National Oral History Conference | Western Cape Government

National Oral History Conference

(Department of Cultural Affairs & Sport, Western Cape Government)
This brief report summarises the proceedings and outcomes of the second annual National Oral History Conference held in Boksburg from 18 to 21 October 2005.
The National Department of Arts and Culture and the National Archives and Record Service of South Africa hosted the 2nd Annual National Oral History Conference on 18-21 October 2005. Oral history practitioners from across South Africa and even Kenya attended the conference in Boksburg. The general theme discussed on the very first day of the conference was "The Legacy of Apartheid".

The keynote address was delivered on Oral History and Oral Performance in Post Apartheid South Africa. A lively discussion followed on whether only researchers that share a cultural background should be conducting interviews in specific communities.

One of the highlights included the role of hearsay, omission and forgetting in the creation of "official" histories. A particularly interesting paper was presented on the Toyi-Toyi protests of the 1980s as a powerful tool of liberation. It presented an interesting topic for later conversation when the then young white pupils shared their experiences of political indoctrination and intimidation from the same period.

A further point of discussion was the fact that since 1994 the main focus has been on social transformation and the delivery of services such as housing, etc. The need exists to address other issues of social redress such as memory and identity.

General themes of discussions on the second day of the conference were "Memory and Reconciliation" and "Oral Performance in Contemporary South Africa". The fact was stressed that we still don't know what it really means to live in a post-racial order, even after ten years of democracy. We must looks towards a time when equating/equalising European culture with/to African culture will be finished. South Africa is however in the midst of a "Heritage Revolution". By redefining our understanding of the past, we are creating endless possibilities for the heritage practitioners of the future. One of the most important duties of intangible heritage practitioners is to create safe spaces for people to articulate their personal truths regardless of where these truths fits into "official" history.

Research should not only concentrate on the negative aspects of the past. There were instances where people were able to transcend racial discrimination; where people of all races were able to act humane and fair; to find stories of non-racialism could help deflate the power of racism. Old stories should be told/interpreted in new ways and physical spaces can be transformed/reconstructed by linking them to intangible experiences

Oral history practitioners should also be aware of the following existing obstacles:

  • Racial stereotypes are still used as "explanatory".
  • The differences between public and private spheres.
  • The meaning of ethnic identities.
  • Changing relationship between race and power.
  • Functioning of national identity in regard to group and individual identities.
  • Does the ideal of the people's contract operate or not?
  • Do people see the state as the enemy or a vehicle of social transformation? People need to have their physical realities changed before making real mind-shifts. Nation-building/pride is the privilege of those who are living comfortably.

South Africans should concentrate on finding commonalities and shared values. We all share a common experience of change and a common sense of place.

More light was shed on the healing aspect of oral history. It was stressed that there is no quick fix for "mastering the past" and currently the danger exists that people might think that a forum like the TRC brought closure instead of being the beginning of the healing process. Oral historians should be prepared for the fact that all oral history dialogues evoke a whole range of emotions. Although they are not psychotherapists, they should show empathy with the interviewees when the latter may be sharing traumatic experiences. Post-interview involvement of the interviewees is crucial. Oral history practitioners are not there to "give voices to the voiceless". They have been talking for a long time, the important thing is to start listening and bear witness to their experiences. They should be assisting by creating comfortable and safe public spaces of dissemination. Trust should be a crucial ingredient of this whole process. People should be given the chance to see their stories in the public domain. Communities should not only be passive consumers but also become active participants.

It is very important to guard against collective amnesia. Already young people are questioning whether the "bad old days" were really that bad.

Communities need to be empowered to set their own agenda concerning memorials. The voices of ordinary people need to be included in the aesthetics of monuments.

Another discussion was started about researchers who should stop limiting oral history to the Apartheid past. The question is: what other pasts were being ignored and why?

Researchers should not view reading and writing as the only form of literacy. There is such a thing as cultural literacy.

Currently the validation of oral history is brought up regularly, almost as if its validity to research vs. that of the written record is being questioned.

In between the reconstruction of history and the actual event lies memory (which can either be very factual or fallible). The past, however imperfect, is still invaluable.

Oral history methodology cannot be practised in isolation. It must be linked to written sources, sites, etc. It is crucial to be aware of the fact that the expectations that communities sometimes have of oral historians differ vastly form those the oral historians have of those communities.

The question of identity is a crucial one. We must define the narratives of who we are within the context or oral history and tradition as well as folklore.

Oral historians are not on a "salvage expedition" to record that which is in danger of dying out. New history is being created daily.

Oral traditions have an independence from the written tradition. By forcing the first to conform to the archetypes of the second is to subjugate it to the written record.

Oral historians must be aware of the cultural environment (and its significance) within which their informants live. All individual memories are part of a collective consciousness of the past and should be seen as such and not in isolation. If this is not done a lot of meaning is lost in the process.

