Archival silences and sounds
Sometimes all is quiet in the National Archives in Pretoria, as in the photograph shown here. But this is rare. More usually, it is a battleground in which small diverse groups out-talk each other and with little recognition that some of the people present are working in a more concentrated way on traces of the past. There are the white male gurus who act as research consultants, there are the black families in search of records of terrible times, there are administrators and government researchers, journalists and more, as well as researchers like ourselves involved in work that involves a focused and prolonged encounter. Few of the staff have any knowledge or interest in any of it, so work time is marked by social time and much talk and jollity. A cacophony outside is the usual order of the day, while inside the mind is the low thrum of Forbes letter-writing and replying of a usually humdrum kind that is concerned with getting the business done while oiling the wheels of relationships.
There are of course archives of many different kinds, some of them having meta or uber qualities. One of these is the Freedom Museum, in Freedom Park and directly opposite the hill on which the nationalist Voortrekker monument is situated. This is a stunningly beautiful building, with some interesting collections representing aspects of the history of South Africa from the viewpoint of its majority population. One of its display boards – shown below – has a quotation from judge Albie Sachs, a white man deeply involved in the freedom struggle and who lost his arm and was otherwise injured through a bomb attack as well as experiencing imprisonment. His was a nuanced and proportionate view of suffering:
“At times it was quite painful that your whiteness, whether you liked it or not, followed you all the way through. Even when I was blown up afterwards, my white body counted for more than the bodies of black people who were blown up, who were tortured far more severely than I was tortured. The world, the press, the media, controlled by people – white themselves – seeing the world through white eyes. Not even maliciously, just automatically.”
Those last words, not even maliciously just automatically, need to be kept in mind by all of us who are white.
Last updated: 17 November 2016