Posted on February 1, 2013

There is a great need in South Africa - and probably elsewhere - to safeguard intangible heritage by collecting, recording and archiving memories of community members from different parts of the country. Conservation of these memories requires the use of oral history, testimonies and personal recollections of the quotidian. The National Film Video and Sound Archives (a component of the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa), the Centre for Popular Memory, CPM, (at the University of Cape Town), the Wits History Workshop, South African History Archive (at the University of the Witwatersrand), the Nelson Mandela Centre for Memory (in Johannesburg), the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum, Robben Island Museum, District Six Museum, the University of the Western Cape's Visual History Project (all in the Western Cape), the Sinomlando Centre (at the University of KwaZulu Natal), the KwaMuhle Museum (in Durban) and the South African Democracy Education Trust (in Pretoria) are a number of the institutions devoted to capturing, preserving and conserving memories about South Africa's turbulent past. Added to this there are a few filmmakers and websites (for example South African History Online), scattered across the country,that have in their possession a wide variety of oral history collections (in the form of audio-visual material and transcripts). Yet, there is still much to be recorded and an urgent need to inform the public about the importance of oral history and archiving memories.

Prof Philippe Denis (based at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal) explains why we need to embrace oral history as a methodological tool in South Africa:

The first reason is that oral history initiatives multiply around the country as we engage in a collective effort to re-envisage the past in a way that encompasses all people, irrespective of race, culture, genders, sexual orientation and social status. A second reason for creating an oral history association in South Africa today is that, since the advent of democracy eleven years ago, our country enjoys unprecedented support from the state as far as oral history, and more generally the retrieval of our common heritage, are concerned. The 1996 White Paper on Arts and Culture and the ensuing legislation are a clear indication of this commitment. The newly constituted National Heritage Council has also pledged to support local, regional and national initiatives in the field of oral history.'

The field of oral history is vast and complex. One reason for this complexity is that the terms 'oral history', oral tradition' and 'oral testimony' are used interchangeably. The definitions provided below are loosely based on the ideas of historian Prof. John Tosh:

Oral history: Oral history is the term used to describe the method that uses oral testimony and oral tradition as historical evidence. Oral history is also known as oral reminiscence and refers to the memories of people collected in an interview. It is a very old method of collecting history. However over time the method was sidelined in favour of the written document. In the 1960s this changed when Jan Vansina - a Belgian scholar - stressed the validity of oral history. There are two types of oral evidence namely oral testimony and oral tradition.

Oral testimony: Oral testimony refers to an informant [or interviewee's] recollection of an event that they have experienced in their lifetime. It is a first-hand account of an event or situation which took place in the interviewee's life. The interviewee shares stories about themselves and about what they have experienced.

Oral tradition: Oral traditions refer to stories or narratives that have been passed on from one generation to another over time. These are second hand stories that have been transmitted by word of mouth and unlike oral testimonies they are no longer contemporary. There are different examples including folk tales, genealogies and praise songs.

A collection of primary documents is inadequate to capture any historical study. Documents only account for part of the story and life histories will substantiate and provide a richer and more detailed account of the past. It is crucial to capture the voices of 'ordinary' (rather extraordinary) members of the society to be studied in order to provide a more coloured picture. Oral testimonies and life histories complement written sources which usually represent the ideas of the government and or those in power. Ethnographies serve to monitor the claims of the press and the government. For a fuller understanding of an individual or a particular phenomenon the collection of life histories (as one method in the broad field of oral history) is an important tool.

Efforts to capture the voices of those involved in social movements has been neglected and has down played the heterogeneous nature of certain phenomena. The collection and documentation of ethnographies, oral testimonies and life histories sheds new light on the diversity and differences not only in a particular event but also with reference to, so Pilkington argues, the:


'discursively produced subject - whose contours consist of horizontal relations, multiple incursions, grey areas, incorporations and spaces, and disparate and diverse identities.

The collection of ethnographies and oral testimonies is a daunting task for all researchers, social scientists and historians, whose work is historical. It is not however an impossibility. Oral testimonies provide valuable supplements to written sources such as press cuttings and government reports. Sociologist David Moore notes that studies based exclusively on written sources and 'media reports' are problematic because they,


'fail to make a crucial distinction between what people say they do (representation) and what they actually do (presentation)... these studies contain little information about or discussion of the performative aspects of the respective study populations.'

In other words, oral testimonies encapsulate the perspective of those who shared a similar experience and or participated in the same event. Such testimonies reveal how individuals perceive, understand and remember their past. For researchers then oral testimonies provide richer and more detailed data which assists in unravelling the process through which identities are constructed and reconstructed. In a sense oral histories are a form of autobiography. They are also of significance as they establish local specificity, which is crucial if generalisations are to be avoided. Thompson convincingly contends that reality is complex and multifaceted and oral history 'allows the original multiplicity of standpoints to be recreated. A much more rounded, realistic and fair reconstruction of the past can be arrived at by calling the subjugated voices to talk back and rectify the dominant accounts of the past contained in archival sources.'

