Alan Wieder. Voices from Cape Town Classrooms: Oral Histories of Teachers Who Fought Apartheid. New York: Peter Lang, 2003. xv + 181 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8204-6768-9.
Reviewed by Crain Soudien (School of Education, University of Cape Town)
Published on H-SAfrica (December, 2003)
Using Oral History to Recover Teacher Voice: A Critical Look at Voices from Cape Town
Using Oral History to Recover Teacher Voice: A Critical Look at Voices from Cape Town
I, as I am sure many other South Africans too, am in the strange and somewhat disconcerting situation of being surrounded by a flurry of new writing which attempts to tell the story of our lives as activists, politicians, commentators, analysts, participants (in one form or another), and, of course, bystanders in our recent modern history. There has been a veritable outpouring of new books on the apartheid and anti-apartheid experience. These books come in a number of different genres. There are straight political histories, political polemics, life-histories, biographies, autobiographies, family histories, and a wonderful array of historically inspired works of fiction, poetry, and plays. Of course, there are many more, and many more are in the pipeline.
All of these provide us with a window onto our recent past. Whether they are formal, scholarly, or "creative," as in novels, they attempt (often indirectly) to bring the world of the past to life for us. We see in them the classic social science interest of the relationship between structure and agency. Many remain in the "great man of history" mold. Others seek to ferret out the arcane and often ineffable--the "why-did-they-do-it" kind of work. We see also, simply, attempts at getting the "story straight." The motives for recovering the past are many. The modes in which they operate, however, are important to distinguish because the genres carry significantly different imperatives. Attitudes, for example, to what constitutes "fact" are distinctly different between what is scholarly and what is creative. While formal history pivots on the relationship between evidence and interpretation, and demands that the latter proceed only on the strength of reliable and verifiable fact, creative work is less constrained and depends on the imagination. Both are important and necessary. Allister Spark's recounting of the negotiation process that led to the coming to power of the African National Congress in the Government of National Unity in 1994 is of profound historical import. The National Party (of the apartheid order) mediators' role in the peace process needs to be understood as a critical element in the long-term narrative of the new South Africa. But, unfortunately, so too does one need to know the dark intrigues behind the oppressive apparatus that sustained the apartheid regime contained in Mark Behr's The Smell of Apples.
So we have in this range of writing a good body of experience for anybody interested in visiting the South Africa of the last half-century. But the range by no means tells the whole story of the subtleties of life under and against apartheid. Much of what is there is framed and mediated through the narrative of the epic. Both accounts of evil and good have, as their heroes, individuals, who, apart from being largely male, are invariably larger than life. How can the incredible story be told, for example, of the ability of people, particularly ordinary people, to continue to lead full and even joyful lives in the midst of the brutality and vulgarity of apartheid?
The apartheid world was far more complex and subtle than the pervasive monochrome depictions of it suggest. Revealing as Godfrey Moloi's My Life is of "African" township life, we await stories that talk to us about the discussions that must have taken place in families around self-preservation, around the kinds of strategies that families would have had to come up with to deal with the constant threat of immiseration and of being turned into political criminals. We await books that tell us about what it was like growing up in those small and almost invisible upwardly mobile "colored" and "Indian" townships-becoming-suburbs of the sixties, seventies, and eighties in the country's major cities. We await books that bring to life the discursive amplitude of middle-class "white" English South Africa with its inherent ambivalences about what constitutes "home"--South Africa--England, its relationship to Africa and blackness and Europe and whiteness. We await more texts of the likes of Rian Malan's My Traitor's Heart, Behr's The Smell of Apples, and Andr= Brink's A Dry White Season that take us into the world of political power, and the individual and family dysfunctionality that often accompanied everyday life in that world. There is much that still needs to be said for both South Africa's own edification and those outside the country who have an interest in what it is all about. Particularly important, it needs to be noted, is the development of an understanding inside and outside the country of how incomplete the stereotypes are that purport to capture what life was like under apartheid and move beyond the grasping tropes of the "hapless black victim" and the "contemptuous white master."
