history, research, teaching

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Violence, Oral History, and Mourning

I wrote this a while ago, when I was finishing my book proofs. I wasn’t sure whether or not I was going to share it. But as I worked through Truth and Reconciliation Commission testimonies today for a project, I felt compelled. I was reading the Commission’s decision on South African Police officer Brian Mitchell’s amnesty application. I approached it rather methodically, looking for details about Pietermaritzburg’s infamous Riot Unit 8, when I came to the Commission’s conclusion: that Mitchell be granted amnesty for the murders of eleven individuals—eleven people caught in the crossfires of South Africa’s transition-era civil war at Trust Feeds: Mseleni Ntuli, Dudu Shangase, Zetha Shangase, Knoyeni Shangase, Muzi Shangase, Filda Ntuli, Fikile Zondi, Maritz Xaba, Sara Nyoka, Alfred Zita, and Sisedewu Sithole. I felt sick. This week, the 27th anniversary of Mhlabunzima Maphumulo’s death, I share some thoughts on studying violence, doing oral history, and mourning.


When Mhlabunzima accepted those people who ran away from their places, then [his neighbors, the Nyavu] said “Mhlabunzima is a comrade; he is together with Mandela.” But he put these people in his own place. The people of KwaNyavu refused to welcome people who left their places because of the war; they are all still alive. Mhlabunzima was a great chief because he was able to welcome people who suffered from their places.

–Mantombi Goba

They are still alive. Mhlabunzima Joseph Maphumulo is not. He was a flawed man—my book shows this—but in the last years of his life he worked to end the violence that plagued KwaZulu and Natal. He did not want people to suffer. And yet he witnessed and experienced tremendous suffering; his family did too. I have been drawn to his life, thought carefully if not obsessively about his actions, his choices, his career. I’d read this quote many times. This time, Mantombi Goba’s reflection stopped me in my tracks.


I recently read Clifton Crais’s History Lessons and was particularly drawn to his description of this career we have chosen:

In my professional life, I have a vast collection of evidence from other pasts… Virtually all of this evidence concerns misfortune. Like many of my colleagues I have been drawn to the study of conflict, oppression, suffering, slavery, peonage, landlessness, poverty, death, infant, mortality. I have spent a career among the dead, and more precisely among those who died before their time. Historians are drawn to tragedy, though we usually disavow what we find when we go looking into the past. This is our professional conundrum, running to the past and then running away from its horrors. We are students of trauma, of wars, murders, genocide, and human suffering. Ours is a prose both of longing—to witness what has happened—and of mourning—for our inability to be there (50-51).


As I read these book proofs, Mantombi Goba’s words send my mood spiraling downward. The heart feels heavy despite the sun on my shoulders that makes one forget the unusual cold spell that has us bundled up in Dallas. Moments ago I sat down and reveled in this sunshine—how the light hit the café tables, the shadows it cast. The joy I felt that this book is so close to being done, the motivation I felt to tackle the last chapter of the proofs. But a light went out in 1991. Maphumulo was brash; he didn’t always make wise decisions and he didn’t always do right. But he struggled to make life better for thousands in the Natal Midlands. As a historian, I’ve struggled to respect and give insight into his life—the good and the bad.

This moment I need to mourn for him.

MJM (2)

This feeling is not unusual. It comes often as I read, research, write about this long history of violence and dispossession. It also comes when a friend writes to me to inform me of the death of someone we’ve interviewed. You think momentarily that it is maybe strange to be so affected by the death of someone with whom you’ve only spent six or eight hours. But measuring this in time does not do justice to the intimacy of those hours—hours spent sharing life’s details, life’s losses, driving around rural areas devastated by violence or shaped by colonial and apartheid rule. Or to the impact of another man, now gone too, who helped awaken a love for oral history, a love of the method that on good days outweighs the harder interviews and difficult tasks. These losses take you to that moment; you can see so clearly their joy or pain in sharing these stories.

