6th National Oral History Conference

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13 Oct 2009

Programme Director
Honourable Members of Parliament present
The Chairperson of the Oral History Association of South Africa,
Prof Mokgoatšana,
Members of the Executive Committee of OHASA,
The Deputy National Archivist and President of the Africa Regional Committee of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme, Ms Mandy Gilder,
Staff of the National and Provincial Archives and Heritage Institutions
Distinguished delegates
Ladies and Gentlemen:

I would like to welcome all delegates to this 6th Annual Oral History Conference organized by the Oral History Association of South Africa and supported by my Ministry and Department.

I have been told that every year this Conference has gone from strength to strength with solid participation from academics and community historians as well as ordinary members of the public and men and women who wish to to tell their own stories and to record the stories of others.

Every year you have reached new milestones in our collective effort to tell the South African story and to make history a living reality for all our people.

In the past, you have debated the place of oral history in the new South Africa, and the extent to which we can reposition oral history in the shaping of a new society.

Not content with the notion of history as an objective account of events in the past, you have also explored the relationship between trauma and memories that is fundamental to any recollection of a painful past.

This year, I am told that you will debate issues relating to the ‘politics of collecting oral histories’. This is once more a weighty subject since it requires us to look deeply within ourselves for why we do what we do, why we choose the stories we do, why we revisit certain histories and not others and how all these together create a picture of the nation. In deciding which stories to tell and which to omit, we are also making conscious political choices.

I hope that as you explore the politics of collecting stories, the discussions should also examine whether indeed this association through its work has also effectively explored the stories of women and not only men, the stories of rural people and not only urban dwellers.

Because clearly the stories of all colours and creeds and cultures need to be told – South African history is a rich melting pot and vibrant meeting place of different people who chose to make a life together.

I know that you realize how important oral history is to the people of South Africa. The Department of Arts and Culture has identified Oral History as one of its flagship programs, and as such we appreciate the work you are doing in oral history and hope that you will use this conference to make inroads into unmasking the hegemonic discourses of power inherent in the very nature of history and mythmaking.

The Department of Arts and Culture continues to make resources available to OHASA because we value the role of oral history in the development of our country and in helping to name our nation and to build social cohesion among our people.

May I remind you that it was ten years ago that government first embarked upon an oral history initiative.

Having recognised the importance of oral history in nation building and social cohesion, our Cabinet mandated the then Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology [DACST] to conceptualise and spearhead a National Oral History Programme (NOHP) for South Africa in January 1999.

It was the first state funded project of this nature, and a pilot project was initiated with the theme “The 1956 Anti Pass March to the Union Buildings by Women of South Africa”. The topic was chosen as it was felt that it is one of the many inadequately documented historic events of our past.

This programme as conceptualised and implemented by our Department attempted to position oral history as a national priority in terms of filling the gaps in the public records and public knowledge caused by deliberate omission of African knowledge, technologies, stories and philosophies from the mainstream of South African body of knowledge.

We all know that in the colonial era, systems were imposed that eradicated our indigenous knowledge systems; distorted our cultural heritage, destroyed age-old indigenous traditions and systems of governance, not only in South Africa, but across the African continent and among all colonized people of the world.

Cultures of African peoples were considered as cultures that have no value, significance and meaning. This oral history initiative has sought to correct the lies of the past and to show value, meaning and the wealth is our cultural inheritance.

It is this spirit of wanting to own our own stories that is important because in this way we begin to possess our past and take ownership of our own multifaceted identity.

I want to reiterate that Oral history should provide space for practitioners in the field to engage with the past, and critique without fear or favor their history and what this history has done to our people.

Oral history offers a space in which individual, personal and collective histories can help to further liberate our people and to move them from the margins to the centre-stage.

Oral history should speak to the oppression of women and children in their households, on the farms, and everywhere they find themselves. It should speak about the challenges of poverty and the scourge of disease. It should also look at the triumph of the human spirit and of people trying to rebuild their lives against all odds

I am aware of the power of the story, and how stories can enslave, brainwash and condition people. I am also aware of the way stories can be used to liberate people.

As you collect these stories, you should ask yourself as to what you want to achieve and even more importantly, what those who share their stories expect of all of us. There must be integrity on both sides, a willingness to tell the truths of our realities as complex as they are.

There is power in story-telling, and this power is contained in the very politics of collection.

The stories must be used to heal the land, even as they trace the histories of divide and rule policies.

The stories must begin to bridge the gaps that exist between people and also the gaps in consciousness that make some people see their histories as superior to others.

The stories should make us feel proud of ourselves, as one by one, each story adds to the national narrative of who we are and what we want to achieve. After all this is like an unfinished song, since people go on talking about the past, and re-inventing the future through dialogue and discussion – and in this way new thoughts emerge that can take us even further to a greater future.

Programme Director, for me it is important that as we reflect on where we come from as a country we should never take the sacrifices that were made by our people lightly!

It is of utmost importance that oral history gives people who were previously marginalized a voice of their own, to tell their stories from their own perspective, and to enrich the world by filling those gaps in history that were left by traditional historical scholarship.

Rather than speaking for the people, oral history should provide that avenue for self-expression. In this way, communities will find history meaningful to them as it will speak in the idiom they understand.

There are an abundance of events that we need to further explain for ourselves, to name but a few - the political struggles that eventually led to the birth of our hard-earned democracy in 1994, further research that focuses on the colonial wars; the Slave Trade; World Wars 1 and 2; the Anglo-Boer South African War; the Bambatha Rebellion; the Mfecane and Difaqane, the Liberation Struggle, and so forth.

Oral history has a huge role to play in uncovering what actually happened through all the stages of our history. It also enables us to honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice and gave their lives so that we can be free. Oral history also enables us to recognize the role of ordinary people in struggle and in freedom, to narrate their joys and sorrows – those who conventional histories have chose to forget – so that we create a truly global, holistic history.

Programme Director, let me conclude by challenging your Association to find greater space for the youth in the reshaping and rewriting of history.

Although I am not a historian, I believe you would know better how to capture their voices by giving them the capacity to meaningfully participate in the destiny of their lives through oral history initiatives.

Every year this Conference attracts people from far and wide.

This year let us make a special effort to ensure that no-one leaves this meeting without being armed with the knowledge of how to start his or her own oral history clubs and projects.

Let each historian or institution also create tangible links for these individuals and community initiatives so that they too become part of university life.

In this way we shall enrich the academy as we shall also enrich our people’s lives and our people’s culture and make history a history for all people.

Let us bring this rich schoolbook of life back into the classroom as we also take the class outside into the lives of ordinary people.

In this regard, I am reminded of the words of the artist Laurie Anderson as quoted by Jane Taylor in an essay on reconfiguring the archives; and I quote:

When my father died we put him in the ground
When my father died it was like a whole library had burned down.
World without end remember me.

We are here to rebuild these libraries, to make of memory something tangible that can live on, long after we have all gone, to help future generations build on from where we have left off.

There are many living libraries in this room today. We shall and must remember them. We shall and must preserve and honour them.

In conclusion, I wish you well in your deliberations and look forward to your recommendations.

I thank you