting insights into the priorities and concerns of political leaders across the board.

The 1st Parliament: 1994 - 1999

In the 1st Parliament, headed by President Nelson Mandela, speeches made by Minister Ben Ngubane and his successor Lionel Mtshali reflect the fundamental concerns of the day: the establishment of a national archival system aligned with the democratic principles of the new Constitution. Much of what was said by the ministers echoes the discourse of archivists engaged in transforming institutional practice and explains the importance of the development of new policies and legislation that will enable archives to support: the right to information; open and accountable government; and the history of a diverse nation. In 1997 Minister Mtshali describes the previous year as a 'watershed in the development of public archives services in South Africa' and outlines significant provisions of the National Archives of South Africa Act no 43 of 1996, which came into effect on 1 January 1997.

The only member of parliament, apart from the Minister, to make mention of archives at all in the debates of this period was Dr AP Janse van Rensburg (National Party, NP) who in 1996, argued that the budget allocated to the archives was insufficient for the task it had to perform and called on archives to do more to 'retrieve past experiences embedded in oral traditions.'

The 2nd Parliament: 1999 - 2004

Speeches made in the 2nd Parliament, headed by President Thabo Mbeki, mark a distinct change in tenor with Minister Ben Ngubane making reference to the work of the national archives with regard to: challenges associated with the devolution of the archives functions to the provinces; the role of archives in ensuring accountable government; oral history as a critical tool to address past imbalances in the way in which history has been presented in the past; the role of technology in broadening access to archives; the importance forming of bilateral linkages, including the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project; and the records of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The far-reaching changes made to the Archives Act in 2001 are not mentioned at all and speakers representing the African National Congress (ANC), New National Party (NNP) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) make little more than passing reference to archives.

The 3rd Parliament 2004 - 2009

In the 3rd Parliament, headed by President Thabo Mbeki until 2008 and then by President Kgalema Motlanthe, speeches made by Minister Pallo Jordan, focus less on the National Archives and more on an expanded reading of the archival landscape. The Timbuktu Manuscripts Project; the Memory of the World Programme; Freedom Park; the Liliesleaf Project; and the Oral History Association of South Africa (OHASA) were all singled out for special mention. During this period too, the first hints that all is not well within the sector begin to emerge. The Minister made mention of the refurbishment of core infrastructure and the lack of specialised staff. He also cited poor records management as a problem in the provinces, urging MECs to allocate sufficient resources to their archives to address this issue. In 2007, the Minister mentioned the seminal Archives, National Systems and Public Interest Conference, convened by the National Archives, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Constitution of Public Intellectual Life Research Project at the University of the Witwatersrand, saying simply that the conference report was being finalised. ANC members of the Portfolio Committee raised a range of issues pointing to the lamentable state of archives in the provinces and the need to build a more inclusive archive that would address past imbalances. The only mention of archives by any other political party during this period was in 2006, when Dr PWA Mulder (Freedom Front Plus) raised a concern about a rumour that 'government wants to destroy everything from before 1994.'

The 4th Parliament 2009 - 2014

In the 4th Parliament, headed by President Jacob Zuma, archives seem to have taken a back seat. Minister Lulu Xingwana made no mention of archives in her 2009 speech. In 2010 Xingwana mentioned the National Archives plan to digitise the Rivonia Trial Collection while Deputy Minister Paul Mashatile spoke of the Annual Oral History Conference. Mashatile, who succeeded Xingwana in 2011, did not mention the National Archives or any other archival initiatives at all during his tenure as Minister. Deputy Minister Joe Phalaah, to whom the task on reporting about Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) entities or agencies seems to have fallen, mentioned the National Oral History Conference in 2012. In 2013 Phalaah noted capacity challenges, South African collections included in the Memory of the World Register and a capital works project aimed at increasing the capacity of the National Archives to store records. While the Minister and Deputy Minister were relatively silent on archives during this period, members of the Portfolio Committee raised a few important issues. In 2009, Ms D van der Walt (Democratic Alliance) noted that, 'the preservation of and access to public records is of critical importance in the building of democracy.' A sentiment echoed by Ms LN Moss (ANC) who, in 2011, asked that the department supported 'good governance by promoting efficient record management'.

