More Than Just Words: Oral History In Post-Apartheid Historiography

The dismantling of apartheid represented a major political change in South Africa, but, as the readings for this week in South African History in the Digital Age clearly show, this also signaled a major intellectual shift, especially in the field of social history.  The visible shift towards greater use of oral sources by South Africanists, as Paul la Hausse noted in his piece for The Radical History Review, “enabled South African historians to construct a culturally sensitive understanding of class, ethnicity, community, gender, youth, and the family” (349-350).  The inclusion of more voices through oral history has played a role in leveling out the inconsistencies of the colonial record, as Radikobo Ntsimane pointed out in a 2010 podcast,

What I liked about oral history was the fact that you allowed other voices, you allowed other biases on the table….while written sources were mainly written from a European or Euro-centric perspective.  They did not allow that bias to come into play.  So, I like oral history because it acknowledges other voices that have been muted and it gives space to those voices that have been left out.

This shift to oral history also included an introduction of more voices that had been “left out” into the actual production of knowledge.  As much as this was a shift in content and method, as Luli Callinicos detailed in her article, it also represented a demographic shift, with more voices contributing their own perspective to constructing South Africa’s history(ies).

In the coming decade we look forward to the emergence of a new generation of black historians. With the re-opening in the 1980s of the “liberal” English-speaking universities to blacks after a generation of exclusion by apartheid . . . it is now possible for black students to engage in radical historical scholarship. The effect of this change on the content and method of historiography is likely to be mutually beneficial, and should help to redress the imbalance in the production of the past, for popular history at present is written predominantly by whites. Above all, we may then be able to overcome some of the gaps and limitations encountered in popular history today and realize our hope for a genuinely non­racial and critically engaged intelligentsia (295).

Philippe Denis echoed this sentiment in the introduction to Oral History In A Wounded Country (2008), noting that “with the end of apartheid and the exciting but elusive advent of a new nation, this country is witness to the emergence of a new generation of oral historians whose aim is to develop a broader, more inclusive and culturally sensitive understanding of the South African past” (1).  For the past few weeks, we have been discussing the ability of digital technologies to aid in the democratization of knowledge, but this reminds us that the actual scholars themselves (their backgrounds, unique perspectives, unique skills) are key to this process. This opening up of opportunities to more individuals in the late 1980s/early 1990s shifted the scholarship in significant ways.  Perhaps most significantly, it witnessed the inclusion of more black South African voices.  This is significant on a number of levels.  First, it has provided for a richer historiography, incorporating more voices and perspectives.  Second, the inclusion of these voices with their own knowledge of African languages and idioms has offered a window into different cultures that Western scholars, even with extensive language study, sometimes struggle to unearth.  And, finally, it shows that the production of historical work is not just about what happens behind closed doors, but about what the work of historians can do for society as a whole, helping people remember their past and disseminating their stories.

We can see these benefits in the work of Ntsimane and Peter Sekibakiba Lekgoathi, scholars who are both representative of this demographic shift.  Their work bears witness to their position in overcoming the “gaps and limitations” that linger in South African popular history.  Lekgoathi’s research on the formation of national identity and its connection to radio culture is built on oral history, as well as the role of idioms in subverting, although on a small scale, white rule.  While under close surveillance by the white administration of Radio Bantu, Lekgoathi illustrates, “some announcers exploited the spaces that the thicket of language provided to subvert white control” (586).  Radikobo Ntsimane integrates oral histories into his research on medical missions in South Africa, but perhaps his greatest contribution to the democratization of knowledge is in his memory work (in collaboration with Philippe Denis) with the Sinomlando Centre at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Pietermaritzburg. The work that Ntsimane and Denis are doing at Sinomlando is a great example of the profound effect that oral history work can have on people’s lives.  The Memory Box Project allows children who have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS to not only find catharsis in telling their stories, but also to find confidence.  As Ntsimane explained in 2010,

Oral history is studying the past…is a method used by historians to study the past.  Oral historians are interested in the past.  But memory workers are interested in how do people remember; how does their remembering help them; how does their forgetting help them.

