SOUTH AFRICA: Initiative to save collapsing archives

Last month, archivists and academics joined forces to ensure South Africa's archives receive the attention they deserve. Funding and political will are vital are needed.

The Archival Platform - a national networking, advocacy and research initiative officially launched in November - plans to put archives back on the public and governmental agenda.

"We have a window of opportunity to save the system," said Harriet Deacon, director of the initiative. "The purpose of our intervention is to act now and stop the cracks from deepening."

The initiative, supported by the University of Cape Town and the Nelson Mandela Foundation and funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies, facilitates dialogue and information-sharing between professionals, academics and government employees in the archival and heritage fields, which include museums, heritage sites and cultural practice.

The aim of the platform is to highlight the importance of archives to peoples' understanding of the past and also the role archives play by holding the state accountable through records. South Africa's internationally respected Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for example, depended on archives to help unveil the atrocities of the apartheid era, said Deacon.

"Archives are not just musty old documents that we put away because we can't think of what else to do with them. Archives help us understand the nature of citizenship, our past, and they help establish a base line of state accountability."

Academics are particularly worried given that archives - which encompass a wide range of documents such as books, official papers, paintings and photographs - are paramount to good research. Yet they lack easy access to these documents because of a number of factors, primarily poorly implementation of the Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2000 - which in theory (but not in practice) gives every person the right of access to information.

Other problems are the irregular cataloguing of new and existing materials, and the inadequate assistance of ill-equipped or unmotivated archive staff. Much of the information, which is particularly important for historians and political scientists, is paper and is classified or inaccessible, just sitting in the state system.

"Archives are not only about preservation, they are about access," said Sello Hatang, manager of information communications at the Nelson Mandela Foundation's Centre of Memory and Dialogue. "Documents need to be declassified on a regular and predictable basis, being made public say after 20 years. You need to know that if a record was created in 1980, it should be made available in 2000."

It is up to the government to execute these changes. The Archival Platform plans to address lack of government interest and investment in the sector by appealing to the state to take responsibility for the preservation of historical records.

One of the first projects is a "Letters for Lulu" campaign, launched during Heritage Month in which professionals and academics sent letters to Minister of Arts and Culture, Lulu Xingwana, alerting her to archive issues.

"If there's any good accountability tool, that's one," said Hatang. "She is forced to reply, one way or another." The letters were presented to the Minister at the end of November but the Platform is still awaiting a response.

Another key goal of the Archival Platform is to attract young professionals to the field. To do so, it is using tools of the present to teach lessons of the past. The initiative has an active Facebook page where it updates fans - 325 and counting - on latest news in the sector, alerts them to upcoming events and, in true Facebook interactive fashion, poses questions for debate.

A recent thread asked: "Would donations be an effective way of raising money for government archives in South Africa to digitise the entire collection?" The question kick-started a lively debate on the platform's Facebook Wall.

The initiative also has an active Twitter account, a monthly email newsletter and a website with a regular blog. "We're trying to build a network that really welcomes the participation of younger professionals in the sector," said Deacon. "We're trying to make it easy to be on the hierarchies that normally restrict access to networking."

These initiatives offer the chance for recovery of the South African archive system. But there is a long way to go.

In the 1990s, after the fall of apartheid, the documentation and preservation of the nation's multicultural heritage was a priority, and various legacy projects flourished as a new meta-narrative started to take shape, which included more African voices. There was even an effort to include the concept of archives as part of the school curriculum, but the project died as the government slowly turned its back on the sector.

Industry professionals and academics now hope that, through the efforts of the Platform and other initiatives, the sector will be reconstructed and restored. Because you may not be able to change the past, but you can ensure the past remains intact for the future.