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Oral History - conducting and presenting
Undertake research in your own community
Contribute to the creation of grass-root South African history

South Africa, the NEW, democratic South Africa, needs a new kind of history. For many years the South African history that was taught in schools and written in most of our history books focused almost entirely upon white South Africans, neglecting the role of all the other groups that make up our rainbow nation. This was clearly unacceptable. The first requirement of our new history, then, is that it must be a history that encompasses all South Africans, irrespective of their race, language, class, beliefs or whether they are men, women or children.

In the last few decades, and particularly since 1994, when South Africa became a democracy, many people including historians and those who were actively involved in the liberation struggle against apartheid, have written their stories and recorded their experiences. Others have gone further back to do research into the rich history of the early black communities who lived in southern Africa centuries before the first white settlers arrived. Still others have studied how South African communities, both black and white, reacted to and resisted colonialism. All these endeavours have to some extent filled the gaps in what was previously a very biased and lopsided history of South Africa. This process of re-writing and re-consideration of our history, of looking at the role of all population groups, is still going on, and must go on for many years to come. No history can ever claim to be the last, definitive version or the “absolute truth”. We must keep improving our knowledge of the past and gaining insight as new sources come to light.

This brings us to the second way of enriching our new democracy by creating a new kind of history. Most of our written history so far focuses on great leaders, important people and broad social and economic trends such as industrialisation and urbanisation. We now need to develop a different approach and create grass-roots history, a history from below. A history, in other words, of the broad spectrum of ordinary South Africans. We need to explore the history of the people around us in our local communities. The way to do this is to use oral history, to ask these people to tell us about their memories of the past, their experiences, their traditional folklore and their cultural practices. There is a wealth of information of this kind but all too often traditional communities did not write these things down; it was not part of their culture to do so. Instead it was passed down by the older people to their children in the form, for example, of story-telling, praise songs, incantations or rituals. Unless we use oral history techniques to discover and then record this vital information about our indigenous cultures, it will be lost forever.

And this is where the idea of the Albert Luthuli Competition comes in. You can be involved in building South African grass-roots history by conducting research in your local area. Your school will soon be sent a package, including a compact disk, providing full details of how to become involved in this exciting project. There are great prizes and incentives to participate, even including the possibility of having your presentation (be it a play or an exhibition, or a written piece, for example) adapted for a production on national television! Wouldn’t that be exciting! And with your project, you and your group would have the satisfaction of contributing to the recording and preservation of the cultural heritage of the new South Africa!