Peter Lekgoathi's perspective is similar;


... through recourse to oral history, historians were able to gain an understanding of the role played by ordinary people and those not used to keeping written records of their activities and thoughts (in journals, letters, diaries, etc) in shaping society, from their own perspectives.'

When researchers go to the National Archives of South Africa it becomes apparent that there is a glaring gap in documented evidence. Even if there are written sources that outline particular events, they often provide a skewed and incorrect recollection of the past. This was particularly the case under the apartheid regime. Related to this in the apartheid era there was a strict censorship policy and a number of official and unofficial documents were destroyed. For example, in 1992 the state destroyed approximately 40 tons of material. In order to account for the voiceless people in our country we have to turn to oral history because their histories have not been documented. Oral history provides this tool and also animates and enlivens history.

Prof. Philip Bonner explains it as follows;

'The grand narratives of struggle and apartheid capture only a fraction of its lived reality, and convey a picture drained of meaning and feeling. Since official documents are silent on many of these subjects, and written participant accounts are few and far between, and often cast in heroic mould, oral testimonies provide one resource that can redeem and bring to life this crucial period of South Africa's past. These were collected on a substantial scale in the golden age of social history from the early 1980s to early 1990s. Current exercises in reconstruction, recovery and public memorialisation such as Kathorus on the East Rand, in Alexandra (Northeast of Johannesburg), in Soweto, in Kliptown, in Constitution Square and in District 6 generate testimonies of a similar kind. These nevertheless imprint themselves on public consciousness and public history extremely unevenly, and have not yet to grip the public imagination. For the first time being memory has no public and no partner. The dance has yet to begin. Like Holocaust survivors, those who survived through the dark years of apartheid, can possibly be thought of as being doubly victimised - firstly victims of the system, and secondly silenced from telling their tales. It may be years before South Africans can squarely confront this past.'

However, severe criticisms have been launched at social historians and researchers and their collection of oral testimonies. It has been argued that the 'complexities of memory' have been 'glossed over' by 'history from below.' Gary Minkley and Ciraj Rassool contend that the historical narratives produced by social historians rely on the notion that 'lived experience' can be documented through oral history and as such memory is transparent. They believe further that such studies are 'markedly silent about memory as either a theoretical or historical category.' For them oral testimony is secondary to archival sources. The implication is that oral testimony collected by social historians is unreliable. Yet, the validity of any source can be questioned, newspaper articles for example often distort events. Oral testimony can be cross checked. Different transcripts can, for example, be compared and used as a reference point. If a number of the interviews are telling similar stories then it can be inferred that the 'truth' is being told.

The manipulation of oral sources by social historians is a matter of concern to some critics of this methodology. Minkley and Rassool allege that 'South African social historians impose themselves and their radical methods on 'ordinary' people, thus creating 'correct political (historical) practice'. In their view oral testimonies are not the voices of the ordinary people but of the historians themselves. Critical perspectives should caution but not prevent the use of oral history, which is the essence of social history. Various scholars and institutions have shown a keen interest in oral history despite its inherent difficulties. Such scholars include Luli Callinicos, Paul La Hausse, Peter Delius, Philip Bonner, Noor Nieftagodien of the Wits History Workshop as well as Sean Field, Renate Meyer (both based at the CPM) and Jo-Anne Duggan (of the Heritage Agency and current director of the Archival Platform) to name but a few. Viewed collectively, their work and oral history as a method, as La Hausse explains, gives substance to the claim that:

'Oral history gives the ordinary people the opportunity to make representations of their own lives and that it retrieves the frequently hidden history of the largely illiterate underclass in the society.'

Alice Harries shares the same sentiments that 'oral history is anti-elitist and thus offers insights into the lives and the struggles of ordinary people'. Most interviewees are very proud and happy to be interviewed because oral testimonies make them feel part of the research process and gives them a sense of ownership of the past, their history and heritage.

Social historians, anthropologists, human geographers, sociologists, documentary filmmakers are directly engaged in unravelling the process of remembering. It is important to note that memory is selective and people forget particular memories especially if they are traumatic. By capturing the voices of their subjects they [social scientists and filmmakers] reveal the diversity and multiplicity of stories related to the phenomena they are investigating. Importantly, as Paul Thompson argues in the 'writing of history, it can give back to the people who made and experienced history'.

Another point to note is that the interview is a process and a power relation between the interviewer and interviewee. Individuals have their own reasons for wanting to share their experiences. It is not as simple as asking questions and receiving answers. Gender, age and language are all elements that shape the interview process. Discussions around politics, sex and criminal activities are very difficult and depend on how the interviewee feels about the interviewer. Alessandro Portelli argues that 'It is impossible to exhaust the entire memory of a single informant; the data extracted with each interview are always the result of a selection produced by mutual relationship.' In Portelli's view human memory is always susceptible to error and oral sources are thus incomplete. Some interviewees are hesitant to discuss certain issues, sex for example. One way to overcome this is to conduct a wide range of interviews, taking into account the interviewer and informant's age, race, ideology, sex, class, religious background and political allegiances. This helps to find a balanced perspective.

