Can the archive be liberated?

24 Dec 2020 - 11:30
Screenshot of webinar. Image courtesy of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. (
Screenshot of webinar. Image courtesy of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. (


Shaun de Waal

“We have to read this [archive] suspiciously,” said Jacob Dlamini in the course of a discussion held by the Nelson Mandela Foundation under the title “Liberating the Archive”, aiming to investigate the archive, public deliberation and their relation to the social contract that underpins South African democracy. “You can never trust the archive,” said Dlamini.

He was speaking in particular of his own work, which informed his book The Terrorist Album, in the archive of the records of the South African security police. These records, which were thought to have been destroyed entirely around the time of the transition to democracy but in fact were partially preserved, list informers who spied on others and gave that information to the security police. This was at a time when violent repression of resistance to apartheid and white supremacy were taking place, so this information was, at that time, at least potentially a matter of life and death.

Dlamini’s uncovering of that archive raised questions for him about an “ethics of care, an ethics of responsibility” towards those named in it, and he spoke of whom he had to approach for permission to use this material in his book. Legally, he had to approach the state, but ethically he had to get the permission of those who were personally involved.

The “ethics of care” in working with the archive extend not only to the impact on those named and described in that particular archive, but also to the ways in which that material is considered: not only can be used “cynically”, but we have to understand that the information itself could be corrupt; it could, in cases such as these, have been invented by police officers under pressure by their superiors to keep producing new information on dissidents and the like. Hence the “suspicion” he advises.

Dlamini’s comments here resonate with those of Carolyn Hamilton, the editor with Lesley Cowling of Babel Unbound: Rage, Reason and Rethinking Public Life, another text under discussion in this webinar. The idea that the archive is “inert” or “static”, open to interpretation but in itself essentially unchangeable, she said, is a 19th-century idea that should be questioned. The archive and public discourse, particularly the use of the archive in public discourse, are shaped by one another. Evidentiary records are positioned as arbiters of truth, but in reality “archives change, and shape discourses; archives and discourses are mutually constituted”.

“Every item [in the archive] requires an attentiveness to its own biography,” Hamilton said later. An example given is that of the chapter in Babel Unbound on Nelson Mandela during the years he was on the run from the security police, after he’d returned to South Africa from his illegal travels abroad, when he was given the “Black Pimpernel” appellation. He was absent from the public scene, but his presence was affirmed by media reports that turned his very absence into a telling part of his life story.

Imraan Coovadia related the issue of Mandela’s movement between positions of non-violence and violence to his own work (Revolution and Non-Violence in Tolstoy, Gandhi and Mandela) linking Mandela to Gandhi and Gandhi to Tolstoy in their thinking about non-violence. Mandela had declared his debt to Gandhi, in this, and Gandhi had developed his own ideas in correspondence with Tolstoy at the end of Tolstoy’s life. So there is a genealogy of non-violence there, deepened for Mandela by his probable reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace while in prison. This relates to one of the central questions posed by the facilitator of the discussion, the NMF’s Verne Harris, which had to do with the “moorings of non-violence” in South African discourse.

“The most interesting interpretive problem of Mandela is that he’s a figure of violence and non-violence,” said Coovadia. He did not explicitly discuss how Mandela, in the early 1960s, moved to a position in which he advocated (a disciplined) violence as resistance to apartheid, but spoke later of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s attitude to violence in the context of an already violent political and social space. She had been subjected to the violence of arrest and torture, and continued to suffer state violence against her.

Dlamini, partly in response to this, spoke of how the violence directed at activists such as Madikizela-Mandela (he specifically mentions Tony Yengeni, too, whose testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided an “iconic” moment), their “full-frontal confrontation with death … helps explain their shamelessness” about a violent response to the violence of apartheid, their “recklessness”.

The NMF’s Sylvia Graham, who provided an introduction to the discussion, noted in her afterword that this commentary had a bearing on her own experience of the “Afrikaans Must Fall” movement, and the violence engendered there, at universities in recent years. Harris had noted an insight from Judith Butler’s work, in which she says that “the question of non-violence becomes a question precisely when violence seems the only option”.

The two other key areas of the discussion, for me, were to do with the pre-colonial archive and the very contemporary issue of what Harris called the “archival juggernauts” of Google and Facebook, and how those archives shape and relate to public discourse. The issue of the pre-colonial archive, or perhaps in this context what one might call the early-colonial archive, has recently been raised in debate between Patric Tariq Mellet, author of The Lie of 1652: A Decolonised History of Land, and Dan Sleigh, author of works that construct in fictional form the perceived history of early white settlement at the Cape. Both are working from historical archives, but they reach different conclusions about what this historical record means and says to us today. For Mellet, what we have thus far taken as the archive is “corrupted”.

It’s not possible to go into the details of their disagreement here, but it is a particularly contemporary example of how discourse shapes the archive and can re-construe its potential meanings. It shows that issues to do with the nature and content of the archive have a striking effect on how we understand history today, and how that relationship can be thrust powerfully into the space of public (and political) discourse.

The NMF discussion did not delve deeply into the issue of the pre-colonial archive, which is obviously a matter requiring a much deeper and more detailed investigation; it did at least place this issue as a problematic, as something presently under construction and under contestation, in present-day discourse. As Hamilton said, “humans use ideas about the past” and, in the process, “decide what’s usable”.

The matter of social media and how it forms an entwined archive-discourse in the present moment could not be unravelled any more comprehensively, either, in this forum. Harris raised it in relation to the content of Babel Unbound, which does attempt to come to grips with social media as an instance of the “babelization” taking place, now, in public discourse, as the former gatekeepers of such discourse, including newspapers and the like, lose their hold on the ways public deliberation is shaped.

The only way to deal with babelization, as Hamilton said, is to trouble the knowledge produced within “silos”, to be attentive to the “critical tension” between different insights. Not only do those working with the archive, and placing their interpretations in the public space, need to “listen differently”, but they also need to ask: “What are the conditions of thinking differently?”