National Archives

A country without a history is not a country.1

On 30 December 1651, over 350 years ago, the oldest written record of government in South Africa was created. That is the resolution of the first meeting of the Council of Policy of the Dutch East India Company. (The way a company makes decisions is by a resolution.) The meeting was held on board the ship Drommedaris, anchored in Cape Town harbour (as it existed at the time). Today, the document is in the Cape Town repository of the National Archives, and it is partly depicted on the homepage of the National Archives website.

Also depicted on the website is an entirely different, but just as – if not more – important archive material. This is a photograph, taken about a hundred years ago, of a San rock painting on Roodezand farm, near Worcester in the Western Cape.

Public and private records2 make up the ‘National Archives’. It might be a surprise to learn that these paper-based textual, and electronic, photographic, audio, audio-visual and cartographic (maps) records occupy over 140 kilometres of shelving space at repositories in Pretoria, Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Pietermaritzburg.3 About 5% of these are private records, mostly of an audio-visual nature.

All this is the purpose of the National Archives and Record Service Act 1996: to preserve both public and private records of information (regardless of the form or medium) which have enduring value; to make them available to the public and the state; to promote their heritage; and generally establish a framework for the collection, management, maintenance, retrieval, and so forth of such records.

The Act is administered by the Minister of Arts and Culture. He appoints the National Archivist who is charged with management of the National Archives.

  1. Any person who damages any public or any private record in the control of a governmental body4 is guilty of an offence.5

  2. Any person who removes, destroys or erases any record in the control of a governmental body, otherwise than in accordance with provisions in the Act, commits an offence.6

  3. The National Archivist can request the producer or distributor of a recording7 embodying any private record to provide him with a copy for the National Archives. It is a crime if this request is not complied with within six months.8

  1. Reproduced from the website of the National Archives –

  2. A public record is one created (or received) by a governmental body in pursuance of its activities. A private record (called a non-public record in the Act) is one created, or received by a private individual. 

  3. – Home page. 

  4. A ‘governmental body’ is any legislative, executive, judicial or administrative organ of state at national government level. 

  5. Section 16(1)(a). 

  6. Section 16(1)(b). 

  7. This is anything (regardless of form) on which sounds or images, or both, are fixed; or from which they are capable of being reproduced. 

  8. Section 16(2)(a).