About the 
National Archives of South Africa

What is the National Archives?
"...to provide for a National Archives; the proper management and care of the records of governmental bodies; and the preservation and use of a national archival heritage; and to provide for matters connected therewith." (Preamble to the National Archives of South Africa Act (No 43 of 1996)
The National Archives of South Africa was established by promulgation of the National Archives of South Africa Act (No 43 of 1996). This piece of legislation transformed the former State Archives Service into a National Archives whose mission, functions and structure reflect the post-apartheid political order. Hence the Act provides for a separation of the archival function between the national and the nine provincial governments, while defining the relationship between the National Archives and the provincial archives services. It does so by setting standards for and providing support to provincial services. Of great significance is the importance accorded to the records management function by the Act. Not only does it address new realities of governmental record keeping like the introduction of electronic records, but it attempts to contribute to administrative efficiency and to accountable and transparent governance through a meticulous management and care of the records of governmental bodies.
The Act establishes a National Archives Commission answerable to the Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. The Commission functions to promote the coordination of archival policy formulation and planning at both national and provincial levels. In this capacity it acts as society's watchdog by ensuring that the National Archives carries out its statutory mandate.
In the Act citizens' constitutional rights, such as the access to any information held by the state and, concomitant to that right, the right to privacy, are defined. The Act additionally ensures that no record that protects the rights of citizens are destroyed. Indeed no government records may be destroyed without the consent of the National Archivist, who is closely monitored by the National Archives Commission, and who, in turn, has to act in accordance with the final authority vested in the Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology.
Archival records may be created for a specific purpose. By preserving such records, archives preserve the memory of what a governmental body, an organisation or an individual did, as well as the circumstances and context connected with that activity. Archival records therefore help us to understand who we, either as individuals or as organisations are, and where we come from. By providing us with information about our past, we are assisted with understanding the present. This information is as important to a nation as individual memory is to each person. A public archives such as the National Archives is hence a very special resource for dealing with the social memory of our nation and with protecting people's rights in our country. It is a major resource for fostering a national identity. It is also a treasure house of national memory resources that is accessible to all.
What records does the National Archives keep?
The definition of what constitutes "an archival record" has undergone profound changes in tandem with the discourses in the development of the history of ideas. For centuries an archival record was identified with manuscripts, with written records. With time the "archival record" came to mean recorded information, without regard to form or medium. Essential to this definition is the understanding that a record takes on archival quality if the information it contains has enduring value. Archival records can therefore be paper-based textual records, electronic records, audio-visual, photographic or cartographic material. Postmodernist thought has stretched this definition even further, emphasising the phenomenon of the record independent of the traditional concepts and location of custody, viz. the archives as a building for preserving the record, or the agency that is responsible for preserving and managing the record, or the process of archiving itself. Recordness is further defined by what Verne Harris, with reference to Jacques Derrida's definition of "archive", describes as "the trace of process... inscribed on an external substrate". Taken together with the idea that a record is essentially recorded information with enduring value without regard to form or medium, this extended definition of custody and recordness means that rock paintings or heraldic markings on shields as well as the transmission of oral history constitute archival records.
Against this understanding of archival records, South Africa can boast well-preserved records in the form of rock paintings going back thousands of years. The oral tradition is very rich and highly developed. The markings and symbols on the shields of the indigenous people make the histories of cultures of old come alive today. It was with the advent of colonialism in present day South Africa and the attendant colonial administration in the second half of the seventeenth century, that traditional written records, evidence of governance, started being generated in what is today the Republic of South Africa.
The holdings of the National Archives exceed 140 kilometres of shelving space, comprising records in a variety of media. This includes paper-based textual records, electronic records as well as audio-visual, photographic and cartographic material. As the National Archives is a public archives, its records originate in the main from the execution of the business of governmental bodies. These records are transferred to the National Archives for custody in terms of the National Archives of South Africa Act (No 43 of 1996). The records reflect the activities of governments in South Africa and their impact on the lives of ordinary people since middle of the 17th century. The records are generated at national, provincial and local government level, and include court records, estate papers of deceased, records of property rights and tenure, amongst others.
Governmental bodies produce vast amounts of administrative records. The National Archives appraises such records in order to determine which warrant the expense of transfer and permanent archival preservation. It is aimed to preserve 5% of public records on average, although in many cases a higher percentage of records is retained. Records which are essential for the protection of the rights of citizens are preserved in their entirety.
The records are kept in custom-built, access-controlled strongrooms to ensure their safety and optimal preservation. Various systems are used to protect the records from fire, flooding and pests, as well as from degeneration by the regulation of temperature, humidity and lighting and the use of special storage containers.
The holdings of the National Archives which were generated during the Apartheid era reflect the appraisal policies determined by that political order. Consequently, the holdings reveal a largely partisan, white-oriented and heterosexual reflection of South Africa's social memory. However, while the ideological direction of colonial and Apartheid era administrations is reflected in the records generated, the holdings nevertheless constitute a rich and invaluable source of information and knowledge about all South Africa's people during these eras. Official records also reveal people's resistance and acquiescence to colonial rule and Apartheid administrations. This latter phenomenon notwithstanding, a transformation imperative contained in our country's archival legislation requires as one of its foremost functions and objects that the National Archives fills these apartheid-shaped gaps in the country's social memory by actively collecting non-public records of national significance with enduring value. The charge is to document all those aspects of the nation's experiences that had been neglected in the interests of Apartheid, thereby supplementing the information contained in our public records.
Currently about 5% of the holdings of the National Archives are non-public records. These records are of private or non-governmental origin and are of national significance. A big part of the collected material is audio-visual in nature. These records are housed in a controlled environment in the audio-visual section of the National Archives, namely the National Film, Sound and Video Archives.
Since a major part of the holdings of the National Archives do not adequately reflect the experiences of particularly those South Africans who had been marginalised by Apartheid, the National Archives has embarked on a number of programmes that aim to encourage people to bring their stories and experiences into the archives and therefore to actively participate in the process of forming the collective memory of the whole society. Of special significance is the National Oral History Programme, whereby the challenge is converting orality into material custody without compromising the intrinsic archival value of oral sources. Equally important are the endeavours in reaching out to the public, public programming, particularly to members of society who had been marginalised in the Apartheid era, and who consequently suffer structural disadvantage.


