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Launch of Ronnie Kasrils' archive at WITS 

The event was attended by more than 150 people, amongst them former Ministers of the South African Government, stalwarts of the struggle against Apartheid, civil society activists, representatives from the media and foreign guests.

We shared some of the exhibits from the collection, ranging from diaries taken during political school in Moscow in 1964, to audio recordings from the ANC MK camps in Angola, photos and writing in exile.

The Principal Curator of the Historical Papers Research Archive gave her presentation as one of the panelists, and you can read the text of the paper below. Further below are few snap shots of the event.



"You can’t have a discussion about an archival collection such as Ronnie’s without understanding the role of Archives and Archivists. Archives are not merely trying to preserve memory but they are actively constructing, sanctifying and burying pasts (sometimes deliberately, sometimes subliminally).

The archival enterprise plays a powerful role in framing and controlling our understanding of the past and in constructing the national psyche.  Archives provide the bedrock for societies understanding of the past. They underpin citizen’s rights, assert identities and are crucial to truth recovery and are also irreplaceable evidential testaments of human experience. 

In this globalised world, knowledge and information, and as a consequence archives, are seen as strategic resources and tools. So the very nature of record-making, record-keeping and archiving is clearly political in nature.  The manner in which information is used and who controls it is therefore pivotal. And, as a result the Soul of the Archive, because it mirrors historical constructs of the past, (albeit only fragments) is often a sought-after commodity. So, interwoven with the notion of the Archive are: propaganda, rights, desires, lies, ownership, trust, nationalism, freedoms, concealments, acquisitiveness and surveillance. But the key is not that they are sought-after as information but how that information is accessed, used, interpreted, destroyed or hidden to suit the agendas of ordinary individuals, researchers, civil society, archivists, political parties, Capital and the State. 

As the post-liberation South African state emerged there was the promise of national reconciliation, of unlocking the past, of lifting the veils of secrecy and of transparency. With this political optimism came the belief that the Archive would be opened and laid bare. And of course access to the records of the national liberation movements and their supporters was pivotal to this whole process. 

But this was not to be. The truth is that, on the ground in South Africa, what we have is a combination of political interference, a culture of secrecy, poor record-keeping practices and inadequate capacity and resources in the pre and post 1994 archival record of local, provincial and national government, as well of that of Parastatals. This means that there is - and will be - a gapping silence and that intellectual and public engagement and understanding will be limited and limiting.

Low priority is afforded to Archives by the State, by parent institutions and by the public. The South African National Archives, which is meant to provide inspirational leadership and cutting edge guidance to the archival enterprise, is certainly not doing so, and is itself in crisis.

In addition the post-Apartheid State is not opening up apartheid-era - and previously secret - archival sources. For example the records of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) are not accessible, even when using Promotion of Access to information Act (PAIA) requests. More than eight years after the TRC’s final report was released the records of the TRC remain unprocessed and buried  in what is essentially an inaccessible and closed collection guarded by the Ministries of Justice, National Intelligence and Arts and Culture. If these records remain impossible to access then what chance is there of gaining access to the other apartheid and post-apartheid records?

Also of major concern for Archives is that the Secrecy Bill in its current form is retrospective – so it will give new protection to Apartheid government documents and secrets - those Geheim and Uiters Geheim documents. 

Turning to the Archives of South African Liberation Movements 

The archives of liberation movements are powerful political forces and their histories and records need to be made available for robust interrogation and wider public access. An archive such as Ronnie’s, being placed in the public domain is crucial, particularly because:

  1. Liberation movements are not champions of openness and transparency. They are not opening up access to their own archives (instead they are closing them down), choosing what is recalled and how it is recalled; [1]
  2. Liberation archive collections, such as that of the ANC, are being sanitised and denuded of `sensitive` material before being placed in the public domain. And those in the public domain are rapidly being reduced to little more than political rhetoric, propaganda information, public statements, press cuttings and ephemera;
  3. And they  seem to be seeking to influence, control and present particular perspectives on the past, to serve the political needs of the present. A heroic, patriotic, linear narrative which glorifies favourites and settles old scores is preferred. 

So this is a space where the State and the ruling party lays claim, ownership and stewardship to South Africa’s past and the ‘liberation struggle’. Deciding who has presence and who has agency. Where the recent South African past is being reconstituted and venerated to an agenda of the present - similar to the dystopia of George Orwell’s 1984, where the past was constantly re-edited to assure that the current view of the world (approved of by the government) was not contradicted by previous news reports.

This is not simply a struggle over archiving processes and information management. This is a struggle over who owns history. 

Since 1990 competition between Non-State archives has increased, particularly with regard to the records of the ‘liberation movement’. There seems to be almost an obsession  with possessing information and collections that are perceived to be politically fashionable and consequently prestigious and celebrated - reflecting ownership and control rather than process, access or protection.  And of course these Archives – often in Tertiary institutions - operate within the political and financial environment of their parent institutions and this impacts on their strategies, policies and procedures.[2] 

Given all of this:  what role can a counter-hegemonic Research Archive– such as Historical Papers – play in acting as a counterweight to the power of ruling groups or those holding power in society?:

  1. Historical Papers is not merely filling the gaps in the official record but is focusing on the lives of individuals, the plurality of civil society, marginalised groupings and organisations and non-state actors. 
  2.  It is a mediated locale for unearthing and pointing to unfinished and unfolding identities, myths, ambiguous and subversive narratives and contradictory political and social agendas.
  3. Historical Papers encourages a multitude of voices and multiple interpretations rather than privileging one voice, one narrative or iconography
  4. And it is self-consciously reflecting and attempting to elevate and repurpose the archival landscape and serve the public interest...

We therefore want to thank Ronnie Kasrils, ANC Khumalo, Khumalo of the ANC, MK Mtungwa and Alexander Sibeko, for placing these precious and provocative documents into our care. In engaging in this fraught and complicated process he is deliberately adding to the documentary record, without which there can be no calling to account, no investigation, no trace.  And these papers, these recordings, these photographs, these  documents - and all the rest which goes  to make up the Ronnie Kasrils archival collection  -stand as witness in the future to those who would forget, rewrite or destroy that past. 

[1] ANC archive housed at the University of Fort Hare. In April 2010 The ANC closed public access to its archives after media reports accessed the archives and then revealed alleged corruption in the ANC.  

[2] For example, control of the Mayibuye Centre archival holdings were handed over by the University of the Western Cape (UWC) to the State via the Robben Island Museum. A problematic and unprecedented transfer of this nature (in which depositors of collections were not consulted) must have implications for the way perceived contentious collections, or items within collections, are made accessible or inaccessible (largely dependent on who is requesting it). UWC was also unable to prevent the ANC from removing ANC material in the custody of the Mayibuye Centre or negotiate for copies to be made in the interests of access to information and ‘the right to know’. 



(Photos by Koko, International photographer/journalist - provided by Wits Communication)