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Oral History Archivists’ Workshop held in Durban

14 Apr 2016 - 18:30
Dr Mbongiseni Buthelezi facilitating the workshop

On 15 and 16 February the APC’s Five Hundred Year Archive (FHYA) project ran a workshop in Durban for the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Archives. The workshop was part of the partnership between the provincial archives and the FHYA in ensuring that memories and understandings of the history of the region in the five hundred years or so before European colonialism are acknowledged as part of the archival record. Attendees came from the provincial archives in Ulundi and Pietermaritzburg, and from the KZN Music House in Durban. They were joined by Lethumusa Simelane from the Swaziland National Archives, and Dr. Nhlanhla Dlamini from the University of Swaziland, as well as other independent practitioners in this field.

APC Research Fellow and PARI Research Manager, Dr. Mbongiseni Buthelezi, facilitated the workshop. The first day dealt with the challenges of conducting oral history projects and with the methodological imperatives involved.  Most striking in the discussions was the way in which researchers reported on their experiences of needing to cope with historical traumas experienced by the people whom they interview. The discussions further encompassed the myriad ethical complexities involved in undertaking oral history work, with researchers noting that they were often confided in in ways incommensurate with the recording activity. Questions of subsequent public access to recorded materials and the difficulties of transcription were but two of the many further issues that elicited lively engagement.

The second day was dedicated to the modelling of a case study of a clan history. The example selected was that of the Makhanya people. The Five Hundred Year project provided the workshop with background materials on Makhanya history drawn from its embryonic digital archival exemplar. The background materials – testimonies from the James Stuart Archive, book and thesis chapters and so on - were used to draw up a concise outline of the history of the Makhanya. With this in mind, workshop participants attempted to produce interview questions and lines of inquiry. The respective advantages of open-ended and tightly focused interviewing techniques were discussed. The critical importance of establishing as much information about the person interviewed and his/her “historical consciousness” was underlined. 

The second day of the workshop was particularly effective in demonstrating the methodological importance of identifying and interviewing people whose life stories, or those of their ancestors, are the product of different historical trajectories.  In the case of the Makhanya, this point was driven home in a vivid way by the clearly differing historical experiences of a number of Makhanya sections resident today in Swaziland, and those in KZN. The expectation of the researchers then is that these different latter day and historical experiences will result in divergent accounts of the history of the clan. The workshop underscored the immense potential of such differences for providing insight into past events.

The next step in the FHYA partnership with the KZN Provincial Archives around oral history will be to conduct interviews with Makhanya oral historians, and then transcribe the interviews. These will be uploaded onto the exemplar. In addition, the FHYA will provide support to the KZN archives in processing and contextualising the audio and textual materials.  The exercise will then be assessed and hopefully followed by further joint work.