My Grandmother’s Archive

Faced with the uncertainty of the postapartheid world, my grandmother protects her children the same way she survived Apartheid: by making sure their papers are in order.

Image credit wopies Flickr.

My grandmother has an almost manic attachment to official documents. For as long as I can remember she has filed and stored them with the meticulous attention of an archivist.  My birth and degree certificates, school reports and the clinic cards that recorded baby Naledi’s milestones, are carefully stored in an envelope which is placed in a blue purse that is wisely hidden in a location I cannot reveal because it is a deeply guarded family secret.

As soon as we were eligible to acquire them, my aunts and I were given taxi fare and sent off to Home Affairs to get our ID documents. Once we came of age, we were given no choice but to use those ID books to cast our votes, because voting is a matter of grave importance to my grandmother.

She once told me about the invisible barcode she says is stamped on to the back of the ID when you vote. This bar code, she said, is something potential employers look for and they have the technology to access it, to verify if you are a responsible citizen.

One afternoon I took the time to comb through the blue purse. I found, tucked between our green ID books, my grand parents’ dompasses (the pass books). My grandfather’s bore stamps from his days working underground in Johannesburg while my grandmother’s, identified her as a citizen of the homeland of Transkei -complete with visa like stamps from times she had crossed the border into white South Africa.

In these dompas stamps I saw the logic of my grandmother’s story of invisible barcodes; the trauma of the dompas mixed with ambivalence about postapartheid technology. Where the dompas had restricted her movement with a visible stamp linked to her employer, the invisible hand of technology now threatened to limit her children’s access to employment, restricting mobility of another kind. Faced with the uncertainty of the postapartheid world, my grandmother protects her children the same way she survived Apartheid, by making sure their papers are in order.

I think of the blue purse as a repository of her love for her children and I find within it the many ways she protects us; like how she nurtures the social bonds we sometimes neglect.

Buried beneath the dompas and ID documents, I find a special kind of inventory in the purse. It is a running list of the gifts people have brought to our family’s traditional ceremonies over the years. It dates as far back as the 1980s, to each of my uncles’ umgidi.  I know that she carefully unfolds it whenever one of her fellow villagers in the Eastern Cape has a ceremony of their own.  I know she then calls a meeting with my uncles to discuss the costs of reciprocating. My uncles may be responsible for representing the family in the gatherings, but she does the memory work, the record keeping that maintains our social ties in the village.

The bag overflows with things I would never know, it gives meaning to social relationships I would otherwise take for granted.

Folded into her Standard Bank life insurance documents are handwritten notes that record payments into various burial societies and village groups – sometimes with names of those who passed away and the families they belonged to. From Johannesburg to Cape Town, I learn of the bonds maintained by migrants across the country by taking responsibility for one another’s deaths.

But it is not only the past that lives in the blue purse.

If I am not travelling, I am required to report to her bedroom, where I promptly hand over my passport for her to keep until the next time I need it. My uncles, who own and drive taxis always know where to find their traffic fines. Copies of my mother’s monthly water bills are well stored whenever she should need them. My grandmother keeps versions of our CV’s and certified ID copies and if we are ever in desperate need of the infamous z83 form, we know there are plenty in the blue bag.

The purse can be a subject of deep frustration because access to one’s documents means one has to engage in extensive negotiations with the owner of the purse before any document is released. My grandmother does not trust us not to be reckless with official documents and so she sometimes over values their importance. Permission to dispose of outdated documents calls for a rigorous process of adjudication where the burden to prove obsolescence rests squarely with the owner of the documents. Upon release, obsolete documents must be burnt or shredded because as far as my grandmother is concerned, there is always the chance that old documents may be used for new nefarious purposes.

If you should ask my grandmother about the nature of this new wickedness, you should hear stories of daughters who were mysteriously married by men they had never met and sons whose bank accounts were emptied by anonymous criminals who used that one document that was carelessly disposed of.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.