It is for this reason that Alan Wieder's book Voices from Cape Town Classrooms: Oral Histories of Teachers Who Fought Apartheid is important. This is a text that ought to be of interest to many, both for what it contains and for its methodological approach.
Voices from Cape Town Classrooms consists of twenty vignettes based on oral histories about teachers' lives in Cape Town during the apartheid era. Structurally the book is broken up into three sections, each of which is prefaced by a short introduction written by the author. The first section is called "Non-racialism: Teachers' League Stories," the second, "Stories from Robben Island," and the third and final section "Boycotts, Marches and Pedagogy: Teacher Struggle Stories." Important to the main body of the text methodologically is that the teachers all speak in their own voices. What Wieder has done is to take transcripts from an extensive archive of oral histories/interviews and to pull out material which deals with the anti-apartheid struggle in schools. In this sense, these are not teacher biographies or teacher life-histories. They are not intended to portray the full experience of becoming a teacher and the formation of teacher identity. But they do focus on teacher identity in the crucible of political struggle. To that extent their interest is focused on how teachers managed their professional identities. For Wieder they have important stories to tell because:
"they are not heroic if people like President Mandela and Bishop Tutu are how we define heroes. They aren't victims either ... but they were greatly affected by apartheid and their lives as teachers include both bravery and horror.... The horrors of apartheid were ever present in these teachers' lives, but it couldn't steal their souls.... Because of the government and because of the times, education and politics were never separate parts of their lives. So the people whose stories are told in this book offer both personal and collective windows to teaching and learning and school life during the apartheid years--and those stories are important.... They are teachers with the fighting spirit." (pp. 177-78, italics in the original)
The first part of the book consists of the stories of four stalwarts of the struggle against unequal education in Cape Town. Helen Kies, Tom Hanmer, Dick Dudley, and Maureen Adriaan were all members of the Teachers' League of South Africa at a time when the League was the pre-eminent educational organization, if not even civil society structure, for people of color in Cape Town from the early 1900s to the 1950s and 1960s. The title of the section "Non-racialism" is significant. It describes the driving, elemental force behind the work of teachers in the Teachers' League during this time. Each of the four stories pivots on the teachers' daily commitment to resist the attempts of the new apartheid order in the 1950s to bulldoze through the imposed identity of "colored" on the schools. True as it may be that these identities did have a currency in the schools, and that the schools were indeed organized socially around those descriptors, the Teachers' League vociferously rejected the process of official racialization introduced by the new apartheid government in terms of which every South African was given an official racial identity. One could not be anything other than that which the system ordained one to be, namely, "white" or "European," "African" or "Bantu," "Indian" or "Asian," and "colored."
The apartheid classification provided the justificatory architecture on which the entire system of rights and privileges rested in the country. Those classified "white" received the full benefits of citizenship while those who were deemed to be "Bantu" were disenfranchised. For them their political destinies and rights were to be found and exercised in politically and economically unviable homelands made up of atomized fragments of land scattered almost randomly on the South African landscape. People described as "colored" and "Indian," in their turn, retained legal rights as subjects in the political boundaries of the "white" state but had no access to the franchise. In terms of this the apartheid government dispensed differential, and unequal, rights to housing, health, education, and social provision. Alongside the apartheid government's coercive police and military apparatus, schooling was central for the reproduction of the relations of domination and subordination. School was used to promote identities of superiority and inferiority. It was against this that the four teachers struggled all their professional lives. Interesting stories that come up repeatedly in the vignettes, which reveal this, are stories of the teachers toiling day in and day out to invest in their schools and classrooms a sense of dignity for themselves and their children. Dick Dudley says, for example:
"When I was given the opportunity of interviewing the teachers, we used to tell them what the school was all about. And we used to point out to them that we don't have Coloured children at this school; we don't have African children at this school; we don't have Indian children at this school; we have boys and girls." (p. 38)
Teaching as they were to standards that they thought the apartheid education system was undermining, the Teachers' League members were certainly stern and uncompromising about education. It was this that often set them, or appeared to set them, apart from others who did not share their views. They were criticized, as a result, for being aloof and even of being "arm-chair" politicians. They did, however, demonstrate the indivisibility of the political and the pedagogical, and this was certainly one of their most important contributions to education in South Africa. The professional was not someone who dispassionately turned his or her back on questions of rights and justice. This tradition was extended in important ways in the decades that followed the oppressive sixties. These developments are captured in the sections that follow in Wieder's book, the middle section on Robben Island narratives, and the last section on the "boycott" era.
