“Why the holdup?”: a rewarding visit to Pretoria’s archives

Comic strip

In this post, post-graduate student at University of Portsmouth, Roel van der Velde, recounts his research visit of last July to Pretoria, where he visited the South African National Archives and Archives of the former South African Defence Force. As a first-time visitor of the country, Roel shares his experiences of daily life and work in Pretoria and takes a peek at political developments in South Africa.

Last 18 July I enjoyed a leisurely Saturday breakfast and two papers in a rented apartment overlooking Pretoria. After my archival slog at the local Military Archives and National Archives the past two weeks, I felt like a break. My long-awaited trip to South Africa had so far been productive and rewarding. Pretoria Central offers none of the horror stories of Jo’burg– although the encounter with a pick-pocket the day before did dent my confidence a bit. The people here are almost without exception friendly, fashionable, busy, and black. The wide avenues belong to a constant stream of cars, minibuses and pedestrians. The weather is about 20 degrees Celsius on most days, and it had not rained yet – why they call it winter is beyond me. (The launderette lady told me the first time she saw snow all ran outside in amazement.)

Each morning I walked to the military archives without a coat, which the archive staff members think is a bit daft in winter. Moreover, some white staff members did warn me not to walk the 20 minutes along Visagie Street, one of the main avenues of the city centre. One of them said he was robbed four times already. This is no news to me; the University insurance website rated South Africa as having a ‘Serious’ crime rate. One must be careful, stick to the yellow brick road, keep possessions out of sight, don’t wander at night. On the other hand, their black colleagues tell me that it really is not that bad, given these precautions. Yesterday on my way home, tired and with my mobile protruding from my pocket, I fell prey to the prestige of a skillful pickpocket. As I managed to grab my phone from his hand just in time, an immediate passer-by gave a complicit smile as if to say, ‘Hey, that’s what happens to dozy tourists’. It seems I proved everyone’s point.

The staff of the archive have gone out of their way to facilitate and advise me. Sue Onslow’s 2005 article[1] still holds true: South African archives really are a goldmine. With their producers gone, the pre-1970 workings and dealings of the notorious minority government are open for all to see (for documents after 1970 declassification may be needed, but older files extending into the 1970s are accessible). The National Archives filing system – partially online – is byzantine compared to the highly detailed collections of the Archives of the South African Defence Force, but red tape is minimal and both places allowed non-flash photography. The paper catalogues require effort, sometimes a lot of effort, but persistence usually pays off.

I walk the streets confidently, but alert. For my research trip I bought an expendable second hand 10” laptop that fits my small backpack, and I back up my winnings every evening. Its Linux operating system stubbornly refuses mobile internet, so no audio or video. It has made my stay a rather monastic experience; the two newspapers are a welcome diversion from work. Exploring the book shelves of my flat is another: Alan Paton’s famous book Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), set in 1940s South Africa; Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1991) criticizing science. Both are so much better than their screen adaptations, says the witty but merciless Time-Out Film Guide (1990). There is also the complete collection of Madam and Eve daily comic strips (sample above).[2] The rise and fall of Althusserian structuralism in the 1960s and 1970s are made surprisingly clear in the introduction of Film theory: an introduction (R. Lapsley and M. Westlake, 1988), but I prefer the guilty pleasure of looking up old war movies in the Film Guide.

The books belong to my host Alexander, a talented documentary producer, and 10th generation South African from German descent (check out his award winning short documentary on a rural community dealing with persistent lack of water services, at http://1to1.org.za/waterborne). Alexander pointed out that before Apartheid was abolished, Pretoria was inhabited entirely by white people, as black people were forbidden to live there. Today Pretoria is called Tshwane, and the situation has all but reversed. White people walking the street are the exception. Many have since moved out of Pretoria into their own enclaves. Alex has lived happily in Tshwane for eight years, and he puts white insecurities down to the memories especially of older white citizens. He introduced me to his neighbors and friends, educated and ambitious black people in their twenties. His concerns are getting the phone company to respond to his request for Wifi, getting the elevator repaired, and anticipating occasional power cuts. The elevator has been out for the last three weeks. For first-time visitors like me, the walk up to the 14th floor is just part of the experience, just as having candle light dinners once or twice a week. For the lady running a launderette/internet cafe, having a midday blackout is a serious drag on her business. It is said that misappropriation of funds set back electricity expansion plans by two years, and now only the aggravation is distributed evenly among users.

The cover of the South African Times features a big mosaic of Mandela, for today is Mandela Day. Nelson Mandela’s birthday, 18 July, is celebrated every year to commemorate (eulogize?) the political giant who guided South Africa to a just and democratic society after his 27 years of imprisonment under Apartheid. Everyone is asked to contribute to charity for 67 minutes, to celebrate the 67 years Mandela fought for social justice in South Africa. This is the second celebration since he passed away. Bishop Desmond Tutu, the architect of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, is in hospital fighting cancer. In their stead, South African President Zuma has called on South Africans to ‘recommit to eliminating all social ills from our communities … including acts of disobedience, disrespect and destruction of property, and [accompanying] violence… and realize Mandela’s vision of ending poverty, inequality and unemployment.’ (Saturday Star, 18/7/2015, p.2)

Many heart rendering and truly remarkable initiatives are reported on. But all is not well in the Rainbow Nation. Twenty-one years after Mandela became the first president elected under majority rule, many still live in poverty or struggle in underpaid jobs. Xenophobic violence periodically erupts, while corruption and inefficiencies plague government and industry. (Sunday World, 12/7/15, ‘This country is run by taxi operators’, p.11; Saturday Star, ‘Reason for axing Prasa1 chief Lucky remains a mystery’, p.5) At the time of writing, there is a ‘grave constitutional crisis’ (The Times, p.2); the government is embroiled in a stand-off with the High Courts of Justice over a recent executive decision involving the Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir. Al Bashir is wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. As South Africa is a signatory to the ICC, the Court had ordered the detainment of Bashir, but the government ignored this order, allowing Bashir to make his way home via Waterkloof Air Force Base. This resulted in the two branches of government accusing each other of overstepping boundaries and ducking responsibilities.

