What records does the National Archives and Records Service 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. Taken together with the idea that a record is essentially recorded information with enduring value without regard to form or medium, this thinking regarding custody and recordness means that rock paintings or heraldic markings on shields as well as the transmission of oral history could 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 and Records Service 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 and Records Service 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 and Records Service for custody in terms of the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa Act (Act No. 43 of 1996, as amended). 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 and Records Service appraises such records in order to determine which warrant the expense of transfer and permanent archival preservation. 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.

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. A transformation imperative contained in our country's archival legislation requires as one of its foremost functions and objects that the National Archives and Records Service 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, thereby supplementing the information contained in our public records.

Currently about 5% of the holdings of the National Archives and Records Service 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 and Records Service, namely the National Film, Sound and Video Archives.

Since a major part of the holdings of the National Archives and Records Service do not adequately reflect the experiences of particularly those South Africans who had been marginalised by Apartheid, the National Archives and Records Service 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.