The Robben Island section describes the stories of two important activist intellectuals of Cape Town, Neville Alexander and Sedick Isaacs, and their imprisonment for sedition. Interesting about both Alexander and Isaacs was their proximity to the Teachers' League. Alexander had been a member of the League and its parent organization, the Non-European Unity Movement, but had decided by the early sixties that their politics were "too negative," as he puts it in his narrative. Isaacs taught at a key Teachers' League-dominated school but was attracted, as he said, by the "more energetic," "more radical" Pan African Congress. By the early sixties, inspired by the armed struggle in other anti-colonial countries, and running afoul of the country's draconian laws, both Alexander and Isaacs found themselves in Robben Island's maximum security prison. Significant about their stories are the roles they played while in prison. Alexander and Isaacs systematically, often with the grudging admiration and complicity of their jailers, set about organizing the prison into a learning environment. They began literacy classes, established study groups, helped fellow-prisoners to enroll for higher education. Alexander comments, "we really did turn 'The Island' into a university" (p. 61). Isaacs's stories of the ingenuity involved in this process are humbling. He describes how he wrote a textbook for a friend on toilet paper, and how, sadly, this book was discovered and this led to the prison authorities rationing toilet paper "one sheet per day" (p. 67).
What these prison accounts do is to provide further testimony of the intense commitment to education of teachers in the Cape. This commitment is carried through to the 1980s and 1990s by a group of younger teachers, many of whom learn in the classrooms of the older Teachers' League teachers. The final section of the book brings together the stories of fourteen extraordinary teachers. In this group are the new young radicals, and the teachers, some of them classified white, who become politicized either directly or indirectly through their experiences of teaching in black schools. Basil Snayer, Pam Hicks, Pam Dewes, Rose Jackson, Beth Mclagan, and Jimmy Slingers were active in the seventies, while the new radicals, who set the educational arena alight in the eighties included Mandy Sanger, Vivienne Carelse, Jean September, Kevin Wildschutt, Glen van Harte, Chitra Narshi, and June Bam.
Interesting about a number of the teachers is their relationship with the Teachers' League. A number of them develop their educational identities in relation to the Teachers' League, either shaped by its powerful interlocutors, like Dick Dudley at the landmark Cape Town school Livingstone High, and Jean Pease at Crestway Secondary, or in reaction to its perceived political caution. What is critical about these teachers, however, is that they moved (significantly, as a community) beyond the Teachers' League to establishing new pedagogical traditions in Cape Town. While they retain the commitment to good teaching of the older teachers, their analytic heads set them off in the direction of the streets where the political action was taking place. To retain their standing amongst their students it was not enough that they talk politics but that they did it also. They were out with the students when they organized rallies and marches, they helped them to print pamphlets and to make posters and banners, and, critically, they provided them with the political education that came to define the period. They were intensely involved with the students and the new teachers' organizations they helped to form, such as the South African Democratic Teachers' Union. They helped to organize on the ground; they shaped debates and crafted positions. Political harassment, as a result, was a regular occurrence.
