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Approaching the past

One learner from Mpumalanga described the preparation for his assignment as "the most challenging part of this project."1 Planning your research is very important - this section will explore approaches for researching oral history.

Choosing a topic

There are many ways of looking at a topic. Learners are provided with a list of topics to choose from.

  • Eliminate the topics that do not interest you, and select what is most interesting to you.

  • Write down a very short summary of your project, and justify why you have chosen the topic.2

This process will focus your study and, as you proceed with the project, remind you what you are looking for. Tebello Molelekoa, a learner from the Free State, motivated his decision to look at the ‘unsung heroes' in his community as a "sign of appreciation."3 A group of learners from SC Kearns High School in the Northern Cape chose to look at the history of Batlharos community near Kuruman. They focused on a group of young men who assisted the community by digging graves. It was felt that these men needed "some kind of recognition."4 Learners were also curious to find out why these men, and their acts of benevolence, were not appreciated more in the community.

The Department of Education's Draft Circular to Schools includes the 2010 topics for the Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition.

Choosing who to interview

Use the following criteria to select interviewees:

  • Does the candidate have knowledge of the subject?

  • Does the candidate have experience of the subject?

  • Is the candidate willing to share this information with you?

Historians select interviewees based on their past experiences, as well as their willingness to share these. Molelekoa chose the people he was going to interview "because they had the information...they didn't ask (for) money...and they were from (their) community...(they had) the best knowledge."5 When Limpopo learner Rodney Morgan Ndlovu was tasked with interviewing someone who participated in the Soweto Uprising of June 16, 1976, he chose Nzima Sam Masana,"the man who took the photograph of Hector Pieterson after he was shot by the police."6 He selected Masana because although the photograph had become "an icon for June 16", the story of The World  journalist was unknown.7

Clear communication

The first letter to interviewees should explain your intentions. All correspondence should provide your personal details, as well as the purpose of the interview and why you want to interview the recipient of the letter. When Ndlovu wrote to Masana, he clearly explained his oral history assignment as "an educational project where (they) were given a task to interview someone in the community who participated in the uprising."8 Regular, clear contact with your interviewees is required at all stages of the interview process. Examples of correspondence include

This letter is important because interviewees need to understand that the interview is not private, but rather a part of a broader historical study. Informed consent ensures that you do not breach any ethical terms of research.

Make a schedule

This will help you organise yourself. For example, Eastern Cape learner Mdodana Lebohang Nombelu provided a detailed schedule of her appointment dates. This showed her high level of organisation and attention to detail.9


It is also helpful to limit the time period that you are studying. Historians commonly use timelines to help them visualize events that otherwise "swim around all muddled up."10 Place your material in order of events over time - this is known as the chronological order. The process of organising the chronological order in an oral history project is known as periodisation.

Key question

Find a key question by deciding what is the most important feature of your topic. The key question will guide you through the project.11 The question should be broad enough to encompass an entire theme and allow you the scope to explore different elements within that theme.


The language in which the interview is conducted may affect the quality of the interview. For this reason, a group of learners from Paballelo Township in Upington conducted their interview with Paballelo's United Democratic Front (UDF) community representative Alfred Gubula in Xhosa.12 On the other hand, finding a way of translating the interview could be problematic for the learner, if they have limited resources and time in which to do the project. Nelspruit learner Sibusiso Patrick Khoza chose to use English since there would be "no need to translate...materials from English to SiSwati."13


Avoid loud and busy places. This will distract the interviewee and affect the quality of any recording you are trying to make. Conduct the interview in a quiet and private place with "minimal background noises and possible distractions."14

Using other sources

Oral history can yield rich and unique material, but it is not always enough to complete an historical research project. Other sources should be used to find out when, where, why and how an event took place.15

Here are some sources you can use:

Written history: includes books, magazines, journals, documents, certificates, letters, newspapers, reports, pamphlets, transcripts from court, minutes from meetings, evidence from commissions of enquiry

Oral history: oral history interviews, life histories, oral tradition, poetry, songs, stories, myths, folklore

Archaeological: the ruins of buildings, ancient sites and walls, relics such as pottery, beads, bones and coins, charcoal, tools and weapons, rubbish dumps

Visual: photographs, including aerial and satellite images, cartoons, maps, plans, film, television, video, statues, carvings

Landscape: settlements, roads, bridges, environmental changes, pathways, buildings

How reliable is memory in oral history? 

Oral history relies on memory, "the tool we have in order to give meaning to our lives."16 What a memory means to us is usually based on how we felt at the time of the experience, and how the event we are recalling affected us in the long run. In an interview with one survivor of the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, the interviewee told learner Andries Mfana Dlamini that his questions were "digging these old wounds... everything happened rather too quickly... suddenly there was this thunderous noise accompanied by the screaming and cries of people, in less than five minutes people were scattered everywhere."17 For Dlamini, the experience is remembered through his own prism of emotional experience.

When ex-political activist Steve Tshwete was asked how struggle politics had affected his career, his response echoed the emotions he had felt growing up in a deeply racist society. Growing up, he "could not explain what was wrong", but felt, "even at the time...that somehow there's something wrong somewhere."18 His memory of the past was guided by his experiences of oppression, and the way they influenced the choices he made later on.

The next theme will provide you with some tips for conducting your interviews.


1 Khoza, Sibusiso Patrick. Outline of the preparation for interview with M. Lephoko, Learner portfolio, Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition, Sitintile High School, Nelspruit, 2006

2 Truesdell, Barbara. Oral History Techniques: How to Organize and Conduct Oral History Interviews, Center for the Study of History and Memory, Indiana University

3 Molelekoa, Tebello. Motivation on choosing topic for oral history project on our unsung heroine: Mrs Cyrian Babina Mokoena, Learner portfolio, Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition, Akofang Intermediate School, Free State, 2008 

4 Mani, Nandipha (with Franco Fortuin, David Duiker, Estelle Louw). Explanation on why this topic was chosen, Learner portfolio, Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition, SC Kearns High School, Northern Cape, 2008

5 Molelekoa, Tebello. Motivation on interview subjects' for oral history project on 'Our unsung heroine: Mrs Cyrian Babina Mokoena, Learner portfolio, Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition, Akofang Intermediate School, Free State, 2008

6 Ndlovu, Rodney Morgan. List of questions for interview with Mr Nzima Sam Masana, Learner portfolio, Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition, Hlomani High School, Limpopo, 2006

7 Ibid.

8 Ndlovu, Rodney Morgan. Letter of appointment, Learner portfolio, Nkosi Albert Luthuli Yougn Historians' Competition, Hlomani High School, Limpopo, 2006

9 Nombelu, Mdodana Lebohang. Detailed description of process of setting up appointments for interviews, Learner portfolio, Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition, St John's College, Umtata, 2008

10 Brown, C.S. Like it Was: A Complete Guide to Writing Oral History, Teachers and Writers Collaborative, New York, 1988, p. 14

11 Sajini, Richmond. Scope of the oral history project-Richtersveld Land Claim, Learner portfolio, Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition, Alexander Bay High School, Northern Cape, 2008

12 Makoa, Moses. Njili, Landile. Vokonqo, Nompumelelo. Nyane, Eunice. Interview with Mr. Alfred Gubula, Learner portfolio, Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition, Paballelo High School, Upington, 2007

13 Khoza, Sibusiso Patrick, Interview with M. Lephoko, Learner portfolio, Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition, Sitintile High School, Nelspruit, 2006

14 Ethics guide summary for Community-University Research Alliance (CURA) Life stories project: Oral History Tips, Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada

15 See, for example, the African American Oral History Collection, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky, 2009

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