All material on this site is (c) copyright to the respective authors.  ISSN - 1481-3440 

> Issues of Archiving inSouthern Africa


Archiving is an important activity because it provides storage and retrieval of information
necessary for effective decision making and the continued existence of organisations including
communities and whole societies. It also has a psychological function in maintaining those parts
of collective memory which are the basis of identity which is necessary for health and survival..
The ethics of ownership of archival material are the same as for any other intellectual and
cultural property, and there are remedies provided by international treaty and law. A debate is
often formulated in terms of rightful but neglectful ownership versus acquired benevolent
custodial ownership with possibly colonial origin. Electronic archiving technology may appear to
provide an answer through virtual ownership but in view of the psychological significance of the
collective record this is highly unlikely. However, in other ways, electronic archives have a
valuable role to play. Some of the key holdings in Southern Africa and present initiatives are
briefly reviewed and the psychological importance of archiving language records, both oral and
written, is affirmed.
"Stories can heal profound sicknesses of the spirit." (Okri, 1998: 115)
Archive is from the Greek arkhé meaning government, indicating its importance in the continued
life of a community. Archives, or organised public or corporate records, are essential to effective
day-to-day organisational decision making, but even more than that, to the survival of
organisations. Schwirtlich has argued that
"Just as individuals dysfunction without a memory so do organisations. Without archival recall they
would have no perspective on which to base planning, nothing to prevent them repeating mistakes,
no expertise or knowledge except what people remembered, perhaps inaccurately, no way of
proving entitlements or ownership or of accounting for their actions." (1987: 6).
Archives were well developed by the ancient Chinese, the ancient Greeks and many other peoples
including the Aboriginal Australians, whose immensely intricate archives were stored and
transmitted orally but with reference markers in the physical landscape. Rock art was also used in
Southern Africa which has more sites than in any other part of the world (Unisa, 2001), and the
National Archives of South Africa acknowledges rock art, heraldic shield markings and oral history
as constituting archival records (National Archives of South Africa, 2001: 3). Colonising powers
developed extensive archives and the evaluation and interpretation of these is a major challenge to
the present day archivist.
Senior Lecturer in Government, University of Tasmania. I would like to thank for their information
and advice the many helpful people I met during my two visits to South Africa and one to

Page 2
Archival Initiatives in Southern Africa: Overview
The states of Southern Africa: Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland
and Zimbabwe, and other public and private bodies, notably universities, hold a rich range of
archival material.
It is beyond the scope of the present discussion to assess the richness of these holdings but one
could note the existence of some special challenges. For example, in performing its archival
function, the National Archives of South Africa (NASA) has had to deal with holdings L developed in
the colonial and then Apartheid periods such that "…the holdings reveal a largely partisan, white-
oriented and heterosexual reflection of South Africa's social memory.'"(National Archives of South
Africa, 2001: 4). After the achievement of majority rule, NASA was able to support the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission (TRC) by identifying the nature and extent of the illegal destruction of
public records by the Apartheid regime (National Archives of South Africa, 2001:11) , and was also
able to return to Namibia the records removed by South Africa immediately prior to Namibian
independence (National Archives of South Africa, 2001:10).
The National Archives of Namibia provide a national information service by "…preserving and
making publicly accessible the collective memory of the nation and of the Government of Namibia"
and by contributing to the protection of the rights of all Namibians, and by enhancing a sense of
their national identity by acquiring, conserving and providing access to private and public records
in all formats and media of national significance (National Archives of Namibia. 2000).
Similarly the other states have archival services, either as separate bodies or, as in the case of
Botswana, within a Ministry such as Labour and Home Affairs (Botswana National Archives and
Records Services, 2001).
Although there are many impressive public and private archival holdings in Southern Africa, the
comment has been made that '…developing countries are '…focused on primary survival needs,
(and) lack national information policies, finance and human resources to create suitable
infrastructures' (Raseroka, 2001: 4). The implication is that archivists will have to argue the case
for resources for this activity against other severely pressing needs, but collective memory has a
very important function in maintaining the health of a community. Where records exist in a
tradition of orality, this requires special sensitivity (Raseroka, 2001: 4).
In addition, electronic archiving in Southern Africa must be done in a context of the "digital divide",
that is, the non-availability of computing facilities and infrastructure such as reliable and
inexpensive electricity and telephony to a majority of those in need. However, initiatives to assist
with the problem are in progress from governmental bodies such as The Education for
Development and Democracy Initiative (EDDI) and private corporations such as IBM, Xerox,
Kodak and Microsoft (IWS, 2001).
Yet without a store of information, every community would have to relearn from costly experience
the rules of survival: physical, psychological, organisational, legal, philosophical and spiritual.
While archives are essential to continuity, the actual medium of storage is highly variable, having
been at various times, stone, cellulose, metal, paper, celluloid, optical, magnetic, electronic or
simply oral. Among these, the oral of particular importance because "…when an old man dies, a
library disappears" (Madou Hampate Ba, quoted by Raseroka, 2001: 4).
Psychological Aspects

