SADET: Oral History and National Narratives

sadet1In examining the role of the TRC as a nation-building tool, our conversations in South African History in the Digital Age turned to the utility of this commission in constructing a national narrative of South African history.  In this way, examining the SADET project proves timely, as their own goal is to participate in the writing of national narratives, albeit for different purposes than the TRC.

The South African Democracy Education Trust (SADET)was formed in 2003, “after President Thabo Mbeki indicated his concern about the paucity of historical material on the arduous and complex road to South Africa’s peaceful political settlement after decades of violent conflict.”  In this way, the SADET project was as much a work of historical memory as it was an intellectual collective focused on publishing tomes of scholarly articles.  Gregory Houston confirmed this focus in a 2010 article, noting that one of SADET’s key objectives was to “develop a collection of oral histories of South Africans from all political persuasions and experiences of the liberation struggle during the three-and-a-half decades under study” (5).

Houston noted that this focus on “interviewing those who has just returned from exile as well as members of the internal wings of the liberation movements and, in particular, the veterans, to ensure that their life histories were captured while they were still alive” became a “matter of urgency due to the fact that a number of leading members of the liberation movements who had returned to the country in the early 1990s had passed away by the time the project was initiated” (5).  Jabulani Sithole echoed the urgency of the efforts to collect oral histories in a 2010 Africa Past & Present podcast.

What drove us to SADET was the fact that there was a realization…that there were quite a number of aging political activists who had been involved, heavily involved, in the struggle for liberation, both internally, some of them ended up on Robben Island, others were working in exile.  But those that were working internally, I must say, most of them were involved in the political underground and, by its very nature, what they were doing was not supposed to be known.  And we ran a risk of actually losing the information, because even if you were involved in the ANC structures, our understanding was, you couldn’t know anything/everything.  And you were not supposed to know everything….So what was actually seen as a very urgent task was, then, to interview these people and oral history became extremely important.

This point by Sithole on the kinds of memories that can be uncovered by interviewing underground memories is extremely important, a point echoed by Houston who notes that “much of what constitutes the history of the liberation movements is to be found only in the recollections of their members” (12).  Oral history then, Houston contends, “provides a space for ‘the makers of history’ to ‘tell their own stories as well as the story of the struggles they waged,’ and thereby become ‘the authors who record that history” (12).

Some of these histories have been published in The Road to Democracy: South Africans Telling Their Stories, along with a few included on the SADET site in PDF form.  For example, the published life history of Joe Matthews gives a longue duree account of an activist’s political awakening and subsequent political career, though the text has obviously been altered to be made more readable.  But given the hundreds of interviews that the various teams conducted, this is only a very small sampling of a large archive of life histories that could aid future generations of historians in continuing to investigate the anti-apartheid movement in historical perspective.

But this historical approach is not without its flaws, as Houston readily admits.  Though the project stated that its intention was to integrate as many different political parties and points of view as possible, the huge numbers of ANC members interviewed obviously skews the volume as a whole.  This also brings into question the role of the interviewer, not only in terms of their own political persuasion but also their pre-existing biases and agendas that they bring into the interviews.  The volatility of the subject matter at hand was brought into stark perspective in a 2008/2009 exchange between Martin Legassick and Jabulani Sithole in Kronos.

The main thrust of Martin Legassick’s “Debating the revival of the workers’ movement in the 1970s: The South African Democracy Education Trust and post-apartheid patriotic history” centered on his charge that Bernard Magubane, Sifiso Ndlovu, and Sithole made “fictitious claims about the activities of SACTU” (241).  On a larger scale, however, Legassick was also critiquing the SADET project as a whole, stating that these three historians were practitioners of “patriotic history”; that is, “the falsification of history of nation-building purposes,” repressing “uncomfortable truths in order to present a seamless picture favourable to the ANC and SACTU” (241).

Sithole responded to Legassick’s attack in 2009’s “Contestations over knowledge production or ideological bullying?: A response to Legassick on the workersʼ movement” which portrayed himself, Ndlovu and Magubane as “post-apartheid rightwing mavericks – sundry peddlers of ʻpatriotic historyʼ who have sheepishly bowed
to pressure from the ANC leadership of the 2000s in our anxious bid to act as its ʻorganic intellectualsʼ,” challenging Legassick’s own revisionist bent (223).

While I value the revisionist perspectives on the history of SACTU, I reserve the right to differ with them primarily because I understand the ideological world outlook that has informed their line of thinking, and also because the archival and oral sources I have consulted have enabled me to present an alternative version of its history. I therefore refuse to embrace uncritically a version that is espoused by academic intellectuals who, for historical reasons just alluded to, have always considered themselves as holding the correct left line on the history of SACTU and yet they were never part of it. What I am willing to do is to capture and relate its history through the eyes and memories of ordinary working class activists who participated in the worker struggles out of necessity during the 1970s and 1980s.

Here, Sithole and Legassick find common ground in their dissatisfaction with each other’s personal objectives inflecting their participation in, and resulting work from, SADET.  These two pieces clearly illustrate the high stakes of SADET as a forum for public memory.  Addressing topics which are still very fresh in people’s memories and using people’s memories as the basis for these texts, these kind of impassioned responses are to be expected.  As I discussed in my post for last week, SADET, like the TRC, is inherently a work of memory and, as a result, is perfectly imperfect.  But is it still valuable, even with all of its flaws?  Ngempela.


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 20th.

3 thoughts on “SADET: Oral History and National Narratives

  1. Liz, I’m glad you called attention to the publication of South Africans Telling Their Stories. It’s unfortunate that it’s not very readily available – my own university has been unable to purchase even from the press and no copies are available now on amazon!

    On a similar note, I find it troubling that SADET has been somewhat slow in making those interviews available. While I certainly understand the need for researchers to protect their own work as part of of academic promotion, etc., but the existence of SADET and researchers affiliated to it in some ways ensures that the aging struggle folks give their stories to SADET. This makes it difficult for the perhaps more critical evaluations to take place. In conversations with some involved in SADET, there is a lack of funding to pay folks to translate, transcribe, upload, and make accessible. Think of the possibilities! Peter, next MATRIX project?

    1. Ngiyavuma, sisi! Since SADET is, as Sithole, Houston and Legassick all attest, driven by oral histories and the stories told to the researchers, it’s absolutely key that we have access to these oral histories. Since the project has been frequently criticized for its partisan nature and its contribution to “nationalistic histories,” making these testimonies/life histories available might give the project some much needed transparency and legitimacy.

      Besides, I want to write a biography of Chris Hani one day and those sources would be absolutely key to piecing together his life!

      Let’s make this MATRIX project happen. I’ll write the grant!

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