A Department of Home Affairs office.  Picture: SOWETAN
A Department of Home Affairs office. Picture: SOWETAN

Ever wanted a peek at Ingrid Jonker’s death certificate, or perhaps Gerard Sekoto’s birth certificate?

The Department of Home Affairs has a treasure trove of South African history tucked away in its storage facilities, and an ambitious project to digitise these records will make it easier to access them.

The department has 286-million records and 90% of them are on paper. They are mostly birth, marriage and death certificates, or ID, naturalisation and permitting applications, dating back to the late 1800s.

The department’s archives house the official footprints left behind by renowned South Africans — the permits they applied for, samples of their handwriting and a host of interesting facts and details.

The department has undertaken the enormous task of digitising these records. It will start with birth records, as these are the biggest chunk — at about 110-million of the 286-million — and because birth records are the primary documents that prove citizenship and ancestry. The aim is to digitise 5.8-million birth records a year.

Digitisation will make the records immediately accessible from any Home Affairs office throughout SA. It will also streamline the process for members of the public to access records that are available to them, as they will no longer have to wait for a request to be made, the document found and a copy sent by fax.

Retention

But these physical records will not be shredded or discarded once they have been digitised. Department spokesman Mayihlome Tshwete says the department has a retention strategy and has identified a place to retain the hardcopy records.

Dr Geraldine Frieslaar of the South African History Archive says records of births, marriages, deaths, ID applications, naturalisation and permitting are at the core of public administration. They are also of great historical importance as they provide an insight into genealogical histories, patterns of immigration and population statistics. These records can also form the basis of research into social welfare, economic trends and social mobility.

The digitisation of contemporary records may enable greater operational efficiency and revolutionise old systems of record keeping, she says.

The documents held by Home Affairs underpin the right of citizenship of South Africans, she says.

"It is also important to remember that these records carry with them an ethical responsibility in the sense that they are often deemed to be of a deeply personal nature.

"It is in this vein that access to birth records is closed for a period of 100 years, while access to marriage and death records is closed for a period of 20 years," says Frieslaar.

Tshwete says the department plans to retain the historically significant documents and records. The ministers of Home Affairs, Higher Education, Arts and Culture, and the relatives of the records’ subjects, will make a collective decision about donating the records as they form part of SA’s history.

Frieslaar says archival material deemed to have historical importance unfortunately sometimes becomes commodified when individuals, companies or political organisations try to take ownership and control of a particular piece of history.

But this is not unique to SA, she says, citing the Rosetta Stone, discovered in Egypt and taken to the British Museum in 1802; and the Elgin Marbles, subject of a longstanding tussle between Greece and the UK over their return to Athens.

The ANC hosts its own archive at the University of Fort Hare. In 2012 the ANC started digitising its vast collection of manuscripts, photos, and audio and video content.

Archiving has become big business. Corbis, a company owned by Bill Gates, holds about 15-million photos — including one of Albert Einstein rowing a boat in his pajamas, as well as iconic images of Marilyn Monroe world leaders and other notable individuals. The company makes about $250m a year in licensing fees, according to media reports.

© Business Day

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