Studies in National and International Development


National and International Development

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Historians inside and outside the archives: reflections on history, politics and twenty years of democracy in South Africa

Julie Parle

History, School of Social Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal
Department of History, University of Kwazulu-Natal


1pm-2:30pm, Mackintosh-Corry Hall, Room D214

Established in 1996 under South Africa’s internationally acclaimed Constitution, and initially comprised of the country’s leading intellectuals, law makers, archivists and historians, within a decade the National Archives Advisory Commission of South Africa had become “moribund…a morass of disempowerment, disaffection and frustration”; had been downgraded to the lower status of a Council (the NAAC); and, eventually, ceased to function altogether, with significantly negative consequences for “one of the country’s most crucial resources”, the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa, now left, as one eminent scholar put it, without an “outside voice to champion its needs.”  For many recent commentators, this situation poses a very real danger to good governance and democratic practice in post-apartheid South Africa. After civil society pressure, the NAAC was re-inaugurated a year ago. It struggles to find a strong identity or to have meaningful influence within the department of state under which it is now placed, the Department of Arts and Culture. This lecture traces the background to the current situation and, more importantly, seeks to stimulate discussion on the relationship between archives and democracy; about the particular place of archives and their advisory bodies in young democracies, especially those where new structures, personnel, and increasingly, technologies, must be grafted onto old ones; and finally, it asks what role Southern Africanist historians can play in helping to foster what I have called ‘supple states’; states that are both strong and flexible.

Julie Parle

About the Speaker: Julie Parle, PhD., is an Honorary Associate Professor of History in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN. She has researched, taught, talked and published on the histories of mental health, psychiatry, hospitals, medicine, hysteria, witchcraft, seduction, suicide, emotions, and divers other topics. Her most recent research project is of the history of the regulation of pharmaceuticals in South Africa between the 1940s and the 1980s. She also has a particular interest in, and has published on, the ethical use of archived documents, especially those that relate to medical issues. A former President of the Southern African Historical Society, Julie is currently the Acting Chairperson of National Archives Advisory Council; and serves on the boards of the Sinomlando Centre for Oral History and Memory Work; the Alan Paton Centre & Struggle Archives; the Macrorie House Museum; and is a member of the Editorial Board of the Social History of Medicine. You can find her profile at