history, research, teaching


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



1 Comment

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.


Leave a comment

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).