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National Archives are a national disgrace

Posted on August 15, 2011
Fifty years ago next month, Dag Hammarskjold, the secretary-general of the United Nations (UN), died in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia. He is widely recognised as the greatest secretary-general the UN has had. Most of his last year in office was taken up with the recently independent Congo. That he was also involved with SA has tended to be neglected.

Before the Congo crisis broke, he had been tasked by the UN to do what he could to engage with the issue of apartheid SA, which had first come onto the UN Security Council agenda after the Sharpeville massacre in March 1960. Acting for the UN, Hammarskjold visited SA for six days in January 1961 and had six meetings with prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd. Two articles in the July special issue of the African Journal on Conflict Resolution discuss that visit and place it in context.

For the article I wrote, I was sent copies of documents from the Hammarskjold papers in Stockholm, which are very well ordered and easily accessible. They, however, present only a partial view of his visit to SA.

Besides meeting Verwoerd, Hammarskjold travelled from Pretoria and Johannesburg to the Cape and the Transkei, and reports of his activities, and of the controversy over the people he met and did not meet, appeared in our local press at the time.

But when I tried to find material on his visit in the National Archives in Pretoria I hit a brick wall.

We know there was documentation on his visit in the prime minister's files, as well as in the files of what was then the department of external affairs (now the Department of International Relations and Co-operation), but none of this documentation can be found in the archives. My article in the journal was therefore not able to draw upon some potentially important information. A file on Hammarskjold's visit in another collection was subsequently identified for me, but when I visited the archives to consult it, it also could not be found.

In the dying days of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in 1998, allegations surfaced that South Africans had been involved in Hammarskjold's death, and it is remotely possible that at that time all the documents in the archives on him were gathered and removed and not put back where they belonged. Those who know the archives, however, think this highly unlikely, and it would anyway have been gross mismanagement to allow them to disappear.

This particular search of mine was on a matter of relatively minor importance to our national story. Had Hammarskjold returned to SA, as he intended to do, it is unlikely that he would have been able to achieve any modification to Verwoerdian apartheid. But my failure to find anything relevant to his visit in the National Archives is emblematic of a much broader problem. That there is a dire shortage of staff and great disorganisation in the archives is abundantly clear. There is a backlog in processing material of years, if not decades, and no proper system to find what one is looking for.

Historians have raised the crisis in the archives at biennial meetings of the Southern African Historical Society, but have been able to achieve nothing. The Society of South African Archivists seems not to appreciate that the state of the National Archives is a national disgrace. The website of the relevant government department (arts and culture), which lists highlights, achievements and continuing projects of the National Archives and Records Service of SA (Narssa), first mentions that the new building for the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu, on which considerable South African money was spent, is almost complete. Only later does it admit that the main building for SA's archives dates from the 1960s and is full, so that Narssa has had to tell government departments to store their records privately. If anything happens to these records, continues the statement, "Narssa will not be in a position to do anything about the matter". In other words, do not blame us if records go missing. What kind of an archives service is this?

The Nelson Mandela Foundation, and Mandela himself in a recorded message, recently stressed the importance of archives and memory in taking the country from its past into its future. The National Archives should be our leading depository of material relating to the past. If things go on as they are, historians and others will struggle to research and write on many aspects of our history.

Saunders is Emeritus Professor of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town.

This article appeared in the Business Day, 15 August 2011.