Johannesburg - If The lament persists that “our stories are written by others” it is because those who should be telling these stories choose to abdicate this responsibility.

The Historical Papers Research Archive at Wits University is a writer’s paradise but those who frequent the place are mostly from the continent and, of all places, America.

Those who walk through the threshold of this minefield use the material to churn out books and academic papers while the local, who virtually lives on the doorstep of Wits, is occupied elsewhere.

When he comes out of his self- induced reverie, he will complain of foreign interests bastardising the South African narrative.

Established in 1966, the facility - housed at the William Cullen Library on campus, boasts almost every little nugget of research material of historical and cultural importance dating back to the 17th century.

Think of a name and place or even happenstance of sociopolitical interest to South Africa and you are bound to find it documented.

From Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu to the remotest backwaters like Zeerust, if it was touched by the pungent smell of colonial and apartheid brutality, it is in the books of the well-stocked archive, which is now running out of space.

I thought of a name - Nat Nakasa - and there he was in all his journa- listic glory.

Even my hometown - Krugersdorp, now Mogale City, is on record - anything and everything of historical and political significance that ever happened there is captured in the archive. Every name that ever threw a stone at a police Casspir is on record. Where to start is the ultimate headache.

Archivist Zofia Sulej, a fountain of knowledge who is quick to confess her Polish background, holds the fort here with colleague Gabriele Mohale.

A passionate teacher at heart, Sulej has the temperament to respond to dumb questions. Why the need for the archive, I ask?

“If you don’t have archives, how will we know ourselves as a people?” she replies.

“We’re a public institution,” she says, adding that those who visit come from all over the country, the continent, “some from the US, Canada, Australia, Brazil, the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Israel”.

It is the quality of the work their researchers put in that makes them stand out above archives at other universities, she says.

The variety of topics, from land to personalities, attracts people from all walks of life.

A lot of the collections are digitised now, Sulej says. One in particular - Helen Suzman’s, which is huge - requires permission from her daughter, Frances, who is based overseas. The Helen Suzman Foundation paid for the digitisation of her collection, Sulej says.

“Publishers, writers, film-makers, documentary makers, newsrooms, exhibitionists, other universities - like Oxford, post-grad students, lecturers ... says Sulej when asked what sort of people use the facility.

The archive is the official custodian of material on the Anglican Church, so chances are that anything one may ever need to know about the church -- its history, baptisms, deaths, marriages, clergy, etc - is stored here.

There is also a vast selection of photographs.

The Nadine Gordimer collection is another prized possession. Any biographical information “on big people” including their most personal items, is likely to be found here.

Stocking the archive depends on donations. But often donors have conditions, deeming certain aspects of the material sensitive, like Ronnie Kasrils’ papers. “Very interesting,” is how Sulej describes the Kasrils collection.

All donors need to satisfy in their wish to gift the archive with materials is whether the materials contri- bute to historical value.

“It is, however, very seldom that we do not accept donations,” Sulej says.

“The only constraint is space.”

Among the most popular collections are those of the South African Institute of Race Relations, theatres - Joburg, The Market - the Treason Trials, the struggle against apartheid, Mandela, the ANC, Black Consciousness, Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe, says Sulej who compiles annual statistics on the most sought-after materials.

So if you still think our stories are being told for us, you need to get off the couch and visit the archive.

Visit http://www.historical- papers.wits.ac.za

Sunday Independent