Intellectual property rights need to be protected by legislation. Ethics are not enough. Under existing legislation oral history is simply in the public domain and therefore left open to exploitation (commercial or otherwise).

On the third day of the conference a paper was delivered on "Oral Poetry and Ethno-musicology in Post-apartheid South Africa". The general themes discussed during the day were "Oral History in Community Organisations" and "Oral History in Schools".

The issue was raised once again of the assumption that oral history is inaccurate, mostly not because the facts are questionable, but simply because they are not written down. The flip side of this assumption by the "truth police" is that written texts are always correct. Not because the facts are accurate, but simply because they have been recorded in written format. It is also wrong to assume that struggle songs and poetry do not exist any more. Social commentary exists without toyi-toyi and the social issues that are currently expressed in this way include housing, etc.

A case study was done on the Mpophomeni Community Eco-Museum Project near Howick in KwaZulu Natal. Their community decided to include both cultural and natural heritage in this project because in their way of life it is not separated. The community was asked to decide for themselves what they wanted to see in their museum so that it could be a true people's museum. From the outset it was decided that objects chosen for exhibition purposes would be there for their meaning (the meanings of the objects are more important than the objects themselves). They wanted to protect their heritage to show future generations how they overcame many difficulties. It will hopefully inspire future generations to overcome challenges. Culture will be promoted through story-telling and local learners and workers will be involved. Families will be invited to record their own histories. The museum will be linked to many cultural and natural heritage sites in the vicinity (such as the Nelson Mandela capture site and the Mpophomeni wetlands). Part of the project is a peace park initiative where space will be used for cultural rituals. It will also act as a place of healing and reconciliation for individuals and groups to deal with the aftermath of local political violence.

The issue of the disclosure or not of an individual's HIV/Aids status and the role that memory boxes have to play in this very sensitive issue: People need a safe space to make a decision to disclose their status or not and memory boxes can act as such. They also serve the purpose of the preservation of family history and can be used in the future for resilience purposes - to help in the healing process of the Aids orphans who's family memories were preserved. It must be remembered that this a process, not an event and that it will take as long as it needs to. No one should ever be forced or coerced into disclosing any information (not only their HIV/Aids status) against their will. There are also innumerable other stories that are also begging for safe spaces of disclosure. Memory boxes have many uses; they have already been incorporated into the curriculum at KwaZulu Natal schools as part of life skills.

'The Role of Community History Writing in Reconstructing South African History for Community Development' raised the following issues:

Community history writing creates recreational, educational and intellectual activities for the young
History is connected to its original geographical localities, which helps communities to link themselves to their past and help people to relate to their natural and physical environment.

Past technological knowledge is reclaimed, as well as traditional environmental knowledge.

Various contributions through cultural knowledge systems (formerly known as indigenous knowledge systems) can be made to government programmes such as moral regeneration.

There is a direct link between oral and community history and land-rights.

Notice should be taken of the fact that all human history is oral in its origins.

Community history can serve as a platform for older and younger generations to interact. It creates better understanding and empathy with individuals from different generations. Younger people also develop a better grasp of the issues facing older people.

People need to be made aware of their own community histories. They know about District Six and Sophia Town, but what about the history of their own village.

An interesting correlation was drawn between photography and oral history. Oral history came under threat due to many factors (especially when people started moving to the cities). Photography stepped in to fill this gap for recording popular memory. Photography, like oral history, allows people to create their own history in a democratic way. Therefore it should be used in conjunction with interviews for a more inclusive interpretation of personal histories.

One of the highlights on the 4th day of the conference was the visit to Hector Peterson Memorial Museum. The South African Oral History Association Interim Steering Committee reported back on their activities from the previous year. A permanent Committee consisting of Prof Philippe Denis, Dr Sekgothe Mokgoatsana, Dr Partricia Opondo, Ms Khanyi Ngcobo, Ms Nomvula Mbangela, Dr Sean Field, Mr Vuyani Booi and Ms Mandy Gilder (ex-officio) was elected for a period of three years. The draft constitution, with amendments was accepted unanimously by all present and the Oral History Association of South Africa was officially launched.

The Western Cape is currently represented by Dr Sean Field from the Centre for Popular Memory, UCT. He is also a member of the International Oral History Association. A request was made that provincial oral history associations be established in the cases where they do not exist yet before the next conference.

Invaluable information was gained on current research and dissemination methodologies, as well as culture knowledge systems, current oral history projects, the use of oral history in schools, etc and ways of presenting the intangible in a tangible way e.g. memory boxes.

Discussions with various other professionals and the establishment of networks will prove very useful in the continuing development of the Oral History Project of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport.

"We must not be rushed to our truths. Whatever we failed to say is stored secretly in our minds," Mazi Kunene, from The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain.

The content on this page was last updated on 4 September 2013