Oral History

"Oral History" is a method within the History Studies in which face-to-face interviews are conducted with surviving witnesses or verbal sources are analysed and evaluated. It provides us with a different perspective of the past and gives people a voice who would otherwise not have been heard.

Oral History in practice – a conversation with Philipp Bonner from the WITS History Workshop

WITS History Workshop 

WITS History WorkshopA living testimony

What is oral history, and what are its applications in present-day Africa? A conversation with Professor Philip Bonner, Head of the History Workshop Research Group at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS University) and National Research Foundation Chair for “Local Histories, Present Realities”, sheds light on the past, present and future of oral history.

Reconstructing the past of predominantly oral cultures

Oral history is the memory of past events and occurrences that is orally passed on to the next generation. Oral testimonies, on the other hand, are the words of an eyewitness. Consequently, oral testimony becomes oral history with the shift from one generation to the next.

Oral history methods are widely used by historians of societies shaped by oral forms of cultural and knowledge transfer to find out about the past. In such societies, information is passed on from generation to generation with a fair amount of reliability. It is possible to go as far back as the 17th century in this way; in some instances even earlier. Oral history has been the major source of reconstructing the past of mainly oral societies, and thus has a particular relevance to the African continent.

Professor Bonner, who has conducted research in South Africa, Swaziland, and Mozambique to some extent, emphasises the significance of oral history in Africa. He explains that “many societies in Africa have traditionally been shaped by oral rather than written communication; the literacy rate is often low. Colonialism, Apartheid and other forms of oppression reinforced this tendency throughout the continent, resulting in a lack of written documentation about the past. Historians thus had to find other ways of gathering historical information, and oral history methods have proven to be a very useful tool in their research efforts.”

A controversial research method

Although methods of oral history have been applied throughout the ages (some of the most ancient historical texts are drawn from oral testimony), the shift to this research method in the USA and Europe only took place in the 1960s. Prior to that, there were huge gaps in African history books. Due to the problems presented by human memory and its unreliability in certain contexts, the method was initially greeted with a great deal of scepticism. Only gradually has it won wider acceptance and been utilised more widely.

The challenges of conducting “live history interviews”

In order to collect information about the past, so-called “live history interviews” are conducted, where the interviewees are encouraged to speak about their lives from the time they remember being a person. In Professor Bonner’s experience, asking open questions that don’t presume a specific answer and listening to the interviewee more than asking questions yields the most useful, and sometimes even surprising information.

On the downside, live history interviews are very time-consuming (including travel to remote villages), and require substantial financial resources, especially for the transcription and translation of interviews. Is there reasonable doubt that information gets lost in translation in the process? According to Professor Bonner, this is not a major structural problem with this type of research method, as the interviews get recorded and later transcribed by a different person, inserting some sort of quality control mechanism.

A true challenge for historians is the fact that collective memory is sometimes less reliable than individual memory, because people repeat what they hear and what is commonly accepted as the truth. But what is the truth? Is the oral testimony of a chief truer than that of a “common” villager? What is a historian to do if chiefs of different tribes contradict each other in their versions of the past? Firstly, the History Workshop attempts to interview a representative sample of people. Secondly, researchers are aware of the “chief’s view” which is dominant and may thus, deliberately or not, marginalise the past of other tribes, particularly rivals. Consequently, views of different chiefs are compared, resulting in a possible set of variations. As a point of reference for the “truth”, historians use checklists that are difficult to forge, for instance lists of chiefs. The result is one historical narrative, told from different perspectives.

Oral history applied: Giving a voice to those who had been silenced

The History Workshop has set itself no small task: Its mission is to rewrite the African section of the South African past. The majority of its research is about political struggles, and these could not be understood without the oral testimonies of those involved. The dominant traditions of South African history were liberal English and nationalist Afrikaans, both of which only mentioned black people as receivers of input. Things only started changing with the labour movement in the mid-1970s and the Soweto student uprising in 1976.

WITS History Workshop Even though the eyes of the world were on South Africa in 1976, the outside world knew very little about the life in townships. Two main reasons for this were: limited literacy among the people living in townships and a lack of written documentation about township life partly due to police raiding and confiscating documents. Professor Bonner and co-author Lauren Segal created a six-part film documentary on Soweto, and later wrote the book “Soweto: A History”. This represented a step forward in documenting the history of townships in South Africa, drawing on the experiences of “ordinary” people. In the political and social context of the 1970s, the historians also acted as sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists.

The rewriting of Soweto´s history illustrates that oral testimonies are critical to understanding not only the deeper past, but also more recent events.

Quo vadis

Oral history is undoubtedly crucial to bringing to light the past and giving a voice to those who would otherwise not have been heard. But what about the present and the future? Do young people today have an interest in studying oral history, and if so, who are they?

Up until the 1980s, it was legally prohibited to recruit (black) African students at the University of the Witwatersrand. Once the legislation changed, Professor Bonner recalls that there was a huge interest in history among black students – which then died away with the election in 1994 and again gained momentum from the mid-2000s. In 2007, Professor Bonner was given a research chair by the National Research Foundation (of South Africa) and funding to employ PhD students and researchers, the majority of whom are black South Africans (and a few black Zimbabweans) – these talented individuals are rewriting their own pasts.

The National Research Foundation chair “Local histories and present realities” is funded until 2017, with the objective of researching communities in the interior provinces outside the Witwatersrand. In very large parts of South Africa, there still exists a historical blank. Hence there is still considerable scope for broadening this field of research, both in South Africa and in Africa as a whole.
The interview with Professor Bonner was conducted by Miriam Daepp

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