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.



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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