“The work of archive is justice,” said Dr Verne Sheldon Harris at the recent autumn graduation ceremony of the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Humanities, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate for the distinct contribution he has made to archival theory and memory work both in South Africa and internationally.
Dr Harris was nominated for the honour by the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies (DHHS) which also commended him for his activism and intervention on numerous occasions in terms of the defence of the South African archival record, both during apartheid as well as during the post-apartheid period. Moreover, throughout his career he has not only made a significant and valuable contribution to expanding and enriching the archival record, but also in enhancing its accessibility.
Dr Harris was involved in making the archives more accessible in the context of the exercising of rights, the use of archives for post-apartheid programmes of reparation and the inclusion of the voices of those who had been excluded from the colonial and apartheid archive.
Speaking about the work of archive as justice at the graduation ceremony on 3 May, he said, “It is work which stands responsible before the ghosts of those who have died in conditions of oppression, the ones being ghosted right now by oppressive power, and the ghosts of those not yet born. It is work that reaches insistently for the just society of our dreams.”
Dr Harris was nominated for the honour by the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies in the Faculty of Humanities.
Dr Harris was also instrumental in reconfiguring archives as being accountable for transparent governance and administration. Amongst others, he served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Joint Committees of Investigation into the Destruction of Records by the security establishment.
Author and co-author of over six books, his most recent monograph, Ghosts of Archives (2020), has been acclaimed as positing “archive as an essential resource for social justice activism and as a source, or location, of soul for individuals and communities”. He concluded his speech by affirming that his passion has been “the mobilising of archive in support of continuing struggles for justice, but there is still a lot of work to be done. A luta continua!”
Dr Harris has been recognised internationally through a number of prestigious awards, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Cordoba in Argentina, South America, as well as publication awards in Australia, Canada and South Africa. He is also an adjunct professor at Nelson Mandela University. He is a former deputy director of the National Archives and former director of the South African History Archive which included the launch of the Gay and Lesbian Archives, as well as the project to archive the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, and to engage in freedom-of-information advocacy. He is currently Head of Leadership and Knowledge Development at the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
Graduate and postgraduate students from the DHHS were inspired by his presence and presentation at their graduation. This included one doctorate and nine master’s students, all of whom had either used his work as prescribed texts or cited him in their dissertations and theses.
By conferring an honorary doctorate on Dr Harris, the DHHS hoped that his contribution and work would be further acknowledged and provide points of inspiration and guidance for charting a way forward for archival research and scholarship.