Address by Deputy Minister Ms Ntombazana Botha at The 3rd National Oral History Conference 7 November 2006, Richards Bay

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07 Nov 2006

Chairperson of the Oral History Association, Prof Denis
MEC for Sports, Arts and Culture, Cde Thusi
Colleagues; Members of the Academia
Government officials; Members of the media
Ladies and Gentlemen

Good morning!

It is, indeed, an honour and a great pleasure for me to address you this morning and to open the 3 rd Annual Oral History Conference.

I may sound like an old cracked gramophone record but, I must confess, I know of no other apt and powerful quotation other than the words of President Seretse Khama, the first President of a democratic Botswana, who said: “A nation without a past, is a lost nation; a people without a past is a people without a soul”. Oral history is an important tool for keeping that past alive, for understanding it and for preserving it for the future in order to preserve our soul.

I have met many people in my lifetime, who have told their stories about what they did or what had happened to them as political activists during the difficult days under the apartheid regime. Some of these stories are quite horrifying. Some almost unbelievable, yet making a lot of sense.

I have not had an opportunity to interview comrades. But I have been privileged to be in their company, listening to their stories as they were recounting events of almost 22 years ago and what happened in the “trenches”. They tell their individual stories in such detail, with great passion and conviction, filling in the gaps and providing answers to some of the question, but leaving others unanswered.

Listening to a comrade telling her story, one starts by appreciating the words she uses to express her emotions and the trauma she experienced, as she tries to relive the past, her gestures, her facial expressions, her emphases, her silences, her chuckle, her tone and voice inflection, – all this gives meaning to the story she is telling, which is absent in the written word. As I am listening to her story I am amazingly able to connect with what she has been through. I empathise. And after telling her story, she sighs with relief, she has told someone and then the healing process begins. This is oral history and it is important that it be recorded in the way that it is told.

Oral History, however, is not something new in South Africa. It is, in fact, the indigenous culture of our people. It has always been our way of life. We are all storytellers and some of the stories we tell contain historical fact worth recording. Our stories have been transmitted from generation to generation by word of mouth.

Some of us have had the pleasure of being told stories by our grandmothers (oogogo), usually at night time. I remember my grandmother used to say we should not tell stories (iintsomi) during the day because uzakuphuma impondo (you will grow horns). The underlying meaning – ‘there is work to be done during the day, so you cannot be sitting around telling stories. The best time is the evening when all the work is done.’

Our grandfathers, too, told stories about their experiences and how they related to their environment, the land, rivers, forests, livestock and their general way of life. These stories or histories of importance are embedded in the memory of the elderly people. But there were important lessons that we learnt from their stories. They moulded us in those formative years and later shaped our lives and our culture.

The challenge is that of collecting and preserving such stories and to appropriately record them because ooMakhulu nooTat’omkhulu are not going to be with us forever. When the time comes, they, too, will pass on. It is therefore urgent that we act speedily to capture their stories sooner than later

Stories told by our veteran comrades who fought against the unjust and repressive apartheid system, so that we could attain the freedom we enjoy today, are vital in shaping a shared memory. A few weeks ago we lay to rest Comrade Kati, a veteran of our struggle. Listening to people paying tribute to this great hero it became clear that there are many stories that he had not yet shared with us. The reality (and this is my fear) is that when an elderly person, such as Comrade Kati, departs, the collective memory of the nation is interred with that person.

In the last decade of apartheid, attempts were made to document and record the voices of the ordinary people as an alternative to a history written from a different perspective that was largely inaccurate and often contradictory or distorted.

A well-known example that comes to mind is the negative recording of the story of the so-called prophecy of Nongqawuse. This is the story of the suicide of a tribe which was stage-managed by the colonial masters and missionaries of the time. The people of Nongqawuse’s tribe were ordered to slaughter all their livestock and dispose of their belongings. People believed her and did likewise. This was a ploy of the Boere to drive her tribe to starvation and eventually off their land so that they (the Boere) could take possession of their land. Today, the validity of this so-called prophecy by Nongqawuse is being contested and dismissed by some people as a myth. I know that some research is now being undertaken by a filmmaker – which is another attempt to shed new light on the contested aspects of this story.

