Prohibition of access to the archive

In August 1964 barely a month after independence, the situation in the National Archives was ‘a pity ... [because] Archives [was] no longer the quiet backwater it used to be’.38The Home Affairs Minister imposed some strict conditions for accessing public records such that all records that were within the 50-year rule were now precluded from special access by researchers. This was contrary to the advice of the Secretary of State for the Colonies to the Governor of Nyasaland in 1951 and the practice during the colonial period. Instead, only those records that were more than 50 years old could be accessed. Although this was the case, the government adopted a much stricter line about the inspection and publication of even these records.39

As Dr Banda and his government grew more autocratic and intolerant to any criticism, more control over the Archives was exerted than ever before. Between 1964 and 1966, applicants wishing to access public archives were supposed to appear before the Minister for interviews and from 1966, research applicants were required to appear before the President himself and only a very small number was allowed to access the Archives between 1966 and 1980.

Working in this political environment, the national archivist was forced to please his masters by spying on a few researchers who were accepted to access the Archives. For this reason, a number of researchers whom he reported to the authorities as seemingly having different political views from those of the government, were banned from using the Archives and deported.

From 1965 to 1993, the National Archives was ordered to close on a number of occasions each of varying duration, for different reasons as the President saw fit. For instance, the institution was closed to all research workers on the following dates: between May and July 1965,40 between July and October 1966,41 between April and September 197242;a period of20 months between 1967 and 1968;and between June and December 1993. These closures affected researchers and other interested users of the National Archives in different ways.

The government further controlled access to the Archives by banning all foreign researchers from 1968 after a researcher had published an article that was critical of the Malawi government. This being so, only‘persons of Malawian origin, a few expatriates (only heads of departments) of the University of Malawi and persons doing research on behalf of the Malawi Government’ were permitted access to the Archives.43 Access to the public records was accorded to these categories of people simply because they were all resident in the country and could be traced easily and dealt with if they wrote anything considered subversive.

Another way in which the government-controlled access to Archives was restrictions on research topics. From 1968 no researcher was allowed access to archival material unless he or she proved that his or her research would make a palpable and significant contribution to the development of the country44 Only the research where the government could make immediate use of the results was permitted. For this reason, research of a purely historical nature was not allowed.To ensure that this condition was complied with, all researchers were required to send lists of all files they wanted to consult for presidential scrutiny and approval.

By exerting control over the Archives, the government was actually hiding the archival resources from public access and scrutiny. As long as the limitations were in force, the largest proportion of the Archives that should have been available for public access remained virtually closed and grossly underutilised. No wonder Woods argues that ‘the National Archives of Malawi were for all intents and purposes closed from the late 1960s until the early 1980s.’45

Institutional challenges

The National Archives was adversely affected by the government’s freeze in employment of additional staff and filling of vacancies. A number of factors had contributed to the understaffing of the institution. Some professionally qualified and long serving archivists had retired upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 55 years (increased to 60, in 2010) or opted for early retirement after serving for at least 20 years. Other staff members either died while in service or resigned for better pay packages in the private sector. As a result of these factors and because of the freeze in public service employment, out of the Department’s staff establishment of 84 in 2007, the number of staff actually available, inclusive of administrative personnel, drivers, security guards and messengers, was 31, representing a 63 per cent vacancy rate.46

Due to a lack of professional staff, the Conservation and Reprographic Section was closed down in 2005. Until 2012, this Section remained closed, which forced the suspension of conservation of vulnerable archival documents. Another Section that remained unmanned between 1999 and 2009 because of lack of personnel was Historical Manuscripts, which collects historical manuscripts and conducts oral history research programmes to complement the official Archives.47

The Public Archives Section was also affected because it was manned by an Archives Assistant and a Library Assistant between 1999 and 2009. Non-availability of adequate and qualified staff in the Public Archives Section reduced the functionality of the Section to only reference services for a period of ten years. Important activities such as appraisal and cataloguing were suspended as a result, which led to an overwhelming backlog of records appraisal and cataloguing tasks. The catalogues currently in use at the National Archives were prepared in the 1980s, and the latest archival collections that can be accessed only extend as far as the early 1950s. An exception to this are catalogues of the federal records that were transferred to Malawi in the mid-1960s from Zimbabwe after the dissolution of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and catalogues of the indivisible federal records, which were microfilmed in 1984-1986.

This state of affairs has thwarted the Department’s commitment to promotion of research through increased access to the country’s documentary assets. Besides part of the pre-1950 records, colonial records up to 1964 have not been appraised and catalogued and can therefore not be made available to researchers. Currently, public records in Malawi become available to the public for research 30 years from the time they are closed for current business in public institutions. According to this rule, by 2020 all records in the National Archives up to 1990 should be open and accessible to the public. However, no single consignment of records in the National Archives from 1964 to 1990 has been appraised and catalogued. As it is, besides the secondary sources of information in its Legal Deposit Library, the Department only makes available to the research community the larger part (1891-1950) of the colonial archives and all the federal (1953-1963) archives.

It can be argued that the staffing problems due to the freeze in employment have contributed to the hindrance of research using the 1950-1990 public records. As long as all the public records of the post-colonial era remain inaccessible to the research community and the general public, the National Archives largely remains a colonial and federal archive. In his assessment report, Mazikana stated that ‘in the Records Centre in Zomba, there are 170,000 files going back to 1965 which had been scheduled for review at designated dates and are still awaiting that review’.48 As a result of the suspension of the freeze in public service recruitment, the National Archives has experienced a reduction in the vacancy rate from 63 per cent before 2007 to 31 per cent in 2011 and recruitment processes are still underway to fill all the vacant positions. Lack of funding from the government and shortages of staff forced the Archives to concentrate on the EU Rule of Law Project activities between 2000 and 2010.

Operating with a skeleton staff, the Records Management Services Section could not meaningfully carry out records management outreach programmes between 2000 and 2007. During this period, an average of only four outreach programmes of one week each per year was conducted where the National Archives staff inspected registries and advised records personnel on good records management practices. Mazikana observed that the serious reduction in the number of records surveys being undertaken had ‘reduced contact between the National Archives and the records creating agencies as well as cutting off mechanisms through which the National Archives was fulfilling its mandate to advise ministries and departments’.49 As a result of reduced National Archives activity, ‘a multiplicity of filing systems [was] being developed and used in ministries and departments with new staff untrained and unaware of key essentials’. Coupled with the lack of training in records management for Clerical Officers in the Civil Service, a fall in the National Archives’ outreach programmes contributed to the general decline in the standard of record keeping in the public service.

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