History is a humanities discipline. These humans are everything.




Local Elections and the Legacies of War

This is the fourth of an oral history scraps series.* 

When commentators consider the contemporary state of South Africa, they discuss it as a country still transitioning from apartheid. Not enough is made of the fact that parts of the country are also recovering from civil war sponsored by the apartheid state. Between 1985 and 1996, at least 20,000 people died; 13,000 in KwaZulu-Natal alone. Conservative estimates suggest 200,000 were made homeless, internal refugees in their own country.[1]

Less then twenty years since the end of the war, my oral history interviews were riddled with insight into how people are–or are not–rebuilding their lives in the wake of war. Many spoke to human losses and the financial ramifications. They attested to the need to start anew, building new homes, buying new wardrobes, but never being able to recover wedding keepsakes and photographs of children. One person remembers being forced to continue to make payments on new furniture long after that furniture was destroyed by fire. Some still are unable to return home after the war, where new residents built on their homestead sites.

In light of the upcoming August local elections in South Africa and recent political violence (such as the political killings of ANC politicians in the Natal Midlands earlier this month or this past weekend’s shooting in Pretoria), I offer some oral history insights into how rural South Africans connect elections to the country’s civil war.

One woman suggested that every election cycle brings fear and unwanted memories:

Every time when we go for elections, I get nervous because people are getting emotional.

Another woman spoke to her subsequent ambivalence about voting:

I did not understand anything about the [political] parties [during the war]. Even today I still do not have any idea about the organisations’ issues. I do vote because everyone has a vote. What made me hate the organisations is that many people died. Those who knew what they were fighting for are living a life of luxury while we are still suffering and they got this life through other people’s blood. Personally, I do not know why I am voting. I accompany those who know what they are doing and I do not want to know because it is not going to help me.

And as the continuing assassinations of candidates and ward councilors suggest, political violence is still a very real phenomenon in South Africa, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal.


Source: “Special Police Task Force to Probe Political Killings,” Mail & Guardian, June 5, 2016.

While many rightly make connections between these attacks and those of the civil war, the less obvious legacy is the prevalence of weapons in these communities. One man, who asked to be anonymous due to the sensitivity of our conversation, made this explicit:

A: There are still many guns that were distributed by Philip Powell [a white apartheid agent connected to the IFP and Eugene de Kock]. He gave them to someone [affiliated with Inkatha] who was going to help distribute them. That was XX. Then other guns were given to this boy XX.

Q: The guns were only distributed to IFP members?

A: Yes and a lot of people received them. XX still has G3s. I have no idea how the police do not get a hold of those guns.

The legacies of South Africa’s civil war are as much a part of contemporary life as apartheid.

*Everyone who participated in the oral history project gave oral or written consent for use of their interviews in publications and eventual archival deposit.

[1] Mary de Haas, “Violence in Natal and Zululand: The 1980s,” in The Road to Democracy in South Africa, vol. 6 [1990-1996] (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2013), 88–152.

For more on the recent assassinations, check out these Mail & Guardian stories:

Killings Signal the Start of the Battle for Power,” May 27, 2016

Politics Becomes a Deadly Game in KZN,” May 27, 2016

Special Police Task Force to Probe Political Killings,” June 6, 2016


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Dispossession & Land Myths

*For more on the context of this particular oral history interview, see previous post.

The “myth of the empty land” is one of the most pervasive myths of South African history. In 2012, Freedom Front Plus leader and then deputy minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries Pieter Mulder declared that black South Africans had no claim to 40% of South Africa and that European settlers had not stolen the land, suggesting that land in the semi-desert Karoo and Kalahri be purchased for black South Africans.

Writing in the Mail & Guardian in response, historian Shula Marks remarked upon a sense of déjà vu . She penned the 1980 “South Africa – the Myth of the Empty Land” in History Today and now found that ignorance about South Africa’s past lingered 30+ years later despite scholarly research. Mulder’s remark reveals the longevity of apartheid ideology that justified white settlement of South African land.