Obviously, the records that are kept and preserved in the National and Provincial Archives reflect the views of the colonisers and apartheid agents where the oppressed and marginalised remain invisible or incapable. Oral History becomes the most important and relevant method of research that can provide new insights and challenge such established distortions and half-truths, and provide corrections to such falsifications and myths.

Oral history is “a means of recording and preserving people’s memories or testimonies and eyewitness accounts of the past”. In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process it was proved that it is an important tool to uncover our silent past. However, oral history does much more than documenting our people’s past. It is interactive and, in that interaction, relationships are created.

When one deals with traumatic memories the interview situation gives the person who shares his or her memories the opportunity to come to terms with grief. In South African we have seen how the oral testimonies presented at the TRC restored the dignity of a people who had suffered violations and untold atrocities. The TRC allowed both the victims and the perpetrators of apartheid violence to speak for themselves in their own words. This was the significant role of the TRC in the healing process of our nation.

The TRC shifted the focus from oppression and resistance to reconciliation, reconstruction and transformation. And, indeed, in the words of our former President Nelson Mandela, the “reconstruction of the soul”. But there remain many more stories that have not been told and with the departure of people like the late P W Botha part of our collective memory is lost forever, or is it?

Two lessons that we learnt from the TRC process: (1) It made us acutely aware of the need for oral history to be documented and preserved and the need for many more Oral History practitioners, with special and unique skills to enable them to practice their profession effectively. (2) We also became aware that the process was not an easy one and we began to ask ourselves ‘what other stories or issues from our past are we silent about and how can we use Oral History to bring to the fore all these other issues we are silent about?’ Until these issues are attended to, we will not be able to understand and address the challenges we face as a country.

Our government recognises the importance and the value of Oral History for our country and the Department of Arts and Culture is mandated in terms of Section 3 (d) of the National Archives and Records Service Act No. 43 of 1996 as amended, to promote the collection and preservation of oral testimonies. Section 3 (d) prescribes that the National Archives shall collect non-public records with enduring value of national significance which cannot be more appropriately preserved by another institution with due regard to the need to document aspects of the nation’s experience which had been neglected by archives repositories in the past.

In line with recommendations of the White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage, the National Oral History Programme was officially launched in March 2000. Its aim is to reconstruct those aspects of the nation’s memory that are not recorded and preserved in the National Archives of South Africa and other relevant institutions.

Oral history is an international practice. However, the practice cannot be the same in all countries. In South Africa it is essentially a communal practice. It is dictated to by social, political and cultural context that prevails and, as you know, we have so many stories to tell. Oral history creates some space for the sharing of these stories and memories.

“Culture, Memory and Trauma” – I think that the theme of this conference captures the essence of what oral history is about in South Africa. The challenge in the second decade of our hard-won freedom and democracy is to celebrate our memories in their cultural richness and with due attention to all the experiences of the past, painful as well as joyful.

I understand that there are amongst us today delegates from the Department of Education. I trust that they will take advantage of this conference and come up with methods for incorporating Oral History into the classroom, if not into the school curriculum. Something must be done to assist the young people of this country to deal with the trauma they have been through and to start the healing process.

I am certain that all delegates present will find this conference very informative and fruitful. I hope that you will take back to your institutions and communities the knowledge gained. There is a lot that we have learnt during the past 12 years of freedom but, I believe, that there is a lot more that we can still learn. Institutions of Higher Learning are best placed to take on this responsibility. However, I do think that this matter needs to be dealt with most urgently because this project may well be the answer to ending conflict and bringing about peace and prosperity, not only in South Africa, but on our Continent as a whole.

I wish you a very successful conference. I hope that when you gather for the 4 th annual conference next year we will receive exciting reports on your projects in South Africa and other NEPAD initiatives.

This conference is now officially opened.

I thank you