Expert discusses oral histories in South Africa

Oral history expert Sean Field spoke Thursday about the use of oral records and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s effort to record the history of victims of apartheid in South Africa.

The past · Sean Field, director of the Centre for Popular Memory and a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town, talks about oral history. – Rachel Bracker | Daily Trojan

Field, the director of the Centre for Popular Memory and a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town was invited to speak at the event sponsored by the USC Shoah Foundation, which records testimonies of those involved with the Holocaust and has thousands of photos and videos in for the archives at Leavey Library.

The event marked the Shoah Foundation’s last lecture for the semester. Field’s presentation focused on the importance of testimonials in the healing process of Africa’s history and the future of human rights trials.

Field said apartheid in South Africa began after World War II and literally translated, means “aparthood.” The term refers to the forced racial segregation and mass genocide of the South African people until 1994. Field also explained the differences between the TRC and oral history. He said the commission acted as a judicial and truth-seeking body to achieve justice for victims and potential amnesty for perpetrators of human rights violations. Oral history, on the other hand, refers to the process where long life-history interviews are conducted for the purpose of research and documenting past events, Field said. His talk mainly focused on TRC’s trials, the reconciliation of the victims and the redemptive qualities of the commission.

Field stressed that though oral historians are valuable, their ability to aid with reconciliation is limited.

“[Oral historians] are not healers,” Field said. “I would argue that’s not our training or our profession, but we can provide insights and perspectives in understanding the emotional content of their memories and the legacies they live with.”

He also referenced his work with the Centre for Popular Memory at the University of Cape Town, emphasizing the importance of teaching the past.

“We cannot dictate to our students what their political views may be — that’s not our job,” Field said. “But we do have a role in developing open-minded, critical-thinking young citizens who are historically knowledgeable.”

The CPM has published books, and developed community radio programs, documentaries and community theater as methods of raising awareness. In the future, Field mentioned that he would like to examine shorter, on-site interviews combined with longer life history interviews to gain a fuller perspective.