Archives and Justice: A South African Perspective

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Archives and justice: a South African perspective, by Verne Harris. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2007. 447pp. ISBN 1-931666-18-0. $56 (SAA Members' price $46)

Archives and justice is a collection of thirty-six previously published articles by the South African archivist Verne Harris, with an introduction by Terry Cook. Harris is currently Director of the Centre of Memory and Dialogue at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. He previously headed the South African History Archives and worked for the State Archives Service (now the National Archives) of South Africa.

The pieces in this volume were all published after the transition to majority rule in South Africa in 1994. They represent the development of Harris's thinking, both on the engagement of the archival profession with broader social and political dynamics, and on the deconstructionist challenge posed by the work of Jacques Derrida in particular.

The first section, 'Discourses', tilts head-on at the theoretical ideas that hold much influence in the archival world in South Africa. 'Transformation discourse' - the thinking accompanying the transition to majority rule, which acknowledges the political role of archivists and casts them in the new role of shaping collective memory - is still underpinned, Harris argues, by positivist ideas. In his view, however, such positivism is inadequate because reality is slippery and uncertain: "if archival records reflect reality, they do so complicitly, and in a deeply fractured and shifting way" (p. 13). Our ability to comprehend and fix the past is further compromised by the fluid nature of the means of recording it, especially in the electronic age. The essays that follow show a deep (although not uncritical) engagement with Derrida's work. In chapter 3, for example, ? shaft of darkness: Derrida in the archive', Harris uses the philosopher's ideas on seeing and blindness to argue for the archive, not as dialectic, but as 'trilectic', 'an open-ended process of remembering, forgetting and imagining' (p. 47).

In Section 2, 'Narratives', Harris re-examines aspects of archival practice in the light of the theoretical understandings discussed in Section 1. He starts by critiquing South African methods of selecting records for long-term preservation, arguing the case (as in the Canadian model) for taking much more account of the provenance and organisational context of records. Chapter 7, 'Postmodernism and archival appraisal: seven theses', goes further and brilliantly summarises the conditionality and subjectivity that are an integral part of the process of appraisal, which "will always be closer to storytelling than to scientific endeavour". This, in Harris's view, is not a criticism, since stories matter; moreover, appraisers are scholars and are therefore ". . .bound to hang their narratives, their stories, around the analytical framework established by policies, programs, theories and methodologies" (p. 103). Other essays in this section discuss the use of electronic records as legal evidence, and related ideas about the nature of records and record-keeping; with Wendy M. Duff, the advantages and limitations of fonds-based and series-based archival description systems, the dangers of standardisation, and questions of archivists and power; and both the difficulties and power relations attendant on the increasing creation of records in electronic form in the South African context. …


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