A Peek Behind the Curtain

This week in South African History in the Digital Age, my classmates and I were challenged to investigate and critique two sites:  MSU’s own Overcoming Apartheid and the Nelson Mandela Centre-hosted O’Malley Archives.  On first glance, comparing these two sites seems a bit like comparing apples with oranges.  Yes, they both contain interviews, but their presentations couldn’t be more different.  When I first began exploring the sites, I planned to write about Overcoming Apartheid, because, quite simply, I like the site more.  It’s everything that the O’Malley site is not; at least in terms of design and structure.

  1. It is easy to navigate.
  2. The site itself is visually stimulating.
  3. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Overcoming Apartheid features video and audio interviews.

As Sean Field argued in Oral History, Community, and Displacement (2012), video footage of oral histories adds an additional dimension of analysis and understanding to our comprehension of this critical sources.  Anytime I am confronted with transcriptions of interviews, I find myself desperately wanting to hear the speakers’ voice, read their body language….but I’m a historian.  I want to do my own analysis.  I had this same complaint with the PBS site last week: the interviews are great but let me see what you have!  I was taught to share with others in kindergarten; I expect the same courtesy to extend to intellectual knowledge production.

But as I dug through the O’Malley archive, I found that, even without videos or compelling graphic design or easy navigation, this site offers one main component that Overcoming Apartheid does not.  Between 1985 and 2005, Padraig O’Malley conducted scores of interviews with some of South Africa’s political heavy-hitters, from Govan Mbeki to Ahmed Kathrada to FW de Klerk and so on and so on.  The site also functions as the official website for O’Malley’s Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa (2007).

Perhaps this isn’t so unique; a lot of these figures have been interviewed on numerous occasions by different interviewers.  What is unique about O’Malley’s interviews is that he returned to subjects numerous times.  And why is this significant?  It allows for the reader to see the developing relationship between interviewer and interviewee in successive interviews.

zweliTake, for example, the interviews that O’Malley conducted with King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu between 1990 and 1994.  I was drawn to these interviews for purely selfish reasons: my research focuses, in part, on breaking down how King Zwelithini conceptualizes and frames traditional notions of Zulu-ness (ubuZulu bethu) in contemporary settings.  These interviews provided an interesting snapshot of Zwelithini’s framing of Zulu-ness in the early 1990s.  As I read the transcripts, however, I found myself struck by how, in addition to providing a snapshot of King Zwelithini at these critical moments in the 1990s, these interviews also showed a clear development in the relationship between the Zulu king and this Irish scholar.  In the first interview in 1990, King Zwelithini appears hesitant to fully divulge his opinions on racial politics, even while O’Malley encourages him to do so.

GZ     Actually, you know, in Natal KwaZulu, there are too many races. While there are too many races, there are some people who don’t want to see the Zulus living peacefully. . .

POM     But who are these other people? Who are these other people?

GZ     You know, there are too many races in this country. There are too many races who don’t want the unity amongst the Zulu people because we know what they are afraid of.

POM     Could you point to which races they are?

GZ     Actually, I won’t mention them, but I’m just, as I’m telling you that there are some races that are just instigating my people to fight each other. But to point to who they are, that’s impossible for me to say that. Actually, that’s a thing that I won’t say. But we know that there are some races that are instigating the Zulus to fight each other.

In this exchange, the reader can sense a clear hesitancy on King Zwelithini’s part to fully express his opinions to this virtual stranger.  By 1994, there is a clear shift in the level of comfort between Zwelithini and O’Malley.  Take, for example, the King’s candor when asked about rumors of a rift between himself and Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

I would like to see my people living in peace, not that I believe that the Zulu people can be dominated by the Xhosas. We are not talking in those terms. These people are sitting together in parliament and all the laws of this country are handled by all political parties and then I wouldn’t like to be seen as I have been negotiating with all the leaders of this country and then when it comes to the leadership of Mr Mandela and then be seen not negotiating with him, because he is the government and the leader of today, the same as other government leaders of this country. That is wrong. Well I think so for those who think that maybe the ANC can dominate the Zulu people. People need not fear about that because I am not the one who can make that, I am not the one who has the permission of the ANC, I am not the one who has the permission of IFP. My leadership is just for the Zulu people, it doesn’t matter where they belong. I can not create or either accept division. So the rift that the news media is talking about they didn’t get it from me, they get it from him. I never utter a word and I will never utter a word.

Read that again:  “I never utter a word and I will never utter a word.”  See the irony in this statement?  To the man who he basically refused to open up to just four years prior, he has just made some pretty strong statements about the ANC, the IFP, and Buthelezi.  This response reflects changes and growth in the relationship with interviewer and interviewee.  And this kind of growth is evident in most of the interviews included on this site that took place over the course of several years.  That is the strength of this site: placing the interviewer squarely in the discussion, allowing for analysis not only of the interviews’ content, but also of the changing dynamics and relationships.  While videos or audio recordings would be nice (and perhaps some day we might get them?), this alone is enough to encourage this reader to return to this site to explore more of these dynamics.  First up, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, to read his side of the story!


  • Overcoming Apartheid
  • O’Malley Interviews: 1985-2005
  • Sean Field, “There Your Memory Runs Like a Camera Back: Moving Places and Audiovisual Oral Histories from Klipfontein Road,”  in Oral History, Community, and Displacement: Imagining Memories in Post-Apartheid South Africa (2012), pp. 117-132 [view PDF]

This post is one of the requirements for South African History in a Digital Age, a graduate course in history which I am enrolled in this semester, drawing on the assigned readings for February 6th.

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