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Archival Platform Dialogue Forums

Serious discussion between partcipants at the Provincial Dialogue Forum held at the new Limpopo Archives Building in Polokwane. Serious discussion between partcipants at the Provincial Dialogue Forum held at the new Limpopo Archives Building in Polokwane.
Between 1 March and 31 July the Archival Platform engaged with stakeholders across the country through a series of National, Provincial and local Dialogue Forums. These Forums played a useful role in bringing diverse stakeholders together to discuss common interests and shared concerns.

National Dialogue Forums

The first National Dialogue Forum (NDF) held in Johannesburg on 25 March 2015, preceded the launch of the Archival Platform’s State of the Archives: an analysis of South Africa’s national archival system. It was organised in association with the South African History Archive (SAHA) and attended by 26 delegates representing the provincial archives and records management services, professional associations, tertiary institutions, and activist archives. The programme focused on two key issues: the implications of the Protection of Personal Information Act No 4 of 2013 on archival and records management practice – and the draft code of conduct prepared by the Archival Platform for the sector; and the conclusions drawn in the Archival Platform’s State of the Archives analysis.

The second National Dialogue Forum held in Johannesburg on 31 July 2015, in partnership with the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI), focused on the impact of record-keeping on good governance, accountability and service delivery, and on the status and placement of archives and records management services within government. It aimed to open up an important and long-overdue conversation into the status and placement of archives and records management services in government. While this issue has been raised tangentially in reports and reviews since at least the late 1980s and brought into view once again through the State of the Archives analysis it has not, until now, received focused attention. The NDF offered an opportunity to begin to unpack issues and options applicable to both the national and provincial spheres of government. Presentations by PARI and the Archival Platform provoked robust discussion, arming archivists with the information to call for greater status and a more appropriate placement within their respective provinces. 36 delegates representing provincial archives and records management services, professional associations, tertiary institutions and activist archives attended this NDF.

Provincial Dialogue Forums

The Provincial Dialogue Forums (PDF) generally followed a similar agenda: participants were asked to introduce themselves and to tell the group why they were passionate about their work – this gave us great insight into the value that archivists and records managers attach to the work that they do; a presentation on the implications of the Protection of the Personal Information Act gave participants the opportunity to share their concerns about the Act, to raise questions and to point out areas which should be clarified or addressed in the draft guide / code of conduct prepared by the Archival Platform; a presentation on the Archival Platform’s State of the Archives analysis provided an opportunity for participants to bench mark their provincial archives and records management service against others, to raise issues of concern and, in most cases, to propose ways of rallying support for under-resourced or under-capacitated services; a small group activity in which participants responded to three questions 1) What would you like archives and records management services to do in the 21st century? 2) What archival legacy would you like to leave for future generations? 3) How do we work collectively to achieve this vision? This provided an opportunity for participants to build a vision for the future and to develop strategies to achieve this.

Over three hundred archivists, records managers and associated practitioners attended the 9 Provincial Dialogue Forums.

Extended Local Dialogue Forums

The first Extended Local Dialgue Forum, implemented in partnership with the Anova Health Institute and Museum of Aids in Africa (MAA), was intended to bring individual and institutional memory and records together to reflect on the changing face of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and responses to it. The MAA Healing through Memory and Objects Toolkit was used as a basis for a series of workshops held in the Cape Winelands with: 16 care-workers employed by Anova; 15 young adolescents who participate in Anova programmes; 20 elders and mentors who care for adolescents; and 15 health professionals including doctors working with Anova. Although these workshops focused largely on individual memory and experience, they also provided an opportunity to consider the different narratives found in the ‘official records’. While small exhibitions were created at the end of each workshop Anova had hoped to create a larger permanent exhibition that would bring the individual narratives, scientific information and medical records together into a more permanent exhibition. Unfortunately Anova’s long-term donor has withdrawn and the organisation has prioritised initiatives in other parts of the country, bringing Anova’s work in the Winelands to an end.

The second Extended Local Dialogue Forum, implemented in partnership with the Vosloorus Land Restitution Claim Committee and the Remembering Stirtonville Exhibition Steering Committee, was held from the 3rd to 5th December 2014 in Vosloorus. 11 community members were trained to collect oral histories and to access historical documents and records. An interactive exhibition, held from 8th to 16th December 2014 at St Boniface Anglican Church hall in Vosloorus, was used to facilitate the collection of material including photographs, documents and oral histories to build on the resources gathered by the group. This information will be made accessible via the South African History Online (SAHO) website. Documents, photographs and the 30 oral histories collected during this process will be stored at the Historical Papers Research Archive at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and will, in time, form the basis for a permanent exhibition and a publication.

The Extended Local Dialogue Forums were a resounding success in both communities and played a significant role in accessing, documenting and presenting individual narratives relating to key national issues and in making the link between archives and social justice. The effect of the HIV/AIDS pandemic on individual and community lives and the trauma of forced removals on individuals and their families is often lost within the broader socio-political debates.

