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Writing history

This section will provide guidance on how to turn oral sources into written history.


Structuring your written work is a very effective way of organising your material, and your ideas. Your essay should include:

Introduction: This should provide a clear statement of your overall argument. The introduction should provide a clear understanding of what to expect in the body of the report. There are a few possible ways to begin, including: 

"In this report..."

"This report will..."

"The oral history project focused on..."

Body: Each concept or idea should be written as a separate paragraph. The content in the body should integrate facts, such as dates and laws, as well as perspectives from oral sources.

Conclusion: The final paragraph of your writing should summarize the most important aspects of your work, bring the main point into focus and round off your ideas.

Writing about reality

History is different to other forms of the written word. Many say that it is a written expression of reality.

At SAHA, we believe there is more than one version of the past. According to one oral historian, "we can never write a completely accurate account, because the complexity we face is too immense."1

We make certain assumptions that we are not aware of, and then "we have to revise our story when we come up against new evidence that does not fit what we expected."2

Dale McKinley (DM) provides one example of this in his interview with Kate Masabatha Makhanya (KMM):

DM: So tell us Kate, in the early 1990s, when things started changing...how did you feel at that time? Did you feel like things were starting to change?...
KMM: I felt life was changing because we were not obliged to carry our Identity Documents with us as I said. We were not allowed to walk wherever as we could get arrested... My life has changed; I am now independent, though I suffer a lot...I am not feeling any different in terms of my personal life, I never had money and I have been suffering all my life.3

During apartheid, the interviewee, Kate, experienced oppression. Democracy brought changes, but in spite of this, Kate continues to battle in her life.4 We cannot assume that the end of apartheid signalled the end of her "suffering."

 The facts of life history

There are many versions of the past, but some facts remain the same. Ask yourself:

What happened?

Who did it happen to?

When did it happen?

Where did it happen?

When looking for more descriptive elements of the story, ask these questions:

Why did it happen?

How did it happen?

Did it cause change?

Hearing our history

Oral sources need to be heard through the writing, like learner Tristin Narainen did in his report on refugees in South Africa. He described the large-scale Congolese migration to South Africa as being "a characteristic story of young people poised to take their place in society... finding themselves having to fend for themselves in a foreign land."6

His report provides a good example of how to write in a way which adequately represents the interviews.

All sources need to be placed in historical context. Jetasha Singh showed this in her detailed yet comprehensive description of the Indian community. It focused on "the historical significance of their arduous and painful liberation struggle."7

Another good technique for placing things in their historical context is through summary, which involves saying a lot in a few words.

The next theme provides information for both learners and educators on the South African Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition.



1 Atkinson, R. The Life Story Interview, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, California, 1998

2 Ibid.

3 Transcript of interview with Kate Masabatha Makhanya by Dale McKinley and Ahmed Veriava, Sebokeng, South Africa, Forgotten Voices in the Past Collection, 8 September, 2007

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Narainen, Tristen. Report, Learner portfolio, Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition, Apollo Secondary School, Chatsworth, 2007

7 Singh, Jetasha. As an Indian what can I do to make a change in the country?, Learner portfolio, Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition, Tongaat Secondary School, Tongaat, 2008

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