Address by Deputy Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture, Ms Nocawu Mafu at the Official Launch of National Archives Week in Umhlathuze

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09 Jun 2021

Programme Director

Mayor of the City of uMhlathuze: Cllr MG Mhlongo

MEC for Arts, Culture, Sport and Recreation - Ms Hlengiwe Mavimbela

Adv.  Mphalane Makhura: Chairperson of the National Archives Council

Distinguished speakers and guests

Members of the Media

Senior Officials

Ladies and Gentlemen

Last year around this time we were ready to celebrate the Annual Archives Awareness week in Kwazulu Natal, but instead of becoming the hotspot for Archives week, KZN became famous for hosting the first Covid-19 case in the country, discovered in March 2020.  This virus spread like wildfire through the country, and instead of Archives week, we were confined to our homes to mitigate the spread of this virus that started a pandemic that changed the world and how we do things forever. 

We were told that we need to adjust to a new normal.  As much as we embraced this concept we had no idea what the new normal would be, but as time went on we did adjust to the new normal, where we met in virtual reality, we had virtual meetings, we hosted virtual conferences and I remember the hybrid – virtual/physical – Oral History Colloquium, we even did a virtual book launch of a coffee table publication called “Tell your mother’s Stories”. 

Wearing masks, sanitizing, social distancing and isolation became part of our daily routines, but sadly also the reality of losing loved ones through rising death tolls, where it became difficult and in many cases impossible to share final words and goodbyes, not even being able to show our last respects when loved ones were laid to rest. It is also through these periods of isolation that digital media has become enormously important for our interactions with colleagues, friends, and loved ones. 

It is probably also due to lockdowns and isolation that many social ills became exposed, and I am specifically referring to the issue of rising gender violence during this time.  COVID-19 has not only led to an increase in the cases of gender-based violence but has disconnected victims from their support networks. To reduce the prevalence of this issue, it is crucial to acknowledge the extent of gender-based violence and support networks to make it easier for the victims to access them and, lastly, create awareness about the issue as well as the resources available to address it.

The way we do business has also changed and the impact of the pandemic on this has catapulted us right into the middle of the 4th industrial revolution where we now talk about matters such as Artificial Intelligence, Digital Preservation, and Emerging Technologies, that brings to the fore new questions that require to be answered, we need to know what do we do well? What can help us do better? How do we engage with these new practices? What are the ethical implications?  We need to relook at what is done by the archives and records institutions and we need to re-examine our impact on society and the environment. 

In this time of 'alternative facts,' 'fake news,' misinformation, and cybersecurity threats, the need for trustworthy evidence (records, information, data) has become ever more essential. We need to ask the hard questions in terms of what is our role in this space? Who are our allies?  What is the role of records and archives professionals in the area of internet governance?  How do we build trust and provide the evidence that is required? But as much as we did not fully understand the concept of a new normal a year ago, I am confident that the many questions in the archival space and the management of knowledge that we are struggling to answer now, will be part of the new normal in the near future.

It must however also be acknowledged that through the role of video and social media, society has continued with many activities from sparking and documenting protests to companies and educational institutions that moved online en masse in a matter of days in March 2020. 

This past year, and for the period that the world is still fighting this pandemic, will be marked as a time in history that will be understood through digital media in times to come.  The New York Times reported that “The virus changed the way we internet”, from “doomscrolling" through social media feeds before bedtime to Zoom’s daily meeting participants increasing from 10 million participants in December 2020 to 300 million in April this year”.

The Archives and Human Rights Section of the International Council on Archives (ICA), expressed their support for the UNESCO Declaration on “Turning the threat of COVID-19 into an opportunity for greater support to documentary heritage". Documentary heritage is addressed in this declaration as an important resource to offer a historical perspective on how governments, their citizens, and the international community have faced pandemics in the past and, therefore, the importance of preserving records regarding this pandemic for future research. 

The Oral History Association of South Africa (OHASA) in collaboration with the National Archives of South Africa should take cognisance of this matter and during their next conference in October, this year in the Free State province should also find time to address this.  The matter of how the Covid-19 pandemic is dealt with, as well as the many social and technical issues related to this, should be discussed, to find ways to record the impact of this pandemic on South Africans as a whole, and as individuals in their daily lives. There should be a record of this for future generations to refer to, and to learn from, should such a global crisis ever happen again.  This is part of the responsibility of all archives and archivists.

The ICA and others, including UNESCO Memory of the World, have developed the statement; “COVID-19: The duty to document does not cease in a crisis, it becomes more essential”. This document makes an approach to information and records management from the perspective of the present times.  As the Universal  Declaration of Archives (UNESCO, 2011) points out,  "archives keep decisions, actions, and memory" and "they are reliable sources of information that guarantee the security and transparency of administrative actions." For all these reasons, we affirm:

*Archives are responsible for the preservation and maintenance of records, an essential service during this pandemic.

*The information must be properly managed and solid electronic administration infrastructures must be built to guarantee good management and the rights of citizens.

*Access to quality information is key to combat fake news in times of such uncertainty.