That last statement is key: how does their forgetting help them.  For me, this is also a critical reminder about my philosophy of history.  To me, history as a discipline is not only about the production of knowledge, but also about the dissemination of that knowledge to the public and utilization of those skills and tools for the greater good.  Radikobo Ntsimane put this into perspective in his contribution to Oral History in a Wounded Country, noting that

Oral history is an academic discipline aimed at filling in the gaps in historical research, but it is also a human encounter that can have a profound effect on peoples’ lives (126).

It’s this kind of realization of the power of oral history, not only in aiding the interviewer but also the interviewee, that we should all be keeping in mind as we endeavor to conduct our own research. Sources:

  1. Luli Callinicos, “Popular History in the Eighties,” Radical History Review 46-47 (1990): 285-297
  2. Philippe Denis and Radikobo Ntsimane, eds. Oral History in a Wounded Country: Interactive Interviewing in South Africa. Scottsville: UKZN Press, 2008.
  3. Paul la Hausse, “Oral History and South African Historians,” Radical History Review 46-47 (1990): 346-356
  4. “Oral History and Memory Work in [South] Africa,” Africa Past and Present, Episode 44 (Sept. 17, 2010)
  5. Sekibakiba Peter Lekgoathi, “You Are Listening to Radio Lebowa of the SABC: Vernacular Radio, Bantustan Identity and Listenership, 1960-1994, Journal of Southern African Studies 35, 3 (2009): 575-594 [link]

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.

4 thoughts on “More Than Just Words: Oral History In Post-Apartheid Historiography

  1. Loved the entire post!

    “history as a discipline is not only about the production of knowledge, but also about the dissemination of that knowledge to the public…for the greater good.”

    Very courageous; indeed, courageous and bold.

    My questions though, is about the imperative to “disseminate”. Can you imagine a case where historians might serve the greater good by NOT disclosing some information?

    The South African government purged security files before the transition. This means information that could have provided closure and justice is now lost—presumably forever. That is a crime and a travesty. But we’ve also lost information about the people who chose life (as an informant of the apartheid era security police) over certain death. Tough choices and certainly profound shame. Thinking ONLY of these souls, caught in the worst kind of snare, might the destruction of documents help people forget in ways that are also therapeutic? Are their some things we’re better off not knowing?

  2. Allow me to think out loud for a moment…

    It strikes me that remembering and forgetting are in some ways connected, not simply as opposites as we generally think of them, but more intimately as two parts of the same process of imagining the past for the sake of the present. When remembering the past, whether as historians or individuals, there are inevitably things that are remembered and things that are forgotten. It is interesting to me when which things are remembered and which things are forgotten is a conscious choice.

    With memory work, as Ntsimane explained, the fact of this choice is transparent. The overt purpose is to help people in the present. Therefore there is no cause to not acknowledge that the parts of the past that don’t help people in the present are intentionally forgotten.

    This process was evident in Callinicos’s article on popular history as well. She writes that in labor movement history “the content focuses on non-racial class struggles, and national resistance tends to be played down, if not completely ignored” (286). While history by the popular movement “tends to emphasize organized national struggles, focussing on heroes and leaders, and on state oppression rather than exploitation by the capitalist system” (286). And of course, the white academic historians of 1980s South Africa had their own agenda that dictated what is remembered and what is forgotten.

    Looking back on past history it seems relatively easy to identify what was forgotten in the process of remembering. After all, that is what we do as historians. We find places where the historiography has failed to remember what we think it is important to remember and we write to change that narrative. And in many cases we can easily identify political influences that shaped what past historians chose to remember or forget.

    And yet, because our goal as historians is to remember the past and, as you said, to disseminate that knowledge so that the public can remember the past, we seem to have a hard time acknowledging as openly as memory workers that the act of remembrance is also an act of forgetfulness. Turning that suspicious eye that we let linger on our intellectual forefathers on our own memory choices is more difficult.

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