The 5th Parliament 2014 -

The 5th Parliament began its work on 17 June 2014 and while President Zuma made mention of the National Archives in his SONA, Minister Nathi Mthethwa was silent on the issue although Deputy Minister Mabudafhasi's speech reiterated Zuma's comment and made reference to the Annual Oral History Conference. The most notable mention of archives in the 2014 budget debate was made by Ms A Matshobeni (Economic Freedom Front) who pointed out that 'The National Archives, an intellectual hub of the country, has been without a National Archivist for over two years', and stressed that this pointed to a lack of leadership.

What ARE politicians talking about in the budget vote debates?

It's clear, from the above, that archives are not the uppermost topic on the minds of politicians! So what issues are they talking about during these debates?

The early years, under the 1st Parliament, are marked by a focus on setting in place, and consolidating, the policies, structures, institutions, governance and funding mechanisms required to effect transformation whilst addressing inequalities in the allocation of resources to foster innovation, develop institutional capacity; build partnerships for consultation and service delivery and promote sensitivity to historically disadvantaged sectors across the department's areas of responsibility: arts, culture, science and technology. While the debates of 1995, 1996 and 1997 reflect a high degree of optimism, in his 1998 speech, the Minister reflects on some of the challenges associated with 'the vexed issue of restructuring and transformation' and stressed the need for government to create 'facilitative frameworks in which nongovernment interests can contribute to the common good'. In the arts and culture sector, attention was focussed largely on language, the performing arts and heritage.

Under the 2nd Parliament, the challenge of building on established policies and ways in which these could be adapted to changing realities emerges as a key theme. The Legacy Projects, including Freedom Park and Robben Island, become a key focus area of the department's activities as does the issue of the African Renaissance and Nepad. Funding, language, film, the performing arts, community arts centres, and the need to maintain a balance between support for existing institutions and new initiatives remain hot topics! The issue of the cultural industries, cultural tourism and the role of arts, culture and heritage in economic development, job creation and nation building begin to emerge as motivations for increased support for the department during this period.

Under the 3rd Parliament, inaugurated in the year that the county celebrated Ten Years of Democracy, the focus shifts more closely to the role that arts and culture can play in eradicating poverty, accelerating growth, creating jobs and stimulating moral regeneration, social cohesion and the realisation of a democratic, non-racial society. The importance of Legacy Projects, the development of cultural industries and the protection and promotion of performing arts industry are seen are key to this. While the country's support for Nepad's Timbuktu Manuscripts Project is again highlighted as an example of its commitment to the African continent, the department reports that formalising international agreements with a number of other countries is a 'gateway to economic and other development opportunities'.

Under the 4th Parliament, attention is focussed on three key issues: the role of arts, culture and heritage in economic development; liberation heritage; and social cohesion. These seem to have overridden earlier concerns about the on-going transformation or sustainability of existing institutions. In 2013 Minister Mashatile reports that, 'we have succeeded in placing arts, culture and heritage at the centre of our efforts to heal the wounds of our unhappy past; to build an inclusive society; and to support economic growth and the building of sustainable livelihoods'.


Archive activists know why archives matter, and they know that the work they do is important for all sorts of reasons, but they need to think more strategically about the way in which they position their work in relation to the key issues of the day.

It is telling that oral history projects, traditions or initiatives are mentioned more often than any other single aspect of the work of archives. Maybe this is because they offer clear evidence of a commitment to the development of a broader and more inclusive archive and that will address past imbalances. Maybe, it is because oral histories address the immediate, rather than the far distant past, especially when they focus on the liberation struggle. Archive activists concerned with the low profile of archives need to build on this interest in the record of the present, to position archives more strategically.

Social cohesion is also emerging as a strong motivation for activity across the arts, culture and heritage landscape. Archive activists need to foreground the role of their institutions and organisations in creating and making accessible inclusive archives, which reflect the interests, identities and histories of all South Africans.

How do archives connect to the other key drivers of policy and resource allocations: economic development and job creation? This may be through the role of records management in supporting efficient and accountable government and effective service delivery. Or, it may be that they provide the resources on which the state and citizens draw on when they speak about the past through public and community based heritage projects, cultural tourism initiatives and in the cultural industries.

Archive activists know that archives have to do with the ‘big' issues of accountability and good governance; access to information; social justice and the right to truth; and historical memory, national identity and social cohesion. They need to make sure that everyone else understands this too!

Jo-Anne Duggan is the Director of the Archival Platform