An equally pervasive myth exists among dispossessed South Africans that suggests how they understand this loss of land. A year before Mulder’s claim to empty land, in a conversation between two of my interlocutors, they attempted to explain the loss of African territory in Zululand to Boer immigrants. Here, in a larger conversation about the chieftaincy, two community elders connected the perils of an uneducated leader to historical land dispossession:

GB:       When Sichiza was a chief [in the 1950s], he could not write his name.

NM:      If you cannot read your own name, how can you become a chief?

GB:      He had an assistant to read for him and the assistant could read to him whatever he wanted.

NM:      It is the same thing which happened years ago, when white people made one of the kings to sit in a rotating chair to point the whole nation to the whites.

GB:      I know that thing, they put a king in a rotating chair and they pressed it while he was pointing them to a piece of land. He ended up giving them the whole nation. I think that was Dingane.

Zanokolo Mkhize, who works at the Zulu Historical Museum in Eshowe and blogs about Zulu history, explained the dispossession myth in further depth:

It is said that during the reign of King Dingane a group of Boers sought an audience with King Dingane for some or other land concession, they spoke to him and a demarcation of land was agreed upon. When Dingane was about to point out the parameters of the land he was asked to sit down on a revolving chair, this chair was then spun around in an act of treachery by the Boers and it was through such actions that they lay claims on the Zulu country.

Mkhize points out the myth’s entertainment value and distance from reality, speculating the story may have its origins in the 1851 creation of a wheelchair for King Mpande, ill with gout, by Norwegian missionaries.

The myth is certainly an entertaining one–everyone present giggled at its telling. But it should not be dismissed as only a myth. It does suggest a reality–how its narrators understand land dispossession as an act of deceit in which white immigrants took advantage of an unwitting king’s diplomacy. The invocation of the myth to discuss an uneducated chief reveals how these interlocutors view power and envision leadership.


“Dingane in Ordinary and Dancing Dresses,” 1836, by Captain Allen Francis Gardiner.


An 1849 portrait of King Mpande by George French Angas

Further Reading:
Marks, Shula. “South Africa – ‘The Myth of the Empty Land.’” History Today 30, no. 1 (1980).


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Oral Historians & Breakthroughs in Performance

This is the second of an oral history scraps series.* 

In this, and the next post, I want to talk about my favorite interview–favorite for the friendships, for the laughs, and for the research breakthroughs.

Before kicking off the oral history portion of my fieldwork, my host family took me to the chief for a proper introduction. The chief assigned an induna (headman) to assist in the identification of potential interviewees. Working through these local structures was only one part of interview recruitment; I was concerned that working with such political figures might influence who we interviewed and what was said. I was in the field during local government elections, heightening community tensions between Inkatha and ANC. While Inkatha established dominance in the entire region during and immediately after the transition-era civil war, the ANC began to gradually erode Inkatha’s support after 2004. In the run-up to the elections, the parties campaigned intensely, aware of the potential for an ANC victory. The splintering of Inkatha and the establishment of the National Freedom Party (NFP) in 2010 further increased existing tensions and resulted in the death of a local NFP candidate prior to the 2011 elections.[1]

On this particular morning, only several days into meetings, Thandeka and I showed up at Induna Ndlela’s house on the arranged morning, where several men and women waited to be interviewed. Ndlela encouraged us to start with Balothi Goge. We asked about his standing in the community: was he another induna or political party representative?

“No, he’s just old,” said Ndlela. We all laughed, but his answer was prescient.

Balothi Goge, born in 1935, was a treasure trove. His father, July Goge, was one of the chiefdom’s councilors during the construction of the local dam and the chiefdom’s establishment of the apartheid-era Tribal Authorities. July paid rent for a piece of land to an absentee landowner. When the land was sold, he was evicted to another part of the farm where he served as a labor tenant (providing labor for the white farmer in return for land access), and then worked with the local apartheid Bantu Affairs Agricultural Officer. Balothi  grew up on that farm, herding cattle and briefly attending school. He later worked as a migrant laborer in Durban before returning home to retire.

