Former Struggle activists Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni and Denis Goldberg sit in the same courtroom where their Rivonia Trial took place, at the Pretoria Palace of Justice, during a ceremony to hand over digitised dictabelt recordings of the trial in March 2016. File picture: Masi Losi/African News Agency (ANA)
It is human nature to archive records of important documents such as birth certificates and title deeds. In most households, there is a collection of letters, photos, notes and memorabilia that are kept for generations, in addition to community anecdotes and family oral history.

There is always something defining an individual in terms of where they belong in the greater scheme of things.

The Department of Sport, Arts and Culture keeps the national memory alive in the National Archives of South Africa. Since 1877, the archive has been responsible for preserving the past, present and future.

In Africa, the spoken word and oral traditions have transferred history and culture from one generation to another. It is only recently that the world has started to recognise histories other than the written form as valuable mirrors of our past. Records such as films, radio and television programmes, audio and video recordings, contain some of the primary records of our century and the past century.

We have learnt through our Rivonia Trial Dictabelt project just how vulnerable our audio-visual records are due to obsolescence, lack of skills and resources. In 2012, we joined hands with the French government to promote and increase the level of awareness and appreciation of the French and South African art, culture and heritage of our two countries referred to as the “French-South African Season”.

Many programmes were managed within this framework. In Cape Town, archivists from the two countries shared experiences relating to access of archival collections. The vast dictabelt collection in which so much history is locked up due to the obsolescence of dictabelt formats was the main point of the discussions. Not long afterwards, French archivists devised a solution, including digitising the Rivonia trial dictabelt collection.

Through the National Archives, we have the privilege to share our history of the greatest of great men like Madiba, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni and Denis Goldberg, who laid down their lives for our freedom, and advocates Joel Joffe and George Bizos, who spent a lifetime fighting for human rights.

The voices of other comrades in the trial, such as Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Bram Fischer, Vernon Berrangé and Harold Hanson will forever remain with us as part of our liberation history, and all South Africans will have the privilege to hear their brave voices reverberating at the National Archives.

The dictabelts were popular to record court cases, and over time, they became obsolete. The National Archives and the country struggled to access the information captured on this sound format. Through the work of the National Archives in partnership with the French National Audio Visual Institute, the dictabelts recordings of the Rivonia Trial were digitised.

The dictabelt project also included the training and expansion of the skills of five archivists to continue with other dictabelt digitisation projects independently, in addition to training other archivists.

As part of its 2019/2020 Annual Performance Plan, the National Archives has included the beginning of the digitisation of the 1956 Treason Trial as one of the milestones to be achieved. The voices of some of our leaders which have not been heard for many decades can be accessed on the National Archives website for wider use and access, and slowly many of the trials of our leaders and comrades under the oppressor will be unlocked for research and recognition as digitisation of the dictabelts continue.

This depicts that the digitisation of this and many other trials, and the benefits of preserving the records can bear positive fruits which include giving access to all worldwide.

The initiative of digitising the political trial records in the National Archives and other repositories will allow South Africa and the world to experience the production of knowledge that talks to and contextualises our history as black people and South Africans.

This year, as we mark the 25th anniversary of democracy in South Africa, it is a time to reflect on the journey the country has undertaken, focusing on the highlights and planning for the future. The archives have an important role to play.

The National Development Plan, in relation to our work, the arts and our heritage states that history, heritage and culture are important for understanding the past, analysing the present and planning for the future. They foster social understanding and cohesion, which is important for human and economic stability and growth.

It is through gaining understanding of the power of the narrative to shape our lives and lead us to a common destination that has brought us safely to this moment in our history; it also gives us the strength and the will to tackle the challenges of poverty and unemployment, of racism and sexism, of xenophobia and all forms of intolerance, and through harnessing resources to build socially cohesive communities on productive lands where culture flourishes.

* Mthethwa is Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.