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).


Published by jillekelly

Assistant Professor of African/South African History at Southern Methodist University, Graduate of Michigan State University, Lover of all things Pittsburgh & Detroit

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