When the interview started, Baba Ndlela was sitting with us, and in the beginning was piping in with questions. Keenly aware of the political context, at first I was a bit nervous that he was directing the interview towards some particular motive… but  it quickly became apparent that he was simply curious. We asked him to move closer to the recorder, because he proceeded to  take over the interview. We couldn’t get words in, but it didn’t matter. Their conversation covered ground that at that stage I would not have known to cover. Goge provided keen insights into the history’s region that even izinduna did not know. Ndlela asked him incredulously:

NM      When were you planning to tell us about this history? Because if these young ladies did not come here, we would not know about our history.

GB      I was going to die with it because I could not tell anyone. I grew up living under my father’s regulations. If ever there was a meeting at Mazambane’s place, I used to go there to listen.

NM      But now you realise that we were living in the dark because we have no idea about things happening in this place?

GB      Nobody asked me about it, but now I am talking because someone wants to acknowledge the history, because there was nobody I was going to tell that this thing was known years ago.

The conversation between Ndlela and Goge lasted over an hour and a half, book-ended by the few questions we had asked to start the interview and to cover the (very few) things Ndlela missed. They covered history, culture, and politics, as well as everyday life — romantic courtships and wild foods young men ate while herding cattle.

Their conversation was a reminder to me, however wary I might have been of the powerful political context in which we spoke, to put down some of those suspicions and follow Baba Ndlela’s lead. While Goge acknowledged that our interest prompted him to share, Ndlela’s eager participation made clear that the conversation was about more than research.  I could think of their conversation as a “breakthrough in performance” (Hymes, 1975; Ibrahim, 2001) in which the performance was not for me. [2]


*Everyone who participated in the oral history project gave oral or written consent for use of their interviews in publications and eventual archival deposit.  Goge passed away sometime between our 2011 conversation and my 2013 return.

[1] “Camperdown: masked men shoot councillor,” Natal Witness April 14, 2011; “End intimidation, MEC tells parties,” Natal Witness May 3, 2011.

[2] On being flexible and attentive to oral historians’ knowledge and motives,  see Abdullahi A. Ibrahim, “The Birth of the Interview: The Thin and Fat of It,” in African Words, African Voices: Critical Practices in Oral History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 103–24; Susan Geiger, “What’s So Feminist about Doing Women’s Oral History?” Journal of Women’s History 2:1 (1990); Dall Hymes, “Breakthrough into Performance,” in Folklore: Performance and Communication (1975); Luise White, “True Stories: Narrative, Event, History, and Blood in the Lake Victoria Basin,” in African Words, African Voices: Critical Practices in Oral History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 281–304; Nwando Achebe, Farmers, Traders, Warriors, and Kings.


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On Power, Politics, and Oral History

This is the first of oral history scraps that may or may not become a series depending on my dedication.* 

Today, I juxtapose two powerful excerpts on power – on politics and development. But they are also comments about history and the conditions of power within oral history interviews (for readings, see below).

In this first snippet, a group of elders shared knowledge about the history of their chiefdom and neighbors. The local chief had arranged for me to meet them at the community center, but then left us to the task at hand. I sat with them on two separate occasions and originally planned to interview them one by one to gather multiple perspectives… but history here is a social act and on both occasions these turned into, at times heated, group interviews full of those different points of view. Each was eager to participate, because they recognized access to certain kinds of historical knowledge was not open:

“Everything works around politics now. Our history will be recorded and go to archives, but politicians can remove what doesn’t suit them. Our history and map of the chiefdom is at the parliament, but it would be hard to find it. Our chief hardly reached it because there is a politician at front. These chiefs are politicians and nobody is capable of removing them from the throne. [Launches  into lengthy dismissal of a neighboring chief’s rise to power.] That is how he became the Chief, but since everything is about politics you cannot remove him. If ever he got some threats, politicians would cover him. Then all the records would vanish because you are just an ordinary person and you cannot reach the records…

They said the democracy will bring back our land, but it depends who you are in this world.”

