Speech by Deputy Minister Makhotso Maggie Sotyu, at the 14th National Oral History Conference 10-13 October 2017, Mthatha, Eastern Cape Province
12 Oct 2017
Traditional Leadership present,
Senior Management & Officials of the DAC, its Agencies, and other Sister Departments,
Academic and NGO Fraternities present,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This year marks the 14th annual national oral history conference organized by the Oral History Association of South Africa (OHASA), the National Archives of South Africa and the Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture in Eastern Cape.
Importantly, the conference is taking place when South Africans and the international community are celebrating and commemorating the 100th year of Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo, affectionately known as OR.
This conference is thus aptly titled ‘Oliver Reginald Tambo in memoriam: Reminiscing on a centenary of struggle, True Leadership and Leadership values of a liberation stalwart’.
OR is, without doubt, best known for his sterling and unwavering leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) when the ANC was banned and operated from exile. There he endevoured to keep the movement united under very trying times.
We have learned of the moment when his leadership was challenged by comrades who came to be colloquially referred to as the ‘Gang of Eight’ in the 1970s.
The ‘Gang of Eight’, led by Tennyson Xola Makiwane (or TX, as he was known within the ANC), strongly objected to the opening of the ANC membership to non-Africans and the acceptance of the Strategy and Tactics document presented at the Morogoro consultative conference in 1969.
OR, always thinking about keeping the movement intact and on cause in the struggle for liberation, was at pains to maintain the unity of the ANC; he advocated for the continued counselling of the group.
This was even after the group had decided to break-away from the ANC in 1975. OR’s love and commitment to the ANC was evident when, despite his personal view on the matter, abided and respected the decision of the movement’s national executive committee to expel the group from the ANC.
Luli Callinicos, in her book Beyond the Engeli Mountains, reminds us that in the 1940s, prior to the whites-only elections which catapulted the National Party into power, OR’s dedication and commitment to the well-being and independence of the ANC was clear.
At the time members of the radical ANC Youth League were suspicious of the broad organisations such as the Indian Congress and Communist Party. They believed that their intention was to substitute the ANC.
After the Indian Congress and the Communist Party had announced the ‘Votes for All’ campaign and invited the ANC to participate, the Transvaal Executive of the ANC decided to turn down the invitation “on the grounds that it was a communist initiative”.
At the meeting to communicate this view, OR and his life-long comrade Nelson Mandela kept to the resolution by the Transvaal Executive. Walter Sisulu, another member of the ANCYL and close comrade of OR and Mandela, was persuaded to view the campaign favourably.
Callinicos writes that OR and Mandela were angry with Sisulu that after the meeting they left him behind and would not talk to him. That is the measure of OR’s respect and commitment to the decisions taken by the ANC’s collective leadership.
Tambo possessed another characteristic, which is regrettably less known and/or appreciated. And this is closely connected to this conference.
He valued the role oral history played in helping him to understand the deep-seated bitterness among the Africans towards the South African white government.
In 1940 Tambo attended a meeting in Qumbu called by the Native Commissioner to recruit African able-bodied men to participate in World War II on the side of the Smuts’ government.
He recalled that Africans used their collective memory, drawn from narratives about unfulfilled promises made by the government during World War I, to collectively refuse to volunteer to fight on the side of the Smuts’ government.
This demonstrates the significance of oral history in understanding present realities. I am delighted to observe that the presenters, including some of the learners, in this conference will be talking to some of OR’s leadership values and qualities.
As we celebrate Tambo’s centenary, we should also pause to remember the tragic deaths of Chief Albert John Mvumbi Luthuli and Bantu Stephen Biko 50 and 40 years ago, respectively.
Luthuli played a crucial role in the 1950s leading the ANC during the defiance campaign and the adoption of the Freedom Charter, and in the process helping to turn the ANC into a mass-based organization, which it is today.
Biko, on the other hand, was at the forefront of galvanizing black students across the country through the philosophy of black consciousness. His teachings spurred the student uprisings in 1976.
I am filled with pride and joy to observe that OHASA is making strides in attracting fellow Africans from different countries in Southern Africa to share their countries’ historical experiences with us in South Africa.
It is through such connections and dialogues that we can all learn to appreciate each other and the contribution made by all Africans in the fight against colonialism and apartheid.
This oral history conference serves as a platform for exchange of ideas, for sharing of research findings and an opportunity for skilling new oral history practitioners.
It is encouraging to observe the growing number of learners participating in this conference. This year, for instance, 10 out of the 25 learners from Mthatha presented their papers in the conference.
Other learners who participated in the conference include those who presented at the iNkosi Albert Luthuli Oral History competition.
I would like to commend the staff from the national Archives for training some of the learners on oral history methodology, recitation of their clan names and capturing their family history.
This conference is also unique in that it provides interactive space for organic intellectuals who are invited to deliver keynote addresses. Their contribution to the conference is very important because they are the custodians of oral history in their different communities.
As the Deputy Minister, I wish to express my excitement in the Department of Arts and Culture and its provincial subsidiaries that we have, over the years, relentlessly supported oral history and related projects in the country.
Through this support oral history as a discipline has, gradually developed and it is rapidly gaining the recognition it deserves.
This is evident in the number of research projects - academic and non-academic - produced annually in the country based on oral history. More importantly, some of the oral history projects are published in the Oral History Journal of South Africa.
I say this mindful of the fact that oral history on its own is not, and cannot be, a panacea for documenting and re-documenting our histories.
Although oral history has its limitations, it is nonetheless a capable methodology to discover ‘hidden histories’ of the less known.
I implore you all to take cue from John Tosh, a leading oral historian, when he cautions that “problems in oral history should not be grounds for having nothing to do with oral history”.
Similarly, you should adopt Monique Marks’ attitude that in spite of the challenges and limitations associated with this methodology, “oral history is a satisfactory source”.
As I conclude, I want to hope that you have had a successful 2017 conference. Let your deliberations taken here be impactful and be successful. I am already looking forward to reading the Conference Report with some of the papers, which you had presented already during the conference in the Oral History Journal of South Africa and the Conference Proceedings publications.
I thank you all.