Access to and use of archives
The foremost purpose of preserving archives is to ensure that they are made available for use. In terms of South Africa's archival legislation, any member of the public has a right of access to archives that are older than twenty years, free of charge. Archivists perform professional processing of records acquired to promote intellectual control over their contents, so that they may be consulted efficiently by users. During processing, various finding aids are prepared, including indexing of references to records on the National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System (NAAIRS). Details about gaining access to and using archives are given in the section Services to the Public (Use of Archives).


Structure of the National Archives
The origin of the National Archives, previously known by various other names (last known as the State Archives Service), dates back to 1919. Since then the National Archives has operated on a provincial basis under central government control. In terms of Schedule 5 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 (Act 108 of 1996) and the National Archives of South Africa Act (No 43 of 1996), the archival function is to be devolved to provincial legislatures, with the National Archives retaining responsibility for records of national government bodies.
To date the National Archives is responsible for archives repositories and record centres in Pretoria, Bloemfontein and Cape Town. The archival function of the repositories in Port Elizabeth, Pietermaritzburg and Durban have already been devolved to their respective provincial legislatures.
More information about the structure and functions of the National Archives is contained in the section Organisation. See also Contact information. The latter contains details on provincial archives services as well.
The National Archives of South Africa Act effects transformation of the National Archives structurally as well as in terms of its mandate, functions and objects.
With the restructuring of government and government departments in 1994, the National Archives become a programme of the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology *.


