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Interview tips

This section will explore different interview techniques to help you become a more successful oral historian.1

Gathering background information

Your opening questions should focus on the background information of the interviewee. You can follow the lead of oral historian Julie Frederikse by explaining that you "want to get the dates right."2 In a project on the 1950 Battle of Namoha in Qwaqwa, two Free State learners from Iketsetseng Comprehensive Secondary School provided useful background information about the political activists they had chosen to interview.3

This included :-

  • date of birth

  • place of birth

  • marital status

  • children

  • level of education

  • political history

  • personal/community heritage (eg. names of fallen comrades)4

Asking the right questions

Gauteng learner Chandni Laja provided a list of eleven questions in her oral history project on women's development.5 Each one of the questions builds on the question before. Be flexible - there is always the chance that your interviewee will take the discussion to places that you had not even considered.

Listening skills

Effective listening is very important for the life history approach to interviews. It helps open new channels of communication. Western Cape learner Christian van Schalkwyk experienced this when he interviewed his father, politician Marthinus van Schalkwyk. He had previously been "too young to realize the burden" carried by his father, but during the interview he realized "exactly what did to at least try to grow into the position, or have a heck of a time trying to figure out what to do!"6 The interview helped him see his father in a new light, and impacted on his own sense of personal heritage.

Below are some tips on how to become a better listener:-

  • Do not interrupt or talk over the interviewee

  • Engage with the person by looking them in the eye as they are speaking

  • Show that you are paying attention by smiling, nodding or shaking your head

  • Watch for pauses, silences, and changes in tone or facial expression. This kind of non-verbal communication can sometimes speak louder than words

  • Avoid questions which allow for a one-word answer, such as ‘yes' or ‘no', as well as ‘leading' questions that direct or control the answer. Rather, guide the direction of the interview based on what you are hearing from the interviewee.

Developing an interview style

With experience, it is possible to become more confident and creative in interviews. This will develop over time. Central to developing a style for oral history interviews is listening closely and knowing how to guide the interviews. When researcher Dale McKinley (DM) engaged with Rammolutsi resident Joyce Mokgadi (JM), it was clear that the discussion had brought to the surface the memory of her suffering during the violent 1986 rural uprisings.


JM: By 1986, the uprisings started in Rammolutsi and I was part of that... one of the boys from our school-Letsabo- was shot dead by the cops. After the shooting I decided that I have to go back to the farm because the police were beating up people.
DM: How old were you or what grade were you doing when you decided to go back to the farm?
JM: It was very bad at that time. Many friends of mine were taken by the policeand taken to the police station. We did not live very nicely because it was so bad.7 

Even though Mokgadi did not directly answer McKinley's question, she was able to voice the traumatic memories of her past. This was made possible by the open-ended style of the interview.

Peter Delius, another renowned oral historian, developed an interview style to get his interviewees to share their stories, using their own steam, with minimal prodding or pushing from him. Except where necessary, his questions simply helped the interviewee clarify a point or keep the momentum of the interview.

Retrieving information

The late Joe Slovo (JS) was interviewed by oral historian Julie Frederikse. He told his story in the form of anecdotes. They may seem unimportant in isolation, but they help us see how things happened in the past.


JS: "Immediately after the war we organised ‘food raids' in Fordsburg. There was a terrible shortage of basic staple items, and there was an enormous black market engaged in mainly by small shopkeepers...we just pushed him aside and went to the storeroom, broke down the doors, got out the sacks of rice and just sold it at controlled prices."9


Kwazulu-Natal learner Elicia Naidu interviewed Ma Naidu (MN), the mother of deceased political activist, Lenny Naidu. What made this "nostalgic trip down memory lane" notable was the profound way it gave voice not only to the victim of apartheid, but also to his family.10


MN: Altogether there were four bodies... I could not identify my son...  the next day when we went back they brought the body right out. I looked for the signs that (that) child was mine. I found the signs that it was Lenny. Lenny's death affected my family terribly."11

An interview with returned exile, Pumla Williams (PW), also highlighted the impact of the struggle on families of political activists.

PW: I didn't tell my mother... I phoned my mother when I was already in Swaziland... I told her that I have already joined the ANC...she was very upset but at the same time...she contributed in politicizing me."12


Completing the research process

Make sure that your interviewees clearly understand why they are being interviewed. This is important, because their experience of oral history can be "deeply emotional and even psychologically traumatic."13 Conducting follow-up interviews is important. People don't always remember facts, like dates and names, so it's worth double checking that these are accurate.

The next theme provides a number of different techniques for writing history. 




 1 General Principles for Oral History and Best Practices for Oral History, Oral History Association, Oral History Association

2 Transcript of interview with Dennis Brutus by Julie Frederikse, conducted for The Unbreakable Thread: Non-racialism in South Africa, Julie Frederikse Collection, 1990 

3 Motaung, Thabang. The Battle of Namoha, Qwaqwa, 1950, Learner portfolio, Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition, Mohato FET Phase, 2008. See biographical information of Mrs Thetiwe Meria Molingoane; biographical information of Mr Ntlhoki Harry Mothibi; see also biographical information of Puseletso Ziphora Maleho

4 Ibid. Names of the fourteen Basotho who died during the Namoha Battle

5 Ndambaka, John. Transcript of interview with Burundi ex-pat Maman Emilienne, Learner portfolio, Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition, Cornflower Primary School, Lentegeur, Mitchell's Plain

6 van Schalkwyk, Christiaan. Unsung hero: personal reflections on interview wih Marthinus van Schalkwyk,  Learner portfolio, Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition, Metro Central Education District, Western Cape, 2008

7 Transcript of interview with Joyce Mokgadi by Dale McKinley and Ahmed Veriava, Rammolutsi, South Africa, Forgotten Voices in the Past Collection, 27 July, 2007

8 See Delius, Peter. A Lion Amongst the Cattle: Reconstruction and Resistance in the Northern Transvaal, James Currey, 2003

9 Transcript of interview with Joe Slovo by Julie Frederikse, conducted for The Unbreakable Thread: Non-racialism in South Africa, Julie Frederikse Collection, 1990

10 Naidoo, Elicia, Interview with Ma Naidu, mother of Lenny Naidu, Learner portfolio, Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition, Southlands Secondary School, Chatsworth, 2008; see a photograph of Lenny Naidu.


12 Transcript of interview with Pumla Williams conducted for the South African History Archive Exiles Oral History Project, 23 July, 1991

13 Using Oral History, Lesson Plan, Section 5: Guidelines for Oral History Interviews, The Learning Page, United States Library of Congress

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