Wednesday, November 19th, 2008
“I’ve learned that so often in our communities we don’t realise the things that are happening, or if we know, we don’t take interest… I’ve learned that ordinary people can take extraordinary steps.”
These are the words of Richmond Sajini from Alexander Bay High School in the Northern Cape when describing his oral history project about the forced removals and successful land claim brought by people in his community of the Richtersveld.
The story of the Richtersveld land claim is indeed an extraordinary one – as community leaders took on the state and mining interests to win back their land. The Richtersveld is a rugged area on South Africa’s west coast, which combines harsh beauty with diamond-rich terrain. The land claim settlement, lodged in 1998, demanded the right to return to the area from which the community had been forcibly removed, as well as compensation for diamonds extracted from it since the 1920s. The claim was finally awarded in 2007.
Richard Sajini’s interviews with community leaders who led this struggle, and his research into this comparatively recent historical event, were rewarded when he was selected as one 90 finalists in the annual Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians’ Award run by the South African education department.
The finals of the awards took place in Cape Town where high school students from each of the country’s nine provinces presented their projects. It was clear for many of the participants one of the most exciting aspects of their projects was the thrill of discovering untold stories and hearing about history from people who had lived through it.
Refiloe Tsumane is a Grade 11 learner from Kuruman who chose to research “unsung heroes” in her community. She interviewed a group of gravediggers who work for no charge to prepare graves at the local cemetery every weekend.
“I wanted people to know that not only do they prepare our last place of rest, but they’re not honoured in the way they should be… Without a gravedigger there is no funeral,” she said.
Studying history and researching oral histories have opened Refiloe’s eyes to people and circumstances around her. Her energy and enthusiasm for the subject are palpable.
These research, interviewing AND listening skills needed for this kind of work are similar to the skills that the Radio Workshop includes in its radio training for young people. The annual oral history awards offer the potential for an exciting and productive partnership between the Radio Workshop and the Race and Values in Education directorate of the national education department which sponsors the awards.
The creation of the young historian’s award is but one of many ways in which the teaching of history is being transformed in South African schools.
History is always contested, but in a country where fear and misinformation were used for so long to divide and rule us, it is especially important that young people learn about how history is made.
Critical thinking skills are now an integral part of the new history curriculum. How “the facts” may vary, depending on who is documenting them, how oral testimony may vary – not only because memories fade – but depending on who is speaking, where they were at the time, what their allegiances were and what version of history they were taught.
Perhaps the greatest myth, with the most pernicious of consequences, is the myth of different races. This myth, which underpinned apartheid ideology, took legal form in 1950 when the Population Registration Act was passed, labelling each South African, according to their appearance and social acceptance, into four broad groups. It was not until 1991 that the law was repealed, but its devastating imprint continues as, all too often, we continue to distinguish between each other based on this false notion of “race”.
It was through her research about Khoisan X, a leader in her community, that Gabriella Bailie, a Grade 11 learner from Gauteng province, discovered other voices that challenged the apartheid categories. Gabriella concluded her presentation with the words of Robert Sobukwe, a giant within the Pan Africanist Congress, reminding her fellow historians that biologically we are all of one race, the human race.
You can listen here to a report of the 2008 awards. Duration 9 minutes.