Mission of the National Archives
The foremost mission of the National Archives, namely to foster national identity and to ensure the protection of rights, stems from the recognition that the racialised fragmentation of a South African identity and the flagrant violation of rights, which had characterised the Apartheid political system, needed to be redressed in order for a post-apartheid democratic social order to become entrenched. Hence the mission of the National Archives is translated into two core functions.
The first function is encapsulated in the mandate to preserve a national archival heritage for use by the government and people of South Africa. This entails acquiring and managing records of national importance, which includes both public and non-public records. It also entails making records available to members of the public who may wish to use them for purposes of research of past events or to document or vindicate their rights. There are exceptions, cases where members of the public may be denied access to certain records. Restrictions on access to some non-public records, for example, are indicated in the Guide to Non-Public Records of each repository.
The function of preserving a national and provincial archival heritage is executed in three activities prescribed by archival legislation: the maintenance of a national automated archival information retrieval system, in which a wide range of governmental and non-governmental bodies participate, and in which all provincial archives are required to participate; the setting of standards for and the assistance of South Africa's provincial archives services and the encouragement of archival and records management activities generally throughout the country.
The second core function entails creating the environment in which the National Archives promotes efficient, accountable and transparent government through the proper management and care of records that are still in the possession of national governmental bodies, that is, in the offices of origin. To this end the National Archives takes responsibility for the design and maintenance of records classification systems, the identification of records with archival value, the approval of microfilm and electronic records systems, the training of public servants in records management and finally the inspection of governmental offices.
The primary intention of translating this function into the activities described above is to ensure that record keeping and management by national governmental bodies is efficiently done before the National Archives acquires their records. It also promotes an efficient, accountable and transparent public administration. In a word, it lays the foundation for good governance.
The mission of the National Archives is further supported by other functions and objects. The public programming endeavours of the National Archives aim to make public and non-public records not only accessible to the public, but also to promote their use by the public. The National Archives is charged with the responsibility of actively collecting non-public records which would fill the gaps in our social memory and in documenting of our nation's experiences that were created by apartheid-shaped archival functions. The main activity in this regard is the National Oral History Programme. The National Archives has also to maintain national registers of non-public records with archival value. Additionally, it has to promote co-operation and co-ordination between institutions that likewise engage in the collection of non-public records.
The functions that give concrete expression to the mission of the National Archives constitute Section 3 of the National Archives of South Africa Act (No 43 of 1996).


The head of the National Archives of South Africa, of which the Bureau of Heraldry is an integral part, is the National Archivist. He is supported by a director and four deputy directors, including the State Herald. The National Archives comprises the following four subdirectorates: Planning and Coordination, Records Management and Information Systems, the Bureau of Heraldry and the National Film, Sound and Video Archives. Repositories and Records Centres are organised and managed as a directorate.
The National Archives operates as a programme within the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology *.