*Transparency facilitates the control of government acts by society, including its responsibility in the protection of individual liberties and the exercise of social rights in the context of the fight against the virus.

*Likewise, working towards greater transparency contributes to enhancing the confidence of citizens in institutions.

Perhaps at this time, as never before, we recognize Records Management and Archives as key elements in the fulfilment of Sustainable Development Goals for Agenda 2030 in relation to access to information.

The Covid-19 pandemic was declared a global public health crisis in March 2020. The pandemic affected every element of our lives. The entire education sector was taken by surprise.  Universities closed with little warning. Library and archival services had to be moved online. Lockdown of physical buildings meant limited or no access to information in our archives. Lockdowns have also had a myriad of spillover effects. It is under these conditions, that access to digitized collections has become more important than ever, especially for scholars, educators, and students to be able to continue their work. Managers of archives undertook unprecedented steps to meet users’ needs.  In higher education, the situation has been especially severe. Not every country produces or has access to electronic textbooks, e-books, and digitized scholarly published materials. This lack of direct access to information and resources, and the shutting of every school, university, and institute is a significant roadblock for students and educators during this pandemic.

Behind the announcement of a lockdown lies a severe crisis for learning and the production of knowledge, and some opportunities as well. Scholars and students need access to books, manuscripts, musical scores, photographs, graphic materials, moving images, and more. This access is not a luxury—it is essential. Since the Covid-19 lockdown, we find ourselves thrust into an important decision-making position. It is a fact that digital technology allows us to provide access to our collections at any time and from any location.

Technology solves many problems here and it allows small and large institutes to digitize their materials. But decision-makers face huge new problems in turn. The cost of preservation and digitizing materials is far from trivial at a time of vast budget cuts. Archives provide essential social infrastructure for all of society and digital archives provide benefits far beyond the world of researchers and students. They help all kinds of users work from any location.

Looking forward, there is a great deal for us to do.  In the field of information sciences and especially in archival institutions we need to digitize and archive collections to serve our communities and to preserve cultural heritage for the future. The digitisation of archival collections is no longer a nice to have, it is a necessity not only for the purpose of preservation and access but also for safety and security. 

The horrific fire at the UCT archives is a case in point.  We can no longer afford to keep all our eggs in one basket.  Covid-19 has put outdated models to the test. The shift to digital moved from a dream to a necessity. How we address this necessity in the phase to come will shape the world in which we learn, teach and work. We will find new ways to remember where we come from as we consider where we are going in the crucial years to come.

A child today will be a historian of 2020 in the future. What sources will they turn to? How will they verify scattered memories? How will people tell the story of the tumultuous times that we’re living in today? 2020 and beyond may be a time for the history “books” but of course, the record we leave behind will be digital in manner.

We are at a point in our history where we need to cross a few bridges to get to the other side, an archive is a bridge between the past and present.  Just like a bridge archives of the future require solid footing and regular maintenance to ensure long-term success. 

The measures that archives must take to gather, preserve and share historical records to ensure that the bridge to our collective histories does not disintegrate comes at great cost as the records in our archives are invaluable for future historical pursuits. 

In an effort to tackle this mammoth task the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa is a beneficiary of the first phase of the Presidential Employment Stimulus Programme where 158 young unemployed graduates were employed to assist with the preparation of the digitisation of our archive collections, through this programme the archives are imparting skills to young professionals while they, in turn, are assisting with the arrangement, description, restoration and preservation of our records.  It is also through this programme that we can acquire much-needed equipment to kick start the digitisation of archival records that will improve not only better access to our collections but also safeguard many of the records that have become obsolete due to technological changes.  This is a sure step in addressing the access to information required to meet the SDG's of Agenda 2030. 

This is only the beginning of a mammoth task that lies ahead but every step taken is a step forward to embrace the challenges posed that archives of the future are facing.  This is the bridge that we need to build and cross and ensure that it is a solid bridge that generations to come would be able to cross easily and effortlessly.

In closing, it is important to emphasize the fact that organisations and governments rarely see the connection between records management and the prevention of corruption, fraud, and maladministration. The importance of records management in ensuring accountability and providing a safeguard against corruption, fraud, and maladministration is inevitable. Good records management systems are essential to support proper management and transparent accountability.

Records management ensures the public sector's ability to function effectively and provides documentary evidence to assist in ensuring accountable and transparent government.  As we move forward into the future this will become even more important to build the integrity and accountability of our country as a whole and crossing all the bridges that we have to, to ensure that the past and the future will forever remain connected through our collections in an accountable and transparent way.

It is also important to note that POPIA, the Protection of Personal Information Act, is coming into full action/force on 1 July 2021 and that the protection of personal information will never hide corruption or corrupt acts. Instead, POPIA is one of the Freedom of Information Legislation that will ensure people's rights as enshrined in the Constitution. As a government, we are happy that this country now has the full set of Freedom of Information legislation viz PAIA, POPIA, PAJA, etc.

We are extremely proud to be a part of a global community of archives, bodies, and institutions. Together, we work to raise awareness of archives, promote their value, and broaden the reach and impact we do have on the world.