The tradition that these teachers helped to introduce into Cape Town in the eighties and the nineties was that of the activist teacher. For a period of time, particularly during the eighties and the early nineties, one could argue that this identity was the pre-eminent one in Cape Town. It was the activist teacher who was the real teacher. Only the teacher who was able to express himself or herself politically and could take openly political positions in the curriculum was, it could be argued, a proper teacher. All others were weak. While this trope certainly did not prevail and did not come to define entirely how the role of the teacher ought to be constructed, it definitely, for a period of time, dominated teacher discourse in the field of practice and in certain corners of the academy.
In terms of its substance, Voices from Cape Town strikes a very different path from the kind of texts that one has become accustomed to in scholarly work in education. The importance of this book lies in two areas. In the first instance, it corrects, and in some ways rights the wrongs of, a historiographic tradition that has, for a variety of reasons, either minimized or, worse, on occasion, erased the contribution of the Teachers' League to education in Cape Town and South Africa. In telling the story of people such as Dudley, Kies, Hanmer, and Adriaan, Wieder pays tribute to a group of teachers that have had an enormous effect on public life in disadvantaged communities in Cape Town. Critically, moreover, in pursuing the narrative histories of the teachers of the seventies and the eighties, he shows how powerful this influence has been in giving teaching its identity in the Western Cape.
The book is also important because it works within the less accepted tradition of oral history. What is important about oral history is its attempt at giving voice. It is in many ways a riposte to conventional history and attitudes to history. It regards conventional history as often excluding and silencing. It sees itself as talking to the major concerns of history, inclusiveness, perspective, objectivity, and bias. It argues that all history is about bias and sees itself as a medium for inserting the voices of the excluded back into the conversation about history. What is critical about its intentions is its challenge to the authority of traditional forms of knowledge production. It takes issue with forms of knowledge production that suggest that only certain privileged authorized routes to "fact," "event," and "time" are valid. How people make meaning, oral historians argue, is what is important. This argument is extended to all sources of information. In terms of this, the sources on which the oral historian draws are as useful, reliable, and problematic as any other, not least of all documentary sources that enter the view of the historian. Moreover, as Wieder himself would argue, having people talk in their own voices, the way he does, is to present the subjects as the authors of their own worlds. Out of the process they emerge as historians in their own right.
Voices from Cape Town has earned Wieder critical acclaim in the Western Cape, South Africa. But there are some issues that need to be explored about work such as this.
What is critically important about the opportunity that Wieder has and takes in his attitude to his subjects is his ongoing concern about the ethics of writing history. While he is absolutely convinced of the importance of his project, and the need to protect the integrity of the project, he is fully conscious, throughout its development, of the question of voice and of the integrity of his subject's voice. He constantly is asking himself how his subject can and ought to be represented. The issues for him are of the "interpretation" of these subjects. In engaging these questions he brings himself into a strong and ongoing conversation with the work of Studs Terkel. It is the example of Terkel that he keeps in mind as he debates and grapples with the question of the discursive style that will best represent the complexity of his subject. In the end, he comes down against over-interpreting his subject and opts for people to speak in their own words. The text, as he puts it together, largely foregrounds his subject. He sees his own task as that of helping the voice to be heard.
It is this representational style that has come to define Wieder's work. It has its strengths and weaknesses. The strength of this work is its methodological logic and its sympathy with the subject. The logic essentially emanates from an analysis that runs along the following lines of argument: that much of the primary material that he, as an historian, has access to lies not in the public record. The public record constitutes, for political reasons, an archive that is systemically structured to silence the voice of the marginalized. It is encoded and captured in ways that will not reveal the full scope and texture of the experience of the marginalized. This public record often, moreover, plays the role of decentering the experience of the marginalized by stereotyping that experience. It is for this reason that he takes recourse to oral history. It is only through an oral history that the marginalized experience can be heard as it wishes itself to be heard. He chooses, and this is evident in his debates around the work of R. O. Dudley, to interfere as little as he needs to in the narrative of his subject. His subject, he argues, is deliberately choosing to present himself or herself in his or her own discursive language. What is important about this strategy, and it is important to emphasize how self-conscious it is, is its sensitivity to the subject. Holding it up is a consistent anxiety of and about reading his subject. He wants his subject to hold his or her own authorial voice. In the prevailing literature around voice this approach is ethically grounded. It represents a strand of thought in oral history that essentially takes the line that the kind of symbolic violence and oppression that is done to the subject in most historical works is untenable and unacceptable. Ethically it proceeds from an understanding that a text, in its attempts at telling a story, is a moment of extreme representational power. It poses questions about this power and insists that an insistent attempt must be made to preserve the integrity of the subject's voice.
