Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The National Archives and Record Administration (of South Africa)

Today was another research day for me. Last week I immersed myself in several paper collections at the University of the Witwatersrand, most significantly the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) Papers and some seriously fruitful clippings files. After a few days in Pretoria, I went in today to the NARA-SA. It bears a similar name to our National Archives, but it is dramatically different.

Not different bad," but just different. It certainly is not as highly organized, it certainly is not as technologicaly advanced, and it is not as ornate or secure or affluent or well staffed. It also is a whole lot friendlier and intimate. The service was outstanding. I should have gone in yesterday, because they take care of the photocopies and I asked a lot for them to do some work for me at short notice, but even though they had to close early today, a couple of staffers stuck around to make sure I received my copies.

The facility on the outside looks impressive, and workers are tending to the building, the landscaping, and the surrounding areas -- the archives are adjacent to the Department of Agriculture and another administrative building. On the inside, South Africa's National Archives look a whole lot like an old school, perhaps a middle school that has been reconfigured.

The reading room is certainly more humble than what you would find in Washington. It is basically a cinderblock walled room with long tables set up for readers. The first thing anyone notices, and it shows the staffing issues that the archives (and archivists) face, is a table against the wall for all returned boxes, folders, and other research. It was stacked four or five feet high and as deep with returns. As a matter of fact, the archives actually closed an hour early because there was an avalanche of files and boxes and books. I did my damndest to help was only partially swept under, and the powers that be decided that they needed to wrap things up early today. The parts of the piles that did not develop a fearsome momentum stood precariously and could have toppled at any moment.

There was not as much here in Pretoria as I might have hoped, but I found a few useful documents on the 1944-45 Alexandra bus boycott (I am looking at both the 1940s protests and the ones in the 1950s, especially 1957) as well as a little background material.

An example of a telling document was a letter that a South African man wrote to government ministers and media regarding the boycotts, which emerged as the result of rising bus fairs (but which in fact were the result of the politics of segregation that forced masses of Africans to work so far from where the state forced them to live). He argued that the best solution was simply to remove everyone in Alexandra (northeast of Joburg) to Orlando, part of Soweto (which stands for South West Township). In other words, forced removal. He argued that Alexandra was a wretched place (in some respects he may have had a point, though most of the sources of that wretchedness were no fault of the Africans themselves) and that everyone would be well served if Alexandra was simply uplifted to Orlando. The author noted that a benefit of this forced removal (the concept he was elucidating even if this was not the term he used) would be that it would open up the Alexandra area to European settlement, thus expanding Joburg's already booming affluent northern suburbs.

Tomorrow I am off to Bloemfontein where, if all goes well, I will meet up with my brother Marcus. Marcus works for Catholic Relief services, and though his ambit is Latin America, where he has worked successfully for several years, for career advanceent reasons he chose to accept a position in Lesotho. He is stationed in Maseru, where if all goes well, we will end up tomorrow night. I have only been to Lesotho once before (in 1999) and I have never been to Maseru, so it should be an interesting place to spend Christmas.

I will try to post in the next few days if I can, but if I find myself unable to post, I wish you all a Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and joyful New Year.

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