Page 3
"Problems of identity constitute the most serious distinctive psychological disorder of our time..."
wrote Sommers nearly 50 years ago, a situation that may have even intensified since then
(1964:332). However, it is possible to go further and suggest that problems of identity must be
resolved if the destruction of communities, organisations and even states is to be avoided.
Archiving thus not only has an important organisational function; it also has an essential function
for individual health and survival through the maintenance of identity. This is because collective
memory has a very important function for collective health and the collective will to survive.
However, the concept of collective memory is controversial because of its association with the
concept of a collective mind, as proposed by Le Bon in 1895 (Le Bon, 1960), and developed by
Durkheim as collective consciousness, (Durkheim, 1964: 103n).
It is possible to say that collective memory is the totality of individually held common memories. It
is moreover possible to account for multiple versions of an event without abandoning its facticity or
the weight of what has happened (Minow, 1999: 2).
The common memories stored and maintained in archives are not only essential for continued
organisational survival but also essential to the development and maintenance of identity, "…the
essential continuous self, the internal, subjective concept of oneself…"(Reber, 1995: 355), as
either an individual or as a group.
Erikson saw a strong sense of identity as a generator of energy, and a weak or confused sense of
identity as a source of decline (Erikson, 1968:62). As a crisis of identity develops, powerful
negative identity factors are produced which "arouse in man a murderous hate of "otherness"
(Erikson, 1968:62).
Archives also help in the process by which a society comes to terms with unacceptable aspects of
its past, a process very necessary for adjustment. One example of this is provided when France
was only able, more than 40 years after the ending of the Algerian war of independence, to
officially allow the word war (guerre d'Algérie) to be used rather than the previous military
operations (France, 1999). In South Africa the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which
was set up by the Government of National Unity to help deal with what happened under apartheid
has a similar function.
(Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2001).
National identity has often been studied by cultural anthropologists as "national character", and
political scientists have often affirmed the importance of national identity to state stability, especially
in "young" (ie. post-colonial) nation-states.
National identity and state stability have a close contingent relationship, analogous to the mind/body
relationship, such that a strong sense of national identity will be congruent with a highly stable
state. Sometimes the stability of regimes is obtained through the use of fear, violence, and forced
or suppressed identification. In all of these cases, the archivist has a very important role to play in
the question of state stability.
Ethical Aspects
Not all archival records have organisational and psychological functions for group survival. In
essence it is the weighty responsibility of the archivist to make judgements about which items are to
be kept, with generally 90 to 95 per cent of material being rejected (Schwirtlich, 1987: 5). In
addition to archives, human and cultural relics can have extremely important psychological
functions for identity and survival, and often the boundary between archive and artefact can
overlap. In both cases, the question of rightful ownership can be a matter of life and death. Here
one could point to the case of the Bobo priests of Burkina Faso who were driven by the depth of