There are, however, as Wieder is aware, many criticisms of this approach. There is a large body of work that is critical of what could be termed na=ve realism, which, the argument goes, underplays the different kinds of power valencies that circulate in the telling of any story. This power, it is argued, animates and gives character to the emphases, punctuations, and silences inside of a story. These emphases, punctuations, and silences reflect what is valued and disvalued, what is privileged and disprivileged. Critically, the construction of a story, the ways in which events are assembled, sequenced, and arranged for the telling, are powerful reflections of choice, of the choice of that which is presumed to count and that which does not count. Following this, innocent narration does not exist; narrations are constructions of reality and are, therefore, in their turn thoroughly amenable to deconstruction. There are, to illustrate the point, no representations in the work of teachers classified African. There were good reasons why this may not have happened. But in these terms, therefore, it is not inconsequential how the oral historian puts together a transcript. The process reflects the historian's own intervention in the process of representing a history.
Wieder is perfectly aware of these debates. He recounts the experience of a critic at a seminar in South Africa telling him, "I was criticized by a prominent historian for being a conduit for those I interviewed. A person with a sharper wit than I possess would have said 'thank you.' What could be a greater compliment than someone telling me that I am providing a public voice for those who are often silent" (p. 2). Different as this comment is from the line of thought developed in the paragraph above, the essence of this criticism is that his work will tend towards the preservation of the subject's construction of reality. But that is exactly what his argument is about. It is this that makes his work so provocative and such an important contribution.
This work constitutes an important new contribution to the still-small body of literature on teachers in South Africa and has already made a major impact in the Western Cape and has opened up debates amongst teachers both in their individual capacities and in their roles as members of teacher organizations. Significantly, it has helped to get teachers reflecting on their own formation and on what it is that they do now. In these terms the arrival of this book constitutes, for 2003, an extremely significant moment in the local education community.
. Notable books include Antjie Krog, Country of My Skull (Johannesburg: Random House, 1998); Zubeida Jaffer, Our Generation (Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2003); Gavin Evans, Dancing Shoes Is Dead (New York: Doubleday, 2002); Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (Boston: Little, Brown, 1994); J. M. Coetzee's celebrated but controversial Disgrace (London: Secker and Warburg, 1999); Ismail Meer, A Fortunate Man (Cape Town: Zebra Press, 2002); Elinor Sisulu, Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime (Cape Town: D. Philip, 2002); Terry Bell with Dumisa Ntsebeza, Unfinished Business: South Africa Apartheid and Truth (Cape Town: Redworks, 2001; London: Verso, 2003); Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, A Human Being Died That Night (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003); and Hilda Bernstein, A Life of One's Own (Houghton: Jacana, 2002).
. Allister Sparks, Tomorrow Is Another Country: The Inside Story of South Africa's Negotiated Revolution (Sandton: Struik, 1994).
. Mark Behr, The Smell of Apples (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995).
. Godfrey Moloi, My Life (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1987).
. Rian Malan, My Traitor's Heart (London: Bodley Head, 1990); and Andr= Brink, A Dry White Season (London: W. H. Allen, 1979).
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Crain Soudien. Review of Wieder, Alan, Voices from Cape Town Classrooms: Oral Histories of Teachers Who Fought Apartheid.
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