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Archives without archives: a window of opportunity to build inclusive archive in South Africa

Mpho Ngoepe


The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa provides a framework for developing an archival system in the country. The Constitution requires the devolution of the state’s responsibility for archives from the national government to the country’s nine provinces. In terms of Schedule 5 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, “archives other than national archives are a functional area of exclusive provincial competence”. By virtue of this provision, each province is required to promulgate its own Act on archives and records services, as well as establish and maintain its own archival infrastructure. Although almost all nine provinces have enacted their own archival legislation and established archival infrastructure, some of these repositories are ‘empty shells’ without archival holdings. This study suggests how archives repositories in South Africa can turn the situation of ‘empty archives’ into a window of opportunity to build inclusive archival holdings that reflect the diversity of South Africa as a rainbow nation. This in turn will help to bridge the gap that exists in the national archives repository in South Africa, as the holdings mostly reflect the records of colonial and apartheid governments. This study suggests that as some of these repositories are situated in previously marginalised communities, the archival holdings should embrace the voices of such community, which in turn will promote the usage of archives. One way of building an inclusive archive is through embarking on a national oral history project that adopts the model of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Furthermore, the South African government should consider developing a policy on inter-repository repatriation of archives to the communities about which they were created. It is concluded that failure to address the situation of ‘archives without archives’ will render these repositories “white elephants” and “empty vessels”.

Key words: archives repository, provincial archives, archives, archival system

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print ISSN: 1012-2796