Reflections

The Forums were intended to draw together representatives from archives and records management services, civil society archives, academic institutions, museums and other related initiatives. Archivists and records management practitioners were well represented in all the Forums. We were particularly delighted at the enthusiastic response from records managers, especially those working in local and provincial government; they represent an important and often overlooked grouping within the broader archival sector. While representatives from academic institutions, museums, libraries and related initiatives attended Forums held in the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and the Northern Cape; few were present at Forums in the other provinces. This can be ascribed to a number of factors. Firstly, it may be because museum and heritage practitioners hold a narrow view of archives as documents, signaling a need to promote a larger concept of ‘archive’. Secondly, in most of the provinces with newly established archives and records management services, the focus has been on records management so no firm relationships have been built with museums and heritage associations, as in, for example, the North West. Thirdly, there are a limited number of academic institutions and museums in some provinces. There is not a single university in Mpumalanga, for example, and museums tend to be clustered in regions visited by tourists, rather than in the administrative capital. Fourthly, the large area of some provinces, for example Limpopo, the distance between institutions makes travelling time consuming and costly.

The inclusion of a diverse range of institutions and organisations in the forums brought archivists and records managers together with other stakeholders who share a vision for a broad and inclusive archive that supports a more nuanced understanding of the past, and promotes accountable government in the present. The Forums brought officials and others including academics, representatives from professional associations and civil society initiatives together in a supportive environment to address troubling issues very directly. This has had a marked effect raising the morale of archivists and re-energising them as well as, making a positive contribution to addressing the feelings of isolation, disempowerment and disillusionment noted in the State of the Archives analysis.

The Forums identified training and capacity building as the largest single factor impeding the development of effective and efficient archives and records management services. It was concluded that, while academic institutions may offer interesting opportunities for individuals, there is a more urgent need for short courses aimed at empowering specific practitioners with the skills and tools required to address very particular, and often context-specific challenges. In some provinces, for example, there is not a singe individual able to appraise records for retention or disposal. It was agreed that what is required is a pool of experts that could be called, or sent in, as and when necessary. For this strategy to work, three things are needed: a coordinating body; strategic partnerships with institutions able to offer expertise in particular areas; and funding to support this. The big question is, who will take this initiative forward and how. In the absence of a strong professional body and in the absence of leadership from the National Archives participants look to the Archival Platform to perform this important role.

Conclusion

The Forums played an important role in advancing to mission of the Archival Platform. More specifically, they:

  • Facilitated the advocacy work of the Archival Platform by providing an opportunity for it to share and build support for its State of the Archives analysis across the country. The publication of this analysis, and the attention garnered through exposure in the media and through the Forums has raised the public profile of the Archival Platform and established its reputation as an organisation that listens attentively, shares ideas about possible remedial action and speaks out boldly in support of archives and archivists in the public domain. This bodes well for our continued advocacy work.
  • Enabled participants, who tend to operate in isolation, to: recognise shared goals and challenges and to strategise ways to respond to these collectively; understand how and why the provision of archives and records management services differs so markedly from province to province; and to consider how the lessons learnt from particular ‘pockets of excellence’ might be extended.
  • Drew attention to the significance of and challenges experienced by archivists and records managers attempting to deliver on their legislated mandate; namely to facilitate access to the archives and records that the state requires to demonstrate its commitment to accountability and that citizens require to exercise their democratic rights under very trying circumstances.
  • Reinforced the significant role that archivists and records play in promoting access to information and supporting social justice. Facilitators took advantage of opportunities raised when individuals shared their ‘passion’ for their work to affirm the ways in which their actions contributed to sustaining the rights enshrined in the constitution and deepening democracy. Participants were urged to speak out about this aspect of their work to their colleagues in government who often fail to recognise it.
  • Going beyond merely raising awareness, the forums have created a sense of solidarity within the sector by bringing together people,– who often work in isolation, to find solutions to the challenges they share.
  • Bringing diverse groupings together has played a role in building cohesion within the sector and an appreciation for the different but complementary roles of archivists and record managers in government and civil society.
  • The forums have played an important role in stimulating discussion. As a ‘safe’ space in which views may be shared without fear of censure, they provide an opportunity for participants to name and express their concerns, fears and frustrations, knowing that these will be amplified and brought to the attention of decision makers in ways that will not compromise individuals.
  • While the Forums were not directed at the general public, they are foundational in making archivists aware of their responsibilities not just to government, but also to the public at large.
  • The two Extended Local Dialogue Forums, focusing on responses to the HIV/AIDS pandemic and forced removals / land restitution respectively, provided opportunities to work with two communities to interrogate and explore the ways in which the archive, and memory, may be mobilised in the struggle for social justice. Both Forums included an element of training and capacity building, ensuring that participants would be able to apply the lessons learnt to challenges that they may face in the future.

  • I would like to extend a personal word of thanks to the institutions, organisations and individuals who made these Dialogue Forums possible: The Ford Foundation who generously funded this initiative; The Archival Platform Steering Committee for their guidance and direction; facilitators, Deirdre Prins Solani, Andre Landman and Mbongiseni Buthelezi, colleagues at SAHA, PARI, the Anova Health Institute and the Museum of Aids in Africa and most especially to the Provincial Archivists: Lungiswa Mtiki (Eastern Cape), Tshitso Challa (Free State), Koekie Meyer and Elizabeth Mbatha (Gauteng), Rishi Signh (KwaZulu-Natal), Jabu Nkatingi (Limpopo), Nkitseng Mahalefa (Mpumalanga), Frank Mkhize and Sipho Zulu (North West), Elizabeth Manong (Northern Cape)and Nikiwe Momoti (Western Cape), your commitment and dedication to archives is an inspiration!

    Jo-Anne Duggan

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