Why did the planes crash? The Arts and Culture White Paper will never help us find out: The consequences of a weak and trivialised National Archives

This brief reviews some of the problems related to our National Archives.


The Department of Arts and Culture has published its revised draft White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage for public comment, twenty years after the first White Paper was published in 1996. I intend to focus mainly upon the section on the National Archives (known formally as the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa). In the interests of full disclosure, my last years as National Archivist were conflicted and I am not an impartial observer of the actions of the Department of Arts and Culture. Nevertheless, the facts, or lack of facts, set out in the White Paper speak for themselves.

This new draft White Paper is eighty-eight pages long. The section on archives and public records is ten lines long and includes a heading, a sub-heading and six short bullet points setting out the functions of the National Archives. There is no analysis, there is no linkage to the overall themes of the White Paper, despite the fact that “Enhancing records management structures and systems, and promoting access to information” is given as part of the department's mission.

Core principles of the department include: Openness; Freedom of Expression and Access to Information; Accountability and Good Governance, to name but a few. But, again, there nothing in the document to indicate how the National Archives should contribute to the fulfilment of these laudable principles.




The country's library sector was fortunate to have had both Trevor Manuel and Pallo Jordan, both passionate advocates of libraries, in the Cabinet together at a time when the fiscus was not overstretched or over-pillaged. This happy co-incidence resulted in the large conditional grant for community libraries which has sustained and expanded the service, despite the lack of interest in several provinces which, constitutionally speaking, should be responsible for funding libraries. Archives have not been as fortunate, but they do not deserve to be dismissed in six superficial bullet points.

The National Archives is responsible for setting the standards for the management of public records and for giving guidance to the provincial services. The records management section of the National Archives sets out the criteria in terms of which official documentation with “enduring value” should be preserved and authorises the terms and conditions under which documentation with lesser or no value can be destroyed. In other words, the role of the National Archives is integral to the practice of good governance and public accountability. Without the record, there can be no accountability.

The National Archives also has the legal responsibility for the preservation of the important documents and allowing access to them in terms of its own Act (No 43 of 1996) and other constitutionally mandated legislation (e.g. the Promotion of Access to Information Act No 2 of 2000). That technical capacity, skills and funding in the National Archives are in short supply is well known, yet the White Paper gives no answers to the problems, nor does it even give signposts for a new direction.


Where do the National Archives belong?


In 2015, some months before the White Paper revision process began, a major and well researched report on the State of the Archives was published by an organisation known as The Archival Platform. It set out many of the challenges facing the archives sector and suggested possible and practical solutions. However, it is not referred to at all in the White Paper. The cursory treatment of the National Archives in the Department of Arts and Culture's most important policy document in twenty years raises the question: Is Arts and Culture still the right departmental home for the National Archives?

The National Archives needs to be positioned so that it can exercise its mandate in relation to other departments of government. The former British Keeper of Public Records used to chant a mantra: “First get the records!” This is the prime task of a national archive and the track record in South Africa is not good (As a former National Archivist, I also bear some responsibility for this problem). Being an under-graded section in one of the minor departments of government does not assist the National Archives in achieving its goal. More than a decade ago, when the National Archives were a part of the larger and more influential Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, it was still difficult.

Let me give two related examples to indicate the extent of the problem and of the consequences of failure. On 19 October 2016 South Africa and Mozambique commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the highly suspicious aircraft crash that killed President Samora Machel and more than thirty of his comrades and fellow passengers at Mbuzini on the SA-Mozambique-Swaziland border. A South African Government enquiry, chaired by Judge Cecil Margo (a former World War II pilot), cleared Pretoria of any complicity in the crash. However, suspicions always remained and were revived in October this year at the time of the twentieth anniversary.

A year or so after the crash at Mbuzini, an SAA Boeing 747, named the “Helderberg”  crashed into  the Indian Ocean near Mauritius, en route from Taiwan to Johannesburg on 28 November 1987. There were no survivors. Once again Judge Margo was appointed to head an enquiry which failed to reach any conclusions as to the cause of the fire that destroyed the plane. Rumours as to the real reasons for the crash and the plane's cargo still swirl around.

Shortly after I was appointed National Archivist in 2001, with the high-level support of the Director General of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, I advised the civil aviation authorities that they were required to transfer the documentation relating to the two enquiries to the National Archives. There was some fluttering in the dovecotes, but because the enquiry had high-level backing, a response had to be formulated. The letters I received were polite, but vague and unhelpful: sorry, the documents appear to be missing. I even sent archivists to the civil aviation headquarters to assist in the search, but they returned having drawn a blank. The matter could not be pursued any further.

Judge Margo's two reports are published and in the public domain, but the evidence on which he and his specialist teams relied to reach their conclusions has vanished. This means that new  techniques and fresh eyes cannot be applied in order to reassess what happened to those aircraft in the last years of apartheid.

It is possible that the two commissions records were destroyed in the general destruction of security-related records in the early to mid-1990s. However, the Civil Aviation authorities were not a direct part of the securocratic state and would not “have got the memo” under normal circumstance.  This means that the destruction of the records of these commissions would have been completely illegal, not even covered by the fig-leaf of FW de Klerk's edict to destroy security records (a matter that the TRC investigated). It is possible that the records were genuinely lost, but I have my suspicions.

Fourteen or fifteen years ago, the National Archives, with the backing of the medium-sized Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, was unable to tear down the veil of secrecy around these two tragic disasters. Now, as part of the very minor Department of Arts and Culture (the so-called “banqueting arm of government”), the National Archives has even less pull.




The new draft White Paper provides compelling evidence that the Department of Arts and Culture has neither the commitment nor the knowledge to support the National Archives and provide it with the capacity to manage current technical, professional and administrative challenges. How many more disasters will remain unexplained if the National Archives remains withering away as an isolated and ignored stepchild of the banqueting arm of government?

Had the National Archives been part of the Presidency, or an agency of the Public Service Commission, it would have been centrally placed and other departments, such as the civil aviation authority, would have had to be more responsive to the requirements of the archives legislation and to letters from the National Archivist.

The slow strangulation of the National Archives is part of the general lack of good governance in the state and the draft White Paper demonstrates that accountability, not just to the auditor general and the electorate, but to the dead and their surviving families is not a priority.


Graham Dominy
Research Fellow