Page 4
their anguish to suicide after the theft of their village's store of ritual objects (Shyllon, 2000: 14).
Given the importance of collective memory, and of archival and artefactual items as signifiers and
storers of information and identity, this is hardly surprising.
Possession of these items is of the utmost significance, and where possession is by a foreign
power, it can be a political and moral affront to the self-respect of an entire nation-state. A
prominent case of this is that of the Benin Bronzes and Ivories, taken from West Africa in
controversial circumstances at the end of the nineteenth century and now held in various sites,
notably the British Museum, the Museum of Mankind and the Glasgow Museum (ARM, 2001).
British authorities have argued that while within their care, these items receive better curation than
would be the case if returned, because of lack of expertise and also the problem of corruption in
Another case is that of the Aksum Obelisk, removed from Ethiopia by Fascist Italy in 1937 and
relocated to Rome where it remains, despite a promise of return by the Italian Government
(Africaonline, 2001).
A third well-known case is that of the ancient African manuscripts and artefacts, including the
Kabra Nagast Bible containing 81 books and a picture of Jesus Christ as a black man, all currently
held at Windsor Castle (New African, 1998: 2).
The holding of human relics can be particularly affronting to the dignity of surviving individuals,
communities and even whole continents. An infamous case is that of the Nègre empaillé (stuffed
Negro), whereby the body of an African was taken from what is now Botswana in 1830 and placed
on display at a museum in Spain, where it remained until 1997, as an "…unacceptable violation of
African dignity.'"(Shyllon, 2000: 3)(University of Botswana History Department, 2001).
So great has been the international traffic in the African cultural heritage in recent times that
African archaeological sites and historical monuments are now considered to be under as great a
threat as during colonial period, whether it be the ancient city mounds in Mali's Middle Niger, the
ornate doors from the houses of Swahili Lamu, or the Sakalaves tombs of Madagascar. (McIntosh,
1994), (ICOM Red List, 2001).
The ethics of ownership of artefacts, cultural items and archival material are the same as for any
other intellectual and cultural property, and there are remedies provided by international treaty and
law. However, as the continuing nature of disputes concerning the several examples above
indicate, these are not yet fully effective.
In 1972 a UNESCO Convention on the means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export
and Transfer of ownership of Cultural Property came into effect, but unfortunately the majority of
African countries that could benefit by becoming States Parties did not. Similarly, the majority of
African states were absent from the conference which adopted the UNIDROIT Convention on
Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects in 1995 (Shyllon, 2000: 1).
Action for recovery in foreign courts is a possibility but not highly feasible because of the
reluctance of such courts to apply extraterritoriality and the cost involved (Shyllon, 2000: 2).
The International Council of Museums (ICOM) is particularly concerned at the looting of African
items and destruction of sites and aiding in the fight against the illicit traffic of African cultural
property (ICOM, 2001).
There is also the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) which works with UNESCO for
the protection of traditional knowledge as intellectual property (WIPO, 2001) (Blakeney, 1999).

Page 5
These initiatives have yet to impact greatly on what has been referred to as "…the magnitude of the
cultural tragedy now being played out in Africa.'"(Shyllon, 2000: 14). The nature of the tragedy is
highlighted by a report that one village was offered a health clinic in exchange for pieces from an
archaeological site (New African, March, 1998). However, a small but significant benefit that has
emerged from the African cultural disaster is the assembling of a number of databases archiving
the range and depth of African cultural heritage.
A very important area of threatened cultural heritage with strong identity implications is that of
language: over 5,000 language names have been identified in sub-Saharan Africa (Spencer, 1985:
387), but many of these languages are now dead, and of the current languages, nearly 200 are
now facing extinction (Sasse, 1992: 7). The implications of anticipated grief over language death
are severely disruptive to social organisation (Bostock, 1997) and the continued archiving of
endangered languages could play a therapeutic role in helping these communities to adjust. South
Africa's current language policy is attempting to bring about state stability through language
preservation by controlled status adjustment, that is, the enhancement of the status of previously
devalued languages and continued official status of Afrikaans (Bostock, 2000).
Technological Aspects
Can technology contribute to archiving in Southern Africa? The potential offered by electronic
archiving has been described by Myerson as
"…(t)o one side, there is the experience of illuminated vistas. To the other side, a sense of
existential confusion, analogous to that invoked in the more apocalyptic texts of
postmodernity…"(Myerson, 1998: 99).
The technological basis of archiving is of fundamental importance and archivists have traditionally
been at the forefront of technical innovation, as they are in the present electronic age. The
challenge of handling electronic materials is their short durability (Exon,1995: 2) and in fact many
significant losses have already occurred in countries that have advanced in the implementation of
this technology, including for example the first electronic mail message of 1964, part of the U.S.
census of 1960, and the satellite observations of Brazil taken in the 1970s (Task Force, 1996:2).
The technical problems are the fragility of the medium and the incompatibility of software and
hardware, and are generally solved by periodic refreshment of information whereby it is migrated
from one hardware/software configuration to another. “Backward compatibility ” or refreshment to
earlier configurations is generally unavailable because of reasons of cost (Task Force, 1996: 1). In
addition to the problems of obsolescence and decay through neglect (Exon, 1995: 4) there is the
problem of deliberate and accidental corruption through viral infection. The technical problems are
thus considerable, but solutions are being proposed through refreshment and critical fail-safe
mechanisms (Task Force, 1996: 3) and the standardisation of formats, such as the Text Encoding
Initiative (TEI)(Popham and Burnard,1999:1), Computer Aided Design (CAD), geographic
information systems (GIS)(Task Force,1996:1) and also measures under consideration by the
International Standards Organization (ISO, 2000).
A number of private initiatives towards perfecting the means of gathering archival information are in
progress. The major example is the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (Dublin Core, 2000).
Private electronic archives also play a role in responding to the needs of maintenance of digital
information. It is difficult to estimate the number of private or semi-private electronic archives in
existence but their variety and significance are great. In engineering, for example, the integration
of scanners, conversion software, and storage and retrieval systems is generating complex
management systems (Puttre,1992).

