‘Ar­chive ac­tivists’ push South Africa to re­lease apartheid-era records

Con­fer­ence hears that aca­demics have much to learn from ma­te­rial that ac­tivists are seek­ing to make pub­lic. Matthew Reisz writes

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Matthew.reisz@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

The cam­paign to open up the state archives of apartheid-era South Africa could help re­searchers ex­plore fun­da­men­tal his­tor­i­cal ques­tions.

On 24 Au­gust, the Univer­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand in Jo­han­nes­burg held a col­lo­quium on “pro­mot­ing… trans­par­ent pub­lic record-keep­ing for a demo­cratic South Africa”.

Dis­cus­sion cen­tred around pri­mar­ily “state-gen­er­ated pub­lic records and gov­ern­ment de­part­ments that keep their own records”, ex­plained co-or­gan­iser Gabriele Mo­hale, ar­chiv­ist of the univer­sity’s His­tor­i­cal Pa­pers Re­search Ar­chive. Un­like in many other coun­tries, South Africa’s Na­tional Archives has “no sys­tem­atic process of de­clas­si­fy­ing records – you even have records from the An­glo-Boer War that are still not de­clas­si­fied”.

Those at­tend­ing the col­lo­quium in­cluded hold­ers of archives, “ar­chive ac­tivists”, lawyers, rep­re­sen­ta­tives of hu­man rights or­gan­i­sa­tions, a for­mer Cab­i­net min­is­ter, a for­mer Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion com­mis­sioner and a Ger­man ex­pert on the process by which Stasi files were made pub­licly avail­able. Most of their ar­gu­ments, as Ms Mo­hale put it, fo­cused on “tran­si­tional jus­tice for vic­tims of op­pres­sion” and on what she called “ad­min­is­tra­tive jus­tice”, namely the ideal that “the ar­chive of a state should be for its cit­i­zens; we are not see­ing that hap­pen­ing”.

Also among the or­gan­is­ers were the aca­demics who make up the Wits His­tory Work­shop.

So what might it mean for re­searchers to have bet­ter ac­cess to the South African state doc­u­ments now un­avail­able to them?

Noor Nief­tago­dien, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Wits, sug­gested that archived doc­u­ments might re­veal more about “what hap­pened in tran­si­tion”, in­clud­ing any “dirty deals” that took place be­hind the scenes, and whether this es­tab­lished a tem­plate for what came after.

There has been much spec­u­la­tion, he con­tin­ued, about whether Nel­son Man­dela “sold out” in meet­ings with state of­fi­cials; about “whether eco­nomic deals were struck that al­lowed ex­ist­ing pow­ers to re­main in­tact”; and about whether and how far the se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus man­aged to in­fil­trate the African Na­tional Congress. It is also some­times as­sumed that one rea­son why cur­rent politi­cians get away with so much is be­cause they know the se­crets of their ri­vals. Schol­ars should now get a chance to test the truth or false­hood of all these claims; “un­der­stand­ing tran­si­tion can help us un­der­stand South Africa to­day”, Pro­fes­sor Nief­tago­dien said.

Re­searchers based in other coun- tries can also see new av­enues for re­search emerg­ing from the archives.

Cau­tious op­ti­mism

Philip Mur­phy, di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity of Lon­don’s In­sti­tute of Com­mon­wealth Stud­ies, is prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor on the Com­mon­wealth Oral His­tory Project, which has con­ducted in­ter­views with lead­ing apartheid-era politi­cians and an­ti­a­partheid cam­paign­ers. He is also in­ter­ested in “the me­chan­ics of end­ing apartheid”, which was “the great Com­mon­wealth cru­sade of the time”. Open­ing up the state archives could prove im­mensely il­lu­mi­nat­ing for re­searchers in both these ar­eas.

Ac­cess to doc­u­ments, Pro­fes­sor Mur­phy said, could help to de­ter­mine the ex­tent to which politi­cians have been hon­est about their ac­tions. In ret­ro­spect, he noted, Pik Botha – the last for­eign min­is­ter of apartheid South Africa – has por­trayed him­self as al­ways a lib­eral at heart who had been con­strained by the hard­lin­ers along­side him in gov­ern­ment. Archived pa­pers might al­low schol­ars to “see how far the his­tor­i­cal record bears out his pub­lic state­ments”, Pro­fes­sor Mur­phy said.

Yet Pro­fes­sor Mur­phy added that the archives could help to il­lu­mi­nate much broader ques­tions, too. “One some­times gets the im­pres­sion that dif­fer­ent ele­ments of the South African state had dif­fer­ent in­ter­ests,” he said. “It would be very in­ter­est­ing to try to map them out” by com­par­ing and con­trast­ing the ma­te­rial now held, for ex­am­ple, by the mil­i­tary, the For­eign Of­fice and the se­cu­rity ser­vices. See­ing more clearly “how gov­ern­ment worked” could also throw light on the big­gest ques­tion of all, he said: “What brought the regime to its knees?”

It is “broadly ac­cepted”, in Pro­fes­sor Mur­phy’s view, that “the clincher was fi­nan­cial sanc­tions in the late 1980s. South Africa was heav­ily de­pen­dent on in­vest­ment from out­side, and the tap was turned off very quickly.” Yet schol­ars could un­der­stand the process in much more de­tail if they knew more about the in­ner work­ings of the “nexus of in­ter­ests” rep­re­sented by busi­ness, the gov­ern­ment and the cen­tral Re­serve Bank, which might re­veal, for ex­am­ple, “how pres­sure was brought to bear on the Na­tional Party by busi­ness”.

Those who want to know how apartheid worked and how it ended can only hope that the ar­gu­ments for open­ness put for­ward at Wit­wa­ter­srand con­vince the gov­ern­ment.


The me­chan­ics of apartheid could open­ing up state archives ex­plain why the regime fi­nally came to an end?

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