Archives in South Africa: an overview

Isabel Hofmeyr is Professor of African Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and Global Distinguished Professor at the University of New York.

Among her publications are: Popularising History: The Case of Gustav Preller, African Studies Institute, 1987, The Portable Bunyan: A Transnational History of “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, Princeton University Press, 2004, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading, Harvard University Press, 2013, and Ten Books That Shaped the British Empire: Creating an Imperial Commons, Duke University Press, 2014. 

South Africa hosts a rich range of archival repositories. this article provides a rough guide to the major collections and outlines some of the debates emerging around the politics of archives in post-apartheid south Africa.

State repositories across 140 KILOMETRES

States repositories (comprising some 140km of shelf space filled with material in a variety of media) dominate the archive landscape. The organisation of these state archives follows colonial and apartheid provincial divisions. Currently, the major repositories are located in Pietermaritzburg (Kwa-Zulu Natal), Bloemfontein (Free State), Cape Town (Western Cape) and Pretoria (Gauteng).

The best place to start exploring each of these is the website of the National Archives and Record Services The website provides an overview of the major holdings of each of these repositories. (Click on National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System and then on Source Codes which lists the various depots. Click on any one of these to get a list of the departments and institutions whose papers are held.) There is a facility to search file titles by keyword, which allows one to drill down and get a sense of what is available.

Some of the more famous holdings

Some of the more famous holdings across these repositories include the Dutch East India Company papers in the Western Cape Provincial Archives (for details see Dutch East India Company papers in the Western Cape Provincial Archives (for details see These have been used to produce major studies on slavery at the Cape.

The National Archives Repository in Pretoria contains the Secretary of Native Affairs papers, a major source for much South African social history from below, outlining forms of protest and resistance against colonial and apartheid rule, a major source for much South African social history from below, outlining forms of protest and resistance against colonial and apartheid rule.

The Censorship Board papers in Cape Town have been explored to good effect to understand the shaping of (or constraints on) South African literary production under apartheid. In the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository, the Indian Immigration papers have formed the basis for several studies on the histories of Indian diasporic communities in Natal.

These various repositories also contain rich photographic holdings and there is the National Film, Video and Sound Archives in Pretoria.


Currently, access for everyone (South African and non-South African) is easy: one arrives with some form of ID, signs in, orders material and on a good day, within half-an-hour, the boxes will arrive and one can be working away. The rules as to the number of boxes you can order and whether you can take photographs vary from depot to depot, so best phone in advance (the website is not up to date on these details). Some repositories have lunch and coffee options nearby but some not, so BYO is the best rule to follow, at least on the first day.

State of the Archives

At present, these archives depots function reasonably well although there has been growing concern about the general health of the state archive system as a whole. The system has been increasingly poorly funded and has been drawn into the maw of political infighting and factionalism, which dominate the ruling African National Congress regime. A 2014 study State of the Archives ( outlines severe structural problems with the archive system: underfunding, lack of a coherent policy framework, absence of digitisation strategies, little public outreach, destruction of documents without due process, and “cultures of secrecy [that] revivified that old apartheid oppressive tool – the classified document” (this latter strategy bolstered by 2011 legislation limiting access to state information).

The state archives have also failed to live up to the ambitious post-apartheid policies enacted in the National Archives of South Africa Act of 1996 which sought to increase access and public outreach; promote archives as a source of information in support of programmes of redress like land claims; and boost the presence of marginal voices in the archival holding. This failure is perhaps best captured in the controversy around ‘sensitive’ parts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission records, some of which virtually disappeared were it not for the tenaciousness of an NGO, the South African Historical Archive which through litigation prised some (but not all) of these disputed records out of a reluctant Department of Justice, National Intelligence Agency and the National Archive Services itself (for an account see

At present, these problems do not directly affect users except for growing instances of lost and misfiled documents, a product of understaffing and underfunding. However, the wear and tear on the system is likely to make matters worse while the increasing paranoia of the current South African regime may, further down the line, lead to much more vetting and bureaucracy for non-South Africans wanting to use the archives depots. So, if you’re thinking of coming on an archival trip, come sooner rather than later.

Beyond the state archive

Beyond the state archive there are rich holdings in universities, museums, libraries, and private collections. There is an excellent list of these at which reflect the diversity of material available including large holdings on Christian missions in southern Africa. This list has been compiled by an effective archival activist group called Archival Platform established under the auspices of the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative at the University of Cape Town ( and the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The Archives and Public Culture Research Initiative is a vibrant transdisciplinary centre for debate and research on the intersection of the archive and public life. The Initiative is under the leadership of Carolyn Hamilton, a leading scholar of archival theory and practice (see her co-edited collection Refiguring the Archive

With regard to the non-state archives, several of these carry major collections on anti-apartheid struggles. Highlights include the University of the Western Cape Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archive (; the Liberation Archives at the University of Fort Hare (; and Historical Papers at the University of the Witwatersrand ( There are also oral history archives taking shape inter alia at the District Six Museum which commemorates the cosmopolitan inner community area in Cape Town forcibly removed under apartheid ( Another innovative post-apartheid archive has been GALA, Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (

Some keen digitizers

While state archives have undertaken little, if any digitisation, some non-state archives have begun making resources available online. Examples include the Bleek and Lloyd archive at the University of Cape Town, a collection of material generated by the linguist Wilhelm Bleek and his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd who interviewed ‘Bushman’ informants between 1870 and 1884. Parts of this collection can be seen at The Historical Papers at the University of the Witwatersrand is another keen digitizer as is the Killie Campbell Africana Library in Durban ( which has a rich cache of photographs online. The Gandhi-Luthuli Archive in Durban ( contains rich holdings on South African Indian history, many of which are online. The South African History Online ( is a vibrant site with a range of resources.


















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