Page 6
In medicine, electronic communication, publication and storage have revolutionised research with
WHO databases (WHO, 2002) and private sources such as Medline (Delamothe, 1998). Another
initiative in the health field with enormous potential for Southern Africa and all resource-poor
countries is The Lancet Electronic Research Archive in International Health. The Lancet's
experimental electronic research archive (ERA) in international health will be owned by authors and
administered by The Lancet. Access will be unrestricted through the ERA website with the objective
of creating a searchable electronic public library of research in international health (The Lancet,
In the cultural world where need has less urgency, developments are no less impressive. One could
cite, for example' the Computer Aided Design (CAD)
model of the Athenian Acropolis, the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem (CSA,
2000), or the Electronic Beowulf, a joint Anglo-American initiative to store and
provide access to the famous medieval text (Kiernan,1995). The storage, transmission and instant
availability of the visual image, as in photographs, is an immense benefit of electronic archiving, as
shown in, for example, the archives of Swaziland (Swaziland Digital Archives, 2001). Impressive
though these virtual versions of constructions and archives may be, it is doubtful that these virtual
replications could ever satisfy the identity needs of the people who cherish them. These techniques
require considerable inputs of resource, so that the technical problems are hugely magnified
among the countries of Southern Africa.
International cooperation is also present in the project of the archiving of Southern Africa. In July
2000, a group of South African archivists, curators, academics and cultural heritage specialists
and additional faculty from the U.S. undertook a three-week training program in digital and
traditional methods of curation, management, and presentation, both electronic and traditional.
(MSU, 2000: 1). Such courses could easily be mounted in the countries of southern Africa, which
would avoid the ethical problem created by bringing Southern Africans to the West to learn the
techniques of dealing with their own cultures.
Electronic archiving thus offers a mixed set of positive and negative possibilities in the context of
Southern Africa.
Archiving is thus an important activity not only for effective organisational decision-making but also
for its psychological function in maintaining those parts of collective memory which is the basis of
identity. The ownership of archival material creates problems, similar to any other intellectual and
cultural property, but the remedies available have not been greatly effective. A debate is often
formulated in terms of acquired benevolent custodial ownership versus rightful but neglectful or
corrupt ownership. Electronic archiving technology may appear to provide an answer through
virtual ownership but in view of the psychological significance of the collective record this is highly
unlikely. However, in other ways, such as in health, medicine, and the archiving of threatened
languages, electronic archives have an extremely valuable role to play.
References, 2001. Return the Askum Obelisk to Ethiopia.,10,18792.jsp (Sighted December 6, 2001).
ARM (Africa Reparations Movement), 2001. The British and the Benin Bronzes. (Sighted December 6, 2001).

