About a week and a half ago, I had the privilege of visiting the South African History Archives (SAHA) located in Johannesburg, South Africa. Although this visit was a small part of a larger trip, it was a memorable experience and one that allowed me to place our work in the Bay Area into a much larger international context. There are many similarities between SAHA and the Freedom Archives. Also founded by activists, SAHA describes itself as a “independent human rights archive dedicated to documenting, supporting and promoting greater awareness of past and contemporary struggles for justice through archival practices and outreach, and the utilisation of access to information laws.”
During the visit, I sat down with their lead archivist and talked about their practices, successes and challenges, many of which resonated mightily. Some of the common challenges included how to generate non-governmental funding and how to preserve the wealth of materials with limited resources. In practice, both archives are committed to forging collaborations, hosting interns and mostly work on a project driven basis. Besides their impressive and large amount of content, the aspect of the visit with really excited me was their commitment to outreach and using archival resources to inform not just researchers and scholars but also everyday people across South Africa. Every-time SAHA finishes archiving a major collection, archivists and educators collaboratively create a curriculum (available in a physical book with cd and online) that accompanies the collection, build an exhibit to support the collection and hold teacher workshops to get educators interested in the content and prepared to take it back to local schools. Often times, the exhibit and the teacher workshops travel around the country, truly representing an effort to connect the archives with local realities and struggles.
A final note about the South African History Archives. They are located in a former women’s prison in the heart of Johannesburg which since the end of Apartheid in 1994 has been re-purposed to house a museum about the prison and political imprisonment, as well as numerous progressive organizations. This makes for an extremely thought provoking space, one that holds the heaviness of oppression, torture and isolation but also the energy of working to create a better society. In all, it was great visiting such an interesting space and to have the opportunity to learn from SAHA’s work. You can learn about SAHA by visiting http://www.saha.org.za/index.htm.