Yesterday’s South African Times and today’s Saturday Star present a faltering, even obstructive government. Mr. Howard Varney, senior consultant at the International Centre for Transnational Justice was quoted as saying that South Africa has ‘become a problem state […] well on our way to becoming a rogue state’. (The Times, p.2) Professor George Devenish of the University of Kwazulu-Natal, an advisor to the 1993 interim constitution, concludes in his letter to the editor: ‘South Africans, having crafted an exemplary constitution involving an erudite and bold judiciary, need to protect it from the predations of those in the body politic […] in [the] pursuit of unrestrained executive power.’ (Saturday Star, p.14) A ‘Madam and Eve’ cartoon rules out a future ‘Zuma day’, perhaps because Zuma himself is/was under investigation for fraud. Among the South African military archive staff a brief exchange between archive staff produced the observation, ‘Well, really the courts were only telling the government to stick to their own policy’, referring to South Africa’s ICC ratification.

Of course, newspapers tend to emphasize the negative, just as street crime is a fact of city life. (A Times columnist did observe the politeness of Pretorian thieves compared to their Jo’burg colleagues.) And yet there seems more to the different perceptions (and experiences) of the level of crime, and lawlessness more generally as described in these newspapers. For some, the reality of persistent inequalities points to old anxieties that cannot be exorcised by good intentions alone. A center page letter to the editor (Milisuthando Bongela, Times, p.15) denounces ‘white supremacy’ in favor of black psychological reawakening: ‘It is not Mandela’s forgive-and-forget approach to change that we should cling to now but Steve Biko’s … (Black Consciousness — ed.) teachings, a South Africa where black people don’t need charity from white people.’ Yet, unless Pretoria/Tshwane is an exceptionally integrated city, the presence of white beggars and black businessmen does not seem to support such a ‘pattern of master and servant’.

Despite its stinging polemic, Bongela’s view touches on the wide gap between perceptions and lived reality, an ANC-led utopia and the ‘long walk’ it will take to get there. Pointing the finger at government, director Verne Harris of the Centre for Memory of the Nelson Mandela Foundation observes the danger of ‘new dominant meta-narratives’ that threaten to stifle the very civil society that may ensure the proper functioning of young constitutional democracies. Harris asks: ‘Where are the voices of Steve Bantu Biko, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe and Ruth First in the construction of post-apartheid?’ (Sunday Star, p.15)

The Times editorial (p.14) concludes that South Africans do not need celebrity examples on Madiba Day to learn about generosity and unity; such moralizing is a sham. What they do need is functioning and responsible government. Consecutive governments have criticized ostensible voter materialism, while at the same time espousing ‘a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption’, which increasingly forms the distinction between elites and have-nots. In her 2009 lecture, Deborah Posel traced this tendency back to the times of racial segregation.[3]

Structures rarely change overnight, like they did on that momentous day of 12 February 1990. In his new book Apartheid 1948-94 Saul Dubow showed how apartheid survived for so long through its insidious divide-and-rule practices. He also notes that the ‘born-free’ generation does not know or care about the apartheid past.[4] But perhaps it should. Despite successful redistribution efforts, South Africa remains a deeply unequal society.[5] Racialism is outlawed, but its consequences are not easily remedied. Although income distribution in South Africa is spatially varied, language and race distribution still echo the past (see the excellent map of http://dotmap.adrianfrith.com/). For the time being no consensus exists about how to transform Mandela’s vision of social justice into actual policy. Lack of legitimacy may compromise it beyond repair. Effectively debunking the legacy of Mandela (and Tutu), Bongela scorned that ‘South Africa never fundamentally changed, we simply put new clothes on’. One aging taxi driver even told me he longed for ‘the old days’, when crime was not making his job impossible.

The patience of ordinary South Africans appears to be wearing thin.


[1] http://www.lse.ac.uk/IDEAS/Projects/coldWarStudies/pdf/sue_onslow_report_on_archives_in_south_africa.pdf

[2] http://www.madamandeve.co.za/

[3] Deborah Posel, ‘Races to consume: revisiting South Africa’s history of race, consumption and the struggle for freedom’, 2009 Ethnic and Racial Studies Lecture, delivered at City University London 7 May 2009, published in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 33 No. 2 February 2010, p.159.

[4] Saul Dubow, Apartheid 1948-1994 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p.vi.

[5] http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/southafrica/publication/south-africa-economic-update-fiscal-policy-redistribution-unequal-society

, , , ,

One Response to “Why the holdup?”: a rewarding visit to Pretoria’s archives

  1. Angie de Beer 19th September 2015 at 2:31 pm #

    It is refreshing to read Roel’s observations as a fresh pair of eyes on South Africa, or at least Pretoria. Of course I agree with some observations, not so much with others.
    Perhaps what strikes me in particular is how balanced a picture he paints of a South African city in 2015.
    Many people are worried about street crime, yet street crime exists in most cities. We tend to take precautions against pick-pocketing at home but, sometimes, leave good sense behind when travelling abroad!
    It is good to hear of the positive experience that enjoyed on his research trip, from all those he encountered.
    When I read this article it occurred to me that many of us South Africans are obsessed with politics, to the extent that we sometimes forget that everyday life does go on!
    Hope you will return on SA one day and see some more of this beautiful Country.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.