Corporate documents


Public Programming
The profound political and social changes in South Africa since the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 have led to our country seeking to overcome its sense of exclusive exceptionalism and international isolation and becoming integrated into the global community. For the archives community these changes have afforded it the opportunity to re-think archives and to re-position itself in its search for a new and post-apartheid identity. This process of reconstruction is taking place within the ambit of ongoing international archival discourse around re-defining professional identity and functions in relation to users and the creation of records. One of the most powerful theories of re-definition that is moulding South African thinking is the discourse initiated by F Gerald Ham, namely that the archival profession is in a process of re-orientation towards a post-custodial identity. Implicit in this definition of identity is the challenge of opening up the archives to the public and drawing in or creating new users, of designing the National Archives' public programming as the condition for an interaction and interface between the public archives and society. In post-apartheid South Africa this has meant that the objectives and content of public programming have to be aligned with societal imperatives aimed at redressing the Apartheid legacy.
Against this background public programming calls for active outreach - "taking archives to the people"- as the popular slogan goes. Section 5 of the National Archives of South Africa Act (No 43 of 1996) determines the parameters of outreach and public programming: special emphasis has to be placed on activities, strategies and programmes that are designed to open up the archives to, and include, the less privileged and previously marginalised members of our society, and to ensure that these activities make the information contained in the archival holdings known to the public. Ultimately then, public programming strategies should lead members of the public to the realisation that the archives is an invaluable community resource.
The main activities of public programming are guided visits that target various social groups, exhibitions, publications, open days, public lectures and services to the public which includes an introduction to genealogical research, or establishing a private archives.
An important aspect of public programming is the educational and training functions that are executed by the National Archives. Staff are involved in the designing of curricula for Archival Studies, lecturing in this field, providing placements for practical training for students of Archival Studies, providing practical training for archivists and records managers from other African countries as well as providing expertise in the fields of electronic record keeping and advising on legislation pertaining to information technology. The National Archives has also designed an archives educational kit which is geared towards senior high school students.
At an international level the National Archives has made many inroads since the collapse of the Apartheid state. The South African State Archives Service (as the National Archives of South Africa was called then) was admitted to the International Council on Archives (ICA) in 1991. Special efforts are focussed on nurturing sound professional relationships in the Southern African region, most notably with the Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Branch of the International Council on Archives (ESARBICA). In 1992 the State Archives Service applied for membership to ESARBICA. Two members of the National Archives serve on the Board of ESARBICA. There is also commitment to the ICA. The levels of interaction with the international archives' community have led to the National Archives hosting international gatherings. It will be hosting the Round Table Conference of the ICA (CITRA) in the year 2003. The new understanding of being part of the international archives community has borne fruit, exemplified by the National Archives returning to Namibia records that had been removed from that country by South Africa immediately prior to Namibia gaining its independence.
"Transformation" is an organising concept used in the National Archives to refer to a range of processes which enables the National Archives to implement the National Archives of South Africa Act (No 43 of 1996) and other legislation in order to promote the process of democratisation of South Africa's social order. The scope of transformation is specifically informed by this piece of archival legislation, because it is the statutory frame of reference and context for the translation of the provisions of this Act into processes, strategies and programmes pertinent to the requirements for fundamental change in the public archives service. Hence transformation in the National Archives is seen as an overarching endeavour, and impacts on all operations of the organisation.
In striving towards the fundamental transformational goal of promoting and fostering democratisation both internally and in the broader context of its operations, the following priority areas have been identified:
Provincialisation: The National Archives of South Africa Act provides for a national archives. The Constitution determines that public archives are "functional areas of exclusive provincial legislative competence". Together these provisions effect a transformation of the public archives service from one in which the state's responsibility for public archives as function of government was concentrated at central government level, to one which affords the nine provinces of South Africa substantial autonomy in this responsibility. Presently the repositories in KwaZulu-Natal and in the Eastern Cape Province have opted to have their archival function devolved from the National Archives to their respective Provinces. Despite the autonomy afforded the provincial archives' services by the Constitution, sections of the National Archives of South Africa Act (No 43 of 1996) determine for the National Archives the parameters of overarching competencies, coordination and support structures in relation to the provincial archives.
Supporting the transition from Apartheid to democracy. Many activities constitute this function. Foremost in this regard is the support given by the National Archives to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) by identifying the nature and extent of the illegal destruction of public records by the Apartheid state. The National Archives has provided the Commission on the Restitution of Land Rights with assistance and technical support with tracing records that would enable people to reclaim land and property appropriated by the Apartheid state. Apart from commenting on a variety of draft bills, green and white papers, the National Archives has actively participated in the drafting of legislation such as the Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2000, and the Legal Deposit Act of 1997.
Pursuing the goal of increasing representivity in the staff profile: The focus in this regard is aimed at more than a staff profile that is outwardly representative of the South African population. The object of increasing representivity additionally aims at overcoming the intellectual control over a public archives service which had been constituted and shaped by Apartheid employment policies.
Human resource development and capacity building. Due to Apartheid employment legislation that reserved certain categories of work for members of the white population, South Africa is labouring under a dearth of qualified and/or experienced archivists. The National Archives has, therefore, embarked on a strategic education and training plan of action that correlates with the conceptual and functional transformation goals of the organisation. This includes members of the National Archives supporting tertiary institutions with the design and teaching of curricula in archival studies and records management, offering in-house training for students of archival studies, offering records management courses to government officials as well as to its own staff, awarding bursaries for staff to complete their professional qualifications and/or improve on language skills. Human resource development and capacity building programmes are aimed at all levels of staff, with the cleaning and ground staff participating in Adult Basic Education Training (ABET) courses.
The repositories of both the National Archives and the provincial archives mount exhibitions at regular intervals in order to give members of the public an insight into nature of their holdings. Therefore, historical records, private papers, official publications, maps, photographs, films and library material are exhibited.
The Pretoria head office of the National Archives together with the National Film, Video and Sound Archives and the Bureau of Heraldry has established a committee of staff members from each of these components who are charged with the mounting of exhibitions. At the level of provincial archives each repository mounts exhibitions as an office.
Current exhibitions

National Archives, Pretoria: 

"The Anglo-Boer/South African War. 1899 - 1902"

Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository:

 "An Introduction to the Pietermaritzburg Archives"
"Umlando nesiko likazulu - the history and culture of the Zulu nation"

Cape Town Archives Repository:

"The Anglo-Boer War. The Centenary Exhibition"

Free State Archives Repository:

