We have a history

2011-02-23 00:00

AT a conservative estimate about 12 000 people lost their lives in this province bet­ween 1986 and 1996 in the civil war fought between the United Democratic Front allied with the African National Congress, on one side, and the Zulu traditionalist movement Inkatha (renamed Inkatha Freedom party in 1990) on the other.

A new book provides a glimpse into what happened during those years via the vehicle of oral history. Indians versus Russians — An oral history of political violence in Nxamalala (1987 to 1993) by Philippe Denis, Radikobo Ntsiman­e and Thomas Cannell, hones in on the violence that took place on the edge of Pietermaritzburg.

Between 2003 and 2007 researchers from the Sinomlando Centre for Oral History and Memory Work on the local campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal interviewed 50 people from Mthoqotho, an ANC enclave, where the community were labelled “Indians”, as well as people from two IFP-dominated areas Bhobhonono and Imbubu, known as “Russians”.

The resulting book features abstracts of some of these survivor testimonies together with a historical introduction and a concluding reflection on memory and reconciliation.

In the recorded interviews people spoke of the assaults and murders, as well as the destruction of property experienced by them and their surrounding community. They also told of how, when the violence had ended, they managed to move forward.

“Many people have managed to move beyond what happened,” says Denis. “But there are some who still have traumatic memories of the time. People are still haunted by it.”

The majority have moved on, according to co-author Ntsimane, manager of field work at Sinomlando. “Only a few find it difficult to forgive. But the communities are back sharing transport and visiting each other in the different areas. There is an understanding that this time has passed.”

“The pride and joy of being a contributor to this book can go a long way to empowering people despite their loss,” says Ntsimane. “Some of them are unable to read but just seeing and holding the book, knowing they contributed to it, really strengthens them.”

The recorded stories and the subsequent book demonstrate the power and relevance of history, says Denis. “Especially after years of apartheid. Now people want control of their own history. But that doesn’t mean history as perceived by one ruling power is simply swopped for that of another ruling power.”

The word sinomlando means “We have a history” in Zulu and the Sinomlando Centre was started in 1991 at the School of Religion and Theology, UKZN, with the object of adding an indigenous voice to a history all too often viewed from a Western perspective. Initially it set out to record the unheard stories of the Christian communities, particularly those which had suffered under apartheid.

However, it was quickly apparent that there was a need for oral history throughout society. In 2000, the Sinomlando Centre set up its Memory Box Programme to provide support to families and especially vulnerable children and orphans affected by HIV/Aids. Memories were recorded and kept in a box containing the stories of deceased relatives as well as personal items and memorabilia. Today the Sinomlando Centre is a leading research and training institution for memory work in South Africa.

The combination of history and healing is premised on the understanding that people who make sense of their history are more likely to develop to their full potential. “We stress the value of resilience,” says Denis. “Resilience binds everything together. People suffer trauma in all sorts of ways ... we cannot pretend no harm has been done but what you can do is cope with trauma. But for that people need resources, both internal — some people cope better than others — as well as external support organisations.”

Sinomlando provides people with the opportunity of telling their stories in order to understand them and move forward, says Ntsimane. “But oral history is not therapy and we are not therapists.”

Denis points out that families naturally do counselling without labelling it as such. “We provide first-level counselling, if you like. But we are aware that there is a degree of trauma where the person must be referred on to a specialist.

“Post-apartheid, this country is still full of rage that has not been dealt with properly. This book is a post Truth and Reconciliation intervention. The TRC was beautiful but it was not complete.

“We are still dealing with the violent legacy of apartheid. Healing is needed and it is the task of everybody.”

• Indians versus Russians — An oral history of political violence in Nxamalala (1987-1993) by Philippe Denis, Radikobo Ntsimane and Thomas Cannell is published by Cluster Publications. The cover illustration is by Thulani Mchunu.

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