Difficult Knowledge and Oral History Interviews: Traversing Emotional Landscapes in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Jonathon Fairhead is a current OHMA student. In this post, he reflects on navigating difficult knowledge for oral history interviewing in post-apartheid South Africa.

I spent the summer at home in South Africa interviewing activists for my oral history masters thesis on the Equal Education social movement in South Africa. I also interviewed social justice advocates, leading educationists, and key players in public health in South Africa for the Atlantic Philanthropies Oral History Project through INCITE (The Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics) at Columbia. This is how I found myself on a university campus outside Cape Town with an with an activist and community organizer from the Eastern Cape in the dorm room where he is staying, my recorder on.  

“Can you turn it off,” he says, shortly after we begin recording. “I can't do this.” 

The sobs start slow, and at first I think they will pass and we will be able to resume the interview. But they continue to come and they grow as he begins to shake. 

“Sorry,” he says.

“There is no need to apologize,” I say. And I listen. 

I reach over and delete the few minutes of interview we had done, covering his early years during apartheid still in the townships of the Eastern Cape where he had grown up. There had been seven siblings, he had said, but now there are only two. I forget exactly what I had said, but I had asked him to go back shortly after he'd shared that and invited him to linger in his childhood. I had used the familiar opening question so often used by oral historians: could you describe a day in your life at that time. It is then, I think, that he began to cry. I realized immediately that I should have waited to ask this question, should have let the narrator establish himself more before interjecting, should have said nothing. I know now I should have let him lead the way. We had never met. 

I know only that he is a prominent activist working in the working class communities of South Africa, where he grew-up. He sobs a rolling sob for what feels like 20 minutes. I sit quietly and listen openly. I know not to define his experience and I know to let him lead the way.

“I'd like to be able to talk about this,” he says after a while.  

“Perhaps one day you will,” I say. 

There is silence. 

“We all have things we don't talk about,” I say. I add that he doesn't have to do this interview at all, but that if he would like to he should contact me. I feel in that moment that giving him the choice as to whether to talk further with me is the right thing to do. There is no pressure here: the decision to agree to proceed must be his. 

It becomes clear to me as I return to my car that he could have lost 5 of his siblings in the struggle against apartheid. I imagine this to be the case. The Eastern Cape where he grew up was in a perpetual state of emergency for much of the eighties. It is a part of South Africa especially brutalized and underdeveloped during apartheid. I have worked with people from working class backgrounds in South Africa before. I have interviewed more than once school children who walked past dead bodies as they left their houses for school. I should have known better, I think, than to assume all interviewees will be comfortable presenting a life narrative right off the bat. As I leave the campus I turn into a McDonalds for a cup of coffee, for in his sobbing the interviewee has communicated much and I need to honor that, sit with it. It contains the brokenness of South Africa, the injury of apartheid to the collective and the individual. The sobbing has broken my assumption that all people can articulate a life narrative in a conventional way. 

My next interview takes place in Johannesburg, where I am to interview a woman who for a time in the 1980's lived undercover in South Africa as an intelligence officer for the armed struggle of the ANC. She was towards the end of this time identified by the apartheid government and placed on a shoot to kill list. She'd had to live on the run. I meet with her for the interview at a hotel she had suggested and am planning to interview her there, in a room off the business center. But first we decide to have some tea and to talk about the project. I follow her lead and tell her that I am interested in interviewing her about her current work, and her time undercover. I tell her I think this might be useful to people working in advocacy and social justice now, and also of interest to historians in the future.  We settle the parameters of each interview and decide that there should be two. One for her time living as an undercover operative, and another for her social justice work since the end of apartheid. She tells me she would like to be interviewed about her current work first, before being interviewed about her work in the struggle. She also tells me that she would not like to be interviewed today, and that I should come back for these interviews. I am keenly aware during our discussions of the lessons I had learned with the activist I had interviewed before at the university outside of Cape Town. I remind myself that the content is delicate and that I need to let the interviewee define her experience in her own words and as much as possible on her own terms. I am here to follow. I have learned, and at I marvel at the pedagogical nature of oral history. 

She stares ahead during the interview on her time working under cover in the struggle against apartheid, not making eye contact with me, stroking her legs as she recounts her past. She'd had to get word to her mother living in London that she was OK, despite having been declared an open target by the apartheid government. There are times when I would like to ask her to go deeper, to pause, or to elaborate a point. But I rarely do. I hold back, and more often than not I don't say anything. I reassure her with my body language, and let the rapport we had established in our previous communications provide the lead. I know and hold her in my gaze. There are some times when it feels right to ask a navigational or clarifying question, and then I do. Gently we walk through the interview together. I am assured at the end that she has established us outside of that difficult time, after the transition in South Africa, where she is now working for an NGO. I remember the words of my teacher Mary Marshall Clark at OHMA on her experience interviewing with the 9/11 project to enter the difficult terrain with the interviewee and be sure to come out of it with them as well. 

I learned interviewing in South Africa that silences are valuable, and so are allusions to events not yet fleshed out. Not everything is ready to be articulated. I also learned that the man who wept during our interview may have told me more about the collective and individual history of South Africa than anyone else. Some things are too big for mere words.