Posted on October 19, 2012
I am deliberately twisting the statement Robert Mugabe made in November 2011 that homesexuality was un-African. I am doing so in order to try and probe the stereotype fast becoming orthodoxy that the stories of our grandmothers and grandfathers is the only way to save Africans, whose knowledge of historical self was excluded from archives under colonialism and apartheid, from not knowing about their pasts.

Let me be clear. I have no quarrel with work on oral history and literary forms. I work in that area as a scholar. In fact, I think the work ought to be encouraged and expanded. My gripe is with the way emphasising orality as the primary African method of storing information and knowledge may have, or is already having, an adverse effect on the keeping of good written records, especially in state institutions. What do I mean by this?

The project of overcoming past marginalisation of forms of knowledge, and modes and techniques of its transmission held by 'indigenous' peoples has been going on for a while. Who can forget then-President Thabo Mbeki's memorable 'I am an African' speech in 1996? Heritage discourse, the establishment of a National Oral History Programme, the introduction of oral history to the school curriculum, and countless speeches by political leaders, have all enforced my sense that mainstream thinking in state institutions supports the important of the oral. In the past few months, the Social Cohesion summit, the annual conference of the Oral History of South Africa and colloquia I've attended in Qunu and Durban have persuaded me that major efforts are going in the direction of encouraging the recovery of knowledge held in memory and (previously) transmitted orally. The whole discourse on Indigenous Knowledge Systems is another example, with major funding for academic projects made available through the Department of Science and Technology.

My worry about all of this promotion of orality (which is supported in no small measure by the place of politicians in the public eye who can barely read prepared speeches but speak brilliantly off the cuff) is that it is inadvertently promoting a culture of not keeping good written records, especially in offices where the administering of the state takes place. The promotion of orality seems to permit a slide from a chief holding his kgotla under a tree and not keeping any record of it, except in the memories of those who were present, to local Home Affairs officers being lackadaisical about keeping good records of their activities, all the way to minutes of meetings of the tender committee of the local municipal council being selectively or not at all recorded. As long as things can be kept in memory and reproduced orally, it seems to be okay. And the general message from higher up seems to be that it's all good to go back to behaving like our forebears long ago, even in matters of administration because we are in search of ourselves.

I am beginning to sense that the promotion of indigenous knowledge may have a pernicious side to it. We now must trouble this promotion to ensure that foregrounding oral history and literature does not become promoting corruption by other means.

Mbongiseni Buthelezi is the Deputy Director of the Archival Platform