Within academia, social scientists are still sceptical about the merits of oral research despite it being used by the first historians Herodotus and Thucydides. It is widely recognised that people's memories are flawed. Tosh acknowledges this when he argues, 'it is naive to suppose that the testimony represents a pure distillation of past experience, for in an interview each party is affected by the other'. This may lead the informant to try and please or to impress the researcher by withholding some sensitive information. Sometimes people fabricate stories and at times they can only remember limited information about the subject.

Some interviewees romanticise their past so often their recollections are exaggerated and inaccurate. Others just refuse to share certain parts of their pasts with you. This could be because they are simply embarrassed about their activities. Others still invent stories and cite well known events that they could not possibly of participated in. Some informants simply manipulate memory. There is also a problem with chronology when one uses oral sources. Respondents do not always remember the dates on which certain important events took place, but they can sometimes remember the event and the details of what happened. However, with the use of archival records most important dates can be confirmed.

Another major limitation in oral history and oral testimony is language, especially if the researcher is not conversant with the culture and language of the informants. In this medium there are often inaccuracies in the transcription of the recorded interviews. This is a particular problem, in cases where older people are interviewed, because their languages include maxims, figures of speech and idioms. The transcribers sometimes fall into the trap of misinterpretation and misrepresentation. As Raphael Samuel argues, 'the spoken word can very easily be mutilated when it is taken down in writing and transferred to the printed page. Some distortion is bound to arise, whatever the intentions of the writer.'

In the context of South Africa's brutal history of violence under different political regimes - colonialism, segregation and apartheid - most oral histories that are collected are traumatic and emotionally charged. The questions that the interviewee asks have to be carefully crafted and sensitively expressed. The current director of the Centre for memory at the University of Cape Town, Dr. Sean Field stresses that

...interviewing in a culture of violence requires a flexible set of research strategies that are appropriate to the specific political, cultural and community circumstances encountered. The interviewer also needs to be sensitive to the emotional, transferential and power dynamics of the interviewer/interviewee relationship' [and] to be attuned to the complex ways in which interviewees construct memories and myths in order to cope with their emotional experiences of the past and present.'

Similarly, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, when writing about her recollections of the Sharepeville massacre and the demonstrations that took place in Langa on the 30th of March and what she later discovered when working for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) notes:

'When we are confronted with unimaginable and unbelievable human brutality the effect is to rupture our senses. When the rupture of one's senses is a daily occurance - as was the case in South Africa's violent political past - old memories fuse with new ones and the accounts given by victims and survivors are not simply about facts. They are primarily about the impact of facts on their lives and the continuing trauma in their lives created by past violence.'

In his publication Lion Amongst the Cattle, Peter Delius urges the importance of allowing people to speak for themselves. It is sometimes useful to ask the interviewee what they would like to talk about. He also suggests that of the questions that shape what is told, 'why' is often more important than 'when', 'what', and 'how'. Note that stories are told to be received and shaped by an audience.

Archiving and Transcribing

Before commencing with the transcript process a duplicate copy of the interview must be dubbed. The master copy should be treated as a document and should ideally not be edited. It should then be stored in a safe place. Often interviews have to be translated. If that is the case then there should be an original language transcript and a translated one. A transcript is meant to be a precise and accurate written record of an interview. The best method of getting a precise account of the interview is to record it and thereafter transcribe. Raphael Samuel, one of the founding members of the History Workshop movement and journal in Britain, cautions:


'The spoken word can very easily be mutilated when it is taken down in writing and transferred to the printed page. Some distortion is bound to arise, whatever the intention of the writer, simply by cutting out pauses and repetitions. In the process, weight and balance can easily be upset.'

He continues noting that

... people do not usually speak in paragraphs, and what they have to say does not usually follow an ordered sequence of comma, semi-colon, and full stop; yet very often this is the way in which their speech is reproduced. Continuity, and the effort to impose it is another insidious influence.'

It is crucial to avoid altering the spoken word according to conventions of the written word. The transcript should reflect what the interviewee has said and how they have phrased it even in the sentences seem incomplete. Put simply, an accurate record of interviews is important because some researchers are interested not only in what people say, but how they say it (for example with hesitations, what words they used) An accurate transcript can help researchers understand the context of the interview. The whole process is not only time consuming but can be expensive particularly when safeguarding and conserving the material.

According to CPM (one of the most reliable institutions which currently archives oral histories) for 24 hours of interview material - exported to archival standard 96 000Hz/24 bit, normal filtering and format exchange (three formats saved WAV (96)/WAV(44)mp3) = 600 MB x 24=14.4 GB, plus labour, accessioning , archiving = R 5 000.00 and an additional R 4 000.00 for digital storage is the estimated cost. Digital storage per TB (dependent on agreement with an archive and MOU, has many variances, so it could be a yearly or once off cost). Fast-access storage of derivatives: R220/GB, archiving of masters: R 40/GB. These figures are dependent on factors specific to the collection quality, content and archival agreement.

Collecting, preserving, and conserving memories cannot be achieved without employing oral history as a methodological tool. Is enough being done in South Africa? Who should be held accountable and how accessible is the material going to be for the future generation? Perhaps the government should inject funds to establish an archive of the voice in order to preserve our history and intangible heritage?

Katie Mooney is an Archival Platform Correspondent based in Cape Town.

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