"The Free State Red Cross, 1899 - 1999"
"The Batho Project"
"Black Concentration Camps in the Orange River Colony during the Anglo-Boer War, 1899 - 1902" (forthcoming)


National Film, Video and Sound Archives
The National Film, Video and Sound Archives (NFVSA) is a subdirectorate of the National Archives of South Africa, located in Pretoria. State generated material is transferred periodically in terms of the National Archives of South Africa Act (No 43 of 1996). However, the NFVSA has a broad mandate to collect audio-visual and related material which was made in or about South Africa. Material is mainly donated by the film, video and sound industry, as well as private persons. Some material is purchased or exchanged. Provision was made in the National Archives of South Africa Act for a form of legal deposit of audio-visual material at the request of the National Archivist. The Legal Deposit Act (No 54 of 1997) specifically designates the NFVSA as a place of deposit for audio-visual material that has been published and made available in South Africa.
See contact information.
The Bureau of Heraldry
The Bureau of Heraldry was established in 1963 in terms of the Heraldry Act, 1962 (No 18 of 1962). Its mission is to provide a relevant and efficient heraldic and related service to the people of South Africa.
The functions of the Bureau are defined by the Heraldry Act (Act No 18 of 1962)This is a rich text format file (.rtf). According to section 3(2) of this Act, the Bureau is to receive and examine applications for the registration or deletion of heraldic representations, names, special names or uniforms, and issue certificates of registration of the same. Additionally, it should keep the register and documents lodged in terms of the Heraldry Act. The Bureau of Heraldry is obliged to give advice, in so far as it is possible, regarding heraldic representations, names, special names and uniforms. Finally, the Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, the Heraldry Council or the Heraldry Committee are empowered in terms of the Heraldry Act to assign duties to the Bureau of Heraldry, which the latter then has to carry out.
The principal publications of the Bureau of Heraldry encompass the text of all registrations completed initially in terms of the Names, Uniforms and Badges Act (No 1 of 1935) and secondly, the Heraldry Act of 1962. These have been published under the titles Names, Uniforms and Badges in four volumes, The South African Armorial in eight volumes and Names, Special Names and Uniforms in one volume. These include all civil registrations from 1935 until the end of the year 2000. The South African Armorial, of which the first eight volumes cover registrations 1 to 3 200, is being supplemented on an ongoing basis.
Contact information
National Oral History Programme
The National Archives of South Africa Act (No 43 of 1996) determines as one of its primary objects and functions the collection of "non-public records with enduring value of national significance... with due regard to the need to document aspects of the nation's experience neglected by archives repositories in the past". This statutory mandate indicates that there are gaps in the documentation of our society's experiences. This section of the Act implies that these gaps were the result of the power struggle between in the main the Apartheid state and the citizens of South Africa about what constituted social memory and experience. An examination of the non-public records housed by the repositories of the public archives service reveals that the Apartheid state had successfully determined what constitutes social memory and the nation's experiences.
The Act also determines that the National Archives "maintain a national automated archival retrieval system, in which all provincial archival services shall participate". Consequently, the National Archives has developed and maintains a National Register of Oral Sources (NAROS), amongst others in order to fulfill this mandate.
Orality is a significant aspect of the culture of the majority of South Africa's people. Hence the National Archives turned to this cultural asset as one means of filling these gaps by bringing into the archives the stories and narratives which reflect the experiences and memory of those South Africans that had been marginalised in the contestation of social memory and the nation's experiences.
The Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology therefore spearheaded a National Oral History Programme in close collaboration with the National Archives to document the nation's neglected experiences and memory. The holdings of the National Archives, the coordinator of this project, were examined to determine the inadequately documented events of national significance. In addition, National Archives staff interrogated the conceptual relationship of orality in archives. A training pilot project entitled "The 1956 Anti-Pass March to the Union Buildings by Women of South Africa" was successfully launched in the year 2000. Staff of the National Archives were trained in the techniques of collecting oral history.
At provincial level the Free State Archives Repository is involved in two major projects. The first one is entitled "Military Stalwarts and Veterans: Oral History Project". The focus is on testimonies of all participants in the various wars and skirmishes that had taken place in that region. This includes the military involvement of the national liberation movements.
The second project is entitled "Batho Project". Methodologically, it is an attempt at oral history from below. The project is located in the township of "Batho".

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