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.



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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