Page 7
Blakeney, M., 1999. Intellectual Property in the Dreamtime.
(Sighted December 6, 2001).
Bostock, W. W., 1997. Language Grief: a 'Raw Material' of Ethnic Conflict. Nationalism and
Ethnic Politics, 3 (4): 94-112.
Bostock, W. W., 2000. South Africa's language policy: Controlled status
enhancement and reduction. Mots Pluriels, 13 (April). (Sighted 5 June 2000).
Botswana National Archives and Records Services, 2001.
Delamothe, T., 1998. The electronic future of scientific articles. (Supplement guide to the Internet),
The Lancet, March 21, 351 (9106): SI 5(2) (Sighted 5 June
Dublin Core, (2000).Metadata Resources . (Sighted 3 August
Durkheim, E., 1964. The Rules of Sociological Method. New York: Free Press and London:
Erikson, E.H., 1968. Identity, Psychosocial. In D.R.Sills (ed.) Encyclopaedia of the Social
Sciences . New York: Macmillan and Free Press: 61-65.
Exon, M.,1995. Long-Term Management Issues in the Preservation of Electronic Information.
Paper presented at 2nd National Preservation Office Conference: Multimedia Preservation –
Capturing the Rainbow, Brisbane, 28-30 November. (Sighted 5 June 2000).
France, 1999. Loi du 18 Octobre. Journal Officel. 20 Octobre.
ICOM (International Council of Museums), 2001,
RedList / ListeRouge.
(Sighted December 6, 2001).
IWS (Information Warfare Site), 2001. US Program Helping to Bridge Digital Divide With Africa.
(Sighted December 6, 2001).
Kiernan, K. S., 1995. The electronic Beowulf." Computers in Libraries,15 (2): 14(2).
(Sighted 27 June
Lancet, The, 2001. The dawn of a new era the Lancet Electronic Research Archive in international
health and e-print server. - (Sighted December 12, 2001).

Page 8
Le Bon, G., 1960 (First published 1895). The Mind of the Crowd. New York, Viking.
McIntosh, R.J., 1994. The Shield of Public Pride. A Malian Community Confronts Traffickers in Its
Past. (Sighted December 7, 2001).
Minow, M. 1999. The Uses of Memory. Harvard Magazine, Commencement 1999. (Sighted December 6, 2001).
MSU (African Studies Center Michigan State University), 2000. Bulletin. 09/05/00. (Sighted December 24,
Myerson, G., 1998. The Electronic Archive. History of the Human Sciences 11 (4): 85-101.
National Archives of South Africa (NASA) (Sighted December 6, 2001).
National Archives of Namibia, 2001. (Sighted December 6,
New African, March 1998. Looters from hell. - (Sighted December 6, 2001).
Okri, B, 1998. A Way of Being Free. London, Phoenix.
Popham, M. and Burnard, L., 1997. Putting our headers together: a report on the TEI Header
Meeting of 12 September 1997.
(Sighted December 6, 2001).
Puttre, M., 1992. Document Management, establishing an electronic archive. Mechanical
Engineering – CIME, 114 (1): 74-79. (Sighted 5 June 2000).
Raseroka, K. 2001. The Right to Memory. Videazimut. (Sighted December 6, 2001).
Reber, A. S., 1995. The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, Second Edition. London, New York,
Ringwood, Toronto, Auckland: Penguin.
Sasse, H.-J., 1992. Theory of Language Death. In Matthias Brenzinger, (ed.), Language Death:
Factual and Theoretical Explorations
with Special Reference to East Africa. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter: 7-30.
Schwirtlich, A.-M., 1987. Introducing Archives and the Archival Progression. In Anne Pederson,
(Ed), Keeping Archives, Sydney, Australian Society or Archivists: 1-20.
Shyllon, F., 2000. The Recovery of Cultural Objects by African States through the UNESCO and
UNIDROIT Conventions and the Role of Arbitration. (Sighted December 6, 2001).
Sommers, V.S., 1964. The Impact of Dual Cultural Membership on Identity. Psychiatry, 27 (11):

Page 9
Spencer, J., 1985. Language Development in Africa: The Unequal Equation.
In Wolfson, N., and J. Manes (eds), Language of Inequality. Contributions to the Sociology of
Language 36. Berlin, New York, Amsterdam: Mouton: 387-398.
Swaziland Digital Archives, 2001. (Sighted 5 June 2000).
Task Force 1996. Preserving Digital Information. Report on the Task Force of Archiving of Digital
Information. Commissioned by The Commission on Preservation and Access and the Research
Libraries Group, Inc. (Sighted 5 June 2000).
Truth and Reconciliation Commission, 2002. (Sighted February 4, 2002).
Unisa, 2001. Faculty of Arts, Archaeology.
(Sighted December 6, 2001).
University of Botswana History Department, 2001. El Negro of Banyoles.
(Sighted February 4, 2002).
WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization), 2001.
(Sighted December 6, 2001).
WHO (World Health Organization), 2002. (Sighted February 4,

Archiving in Southern Africa:

Psychological, Ethical and Technological Aspects

William Bostock, University of Tasmania