Having done a bit of genealogy in the past few years, I know about the National Archives and the potential they have for research. There are a number of archives in South Africa, and each houses material pertaining to activities in their provinces. It’s difficult to really describe what they are about though until one actually goes there and draws a file. Most genealogists or researchers use what is loosely known as “Naairs” (National Automated Archival Information System to look up files in the archives. It’s a slightly finicky way of doing things, but it is all that we have. The results returned often do not really say very much. An example would be:
TAB is the National Archives Repository (Public records of the former Transvaal and its predecessors, as well as of magistrates and local authorities), and it is in Hamilton Street, Pretoria. There is a very good explanation on the Naairs website as to what all that mumbo jumbo in the results actually means.
It is best to request files before heading to the archive; in my case I faxed them the day before and confirmed that they received the list and that would have as much ready for me as possible. The reading room contains desks and tables where researchers are able to photograph or collect information. I was really there to take photographs of files for later research, and that is what I did. Unfortunately photography is not allowed in the Cape Archives (KAB) which really makes things very complicated.
What really amazed me was the information that is there if you really look for it or know what you are after. Amongst the material I was after was pre Boer War era material and one item I saw was a petition to Paul Kruger for a pardon. I did not really explore it more, but I am sure somewhere amongst the many signatures on it I would have found that of Paul Kruger himself.
There were also a number of interesting old maps that somebody had requested. And amongst them was one from Johannesburg, dated 1896 and loosely described as “The Residents’ and Strangers’ Friend”.
It is a wonderful glimpse into Johannesburg of the past, and this was probably the original. It is interesting to see how the city had grown from when it officially became one in 1886 till then, and of course Braamfontein Cemetery was in use, and its register from that era is equally interesting.
What I did find interesting is how well developed the machinery of filing and bureaucracy was, with its arcane language, revenue stamps and formal forms of address. SMSspeak did not exist in the civil service, and proper spelling was extremely important. You also “humbly begged to be your obedient servant” and signed your name with a flourish. Of course the occasional gem can also be found in those reams of formality…
To say that my curiosity isn’t piqued would be an understatement, there is so much to discover at the archives, but like most things you actually need to have a distinct purpose when calling up files; whether they are for genealogy or curiosity, randomly choosing a file may not really be fruitful, and I am already contemplating what to look for next.
I did find the staff very helpful, and the experience was an interesting one. There is much to see, and so much to discover hidden in that building that it should be a compulsory exercise for children in school. I just wish we had been able to do this when I was young.