-June 06, 2014

In comparison, from another community, comes a lighter comment on power. This community elder sat with me and the chief. More so than others interviewed, he wanted to learn about me and my reasons for interest in local history. He scrutinized the consent form, joking that his ancestor had signed away part of his chiefdom. In sharing his knowledge about local land dispossession, he spoke about inequality in the wake of regional development projects:

Yes, but we never got any payment for the dam. Americans also drink this water! And [Zimbabwean President Robert] Mugabe! Jill also drinks our water! [Laughing]

-June 26, 2014

Mugabe does not drink water from this dam. (In fact, South Africans plan to drink Mugabe’s water.) In America, I don’t drink this water. But I do when I live in South Africa, in the city, in whatever granny flat I call home. The dam is part of the Umgeni Water  system, the state-owned provider for potable water in KwaZulu-Natal, and thus, the likelihood that I indeed drink the dam’s water.

This stands in contrast to how our interlocutor consumes water. Not all homes in this peri-urban/peri-rural region are hooked into the municipal water system. Even for homes with taps in their yard, the infrastructure is dated and not regularly maintained–they may or may not work. Most families push wheelbarrows filled with water buckets from the municipal truck that delivers potable water. Additionally, the dam is fenced to keep the locals out unless they pay the fee to enter the dam’s recreational reserve.

In this complaint, he not only points out his lack of access to the dam. He also reminds me of the power dynamics–of race, of class, and of nationality–in our interview.


Photo by author, 2014

*Everyone who participated in the oral history project gave oral or written consent for use of their interviews in publications and eventual archival deposit. 

Mbilinyi, Marjorie. “‘I’d Have Been a Man’: Politics and the Labor Process in Producing Personal Narratives.” in Interpreting Women’s Lives: Feminist Theory and Personal Narratives. Bloomington: Indiana University Press (1989).

Strobel, Margaret. “Doing Oral History as an Outsider.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies 2, no. 2 (1977):68-72

Tonkin, Elizabeth. Narrating Our Pasts: The Social Construction of Oral History. Camrbidge: Cambridge University Press (1992).


Oral History Snippets and Scraps

I haven’t blogged in a year. Oops.

I’m on leave (yay!) and spending a lot of time revisiting my oral history interviews as part of manuscript revisions. Reading, listening again produces a range of emotions and thoughts that won’t make it into any book or article. They deserve to be shared and despite my best efforts at creativity are too much for Twitter. I’ve decided to share them here periodically.* Stay tuned, first up tomorrow.


My office/research assistant


*Everyone who participated in the oral history project gave oral or written consent for use of their interviews in publications and eventual archival deposit. 

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World War II in Africa

This week in the Modern African history course we’re discussing African participation in World War II and its impact on the continent. Like the growing attention to World War I highlighted by the World War I in Africa project, it is increasingly easy to access media for classroom use. A few I have used successfully:


British Pathe coverage of Italian departure for Ethiopia, 1935:

Halie Selassie I speaks at the League of Nations after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, 1936:

Rare color footage (Kino Library) of Prisoners of War from the French colonies in Germany:

British Pathe footage of South African war effort & troops:


Ato Yanney’s His Majesty’s Sergent trailer

Ousmane Sembene’s (1988) Camp de Thiaroye

Rachid Bouchareb (2006) Indigènes (Days of Glory) trailer


BBC World Service three-part series “Africa’s Forgotten Soldiers” can be listened to by signing up for the radio archive.

My students listened to Afripod Episode 81: The Nigerian homefront in WWII.


Royal West African Forces SOURCE: Source: www.nationalarchives.gov.uk

Royal West African Forces
SOURCE: Source: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk