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#Researchforimpact: Stories that sit with us
Author: Division for Research Development
Published: 22/09/2020

​The street where she stands, one of the busiest in the township of Bonteheuwel on the Cape Flats, is bustling with people, dogs and traffic. Young boys are showing off their top-spinning skills, girls are skipping rope, groups of young men are standing around smoking hookah pipes and women are carrying grocery bags, all against the background din of hooting taxis.

It's just another Saturday in Bonteheuwel, where many former residents of District Six and other areas in Cape Town were forcibly moved to in the 1960s due to the Group Areas Act of 1950. Stofberg's family too was moved here when she was just a little girl. “These youngsters walk past here every day and have no clue what happened," she says, pointing at one specific house. “The police came into that house one night and picked her up. Her baby was only a few months old, so the police sommer put the baby in the van too. They suspected she was involved with some stuff… anti-government stuff," she says hesitantly as her voice drops to a whisper, as if she is still too scared to say this out loud. She adjusts her black hijab and sighs. “We must have these stories told. The young ones today tell us straight, 'Nee, vi' wat moet o's nou wee' daai hoo'?' (No, why must you tell us that again?)

 “What must we do if that is their attitude? They have no respect for our stories or for the history of the country. We rely on you (Stellenbosch University) to help us tell these stories," Stofberg pleads.

Collecting stories to drive change

Exploring stories such as Stofberg's about the trauma of apartheid and the impact it still has on the lives of everyday South Africans was precisely the aim of a recent collaborative research project between SU's Studies in Historical Trauma and Transformation Unit in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. The project, titled “Trauma, Memory and Representations of the Past", was started four years ago and funded mainly by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences.

 According to Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, holder of the SARChI Chair in Violent Histories and Transgenerational Transformation at SU, researchers often “disappear" from communities in which they worked without ever providing participants with feedback on the research and findings. In the aforementioned collaborative project, however, researchers managed not only to obtain information from participants, but also to establish purposeful partnerships and networks with the communities in which they worked.

SU aims to embrace the communities it serves to bring about social, cultural, environmental and economic development and change. One way of achieving this goal is through research projects such as this one.

This project is a first in making its participants' voices a part of the country's history. The stories of some of the research participants were published in a book titled These are the Things that Sit with Us, which was launched in the three communities where the research was conducted: Bonteheuwel, Langa and Worcester. At the launch events, research participants whose stories were included in the book had, for the first time in their lives, the chance to share their stories in a public space.

This book, Gobodo-Madikizela's brainchild, gives readers insight into the undocumented everyday experiences that shaped the lives of ordinary South Africans during the country's brutal and painful past. Its aim is to increase and deepen conversations about our collective history. “By sharing their memories, the storytellers map the scope of the wider, and difficult, conversation about the meaning of justice and the missing parts of the discourse of reconciliation in South Africa," Gobodo-Madikizela explains.

The same story told in different languages

For the researchers, it was important to publish each story in the same language the relevant storyteller used in remembering and presenting their experiences. As such, the book tells stories in three languages: Afrikaans, English and isiXhosa.

South Africans need to see that their stories exist in other vocabularies, the researchers argue. “A Xhosa story takes on a different meaning when it also exists in Afrikaans. We hope that when people see stories emanating from their own language community in the language of a different language community, it will serve as a bridge between the diverse experiences that make up our South African nation," says Gobodo-Madikizela.

“This book represents new ways of doing, new ways of knowing, and hopefully also new ways of being in this country. In this, there may be lessons to share with the rest of the world. Bringing together the stories gathered in the research project in a book like this positions research participants in a different way. It acknowledges that they have something to say, and that what they have to say is important enough for other people to see and hear."

Dr Marietjie Oelofsen, a researcher in SU's Studies in Historical Trauma and Transformation Unit, and one of the editors of the book, says it took her by surprise how much the opportunity to share their stories meant to participants. “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a starting point for people to tell their stories, but after the commission wrapped up its work, we suspended the conversation. We have not yet fully unpacked these stories, and this book we have compiled is an effort to draw more South Africans into these conversations."

* This article featured in the latest edition of Stellenbosch University (SU)'s  multi-award winning publication Research at Stellenbosch University . Produced annually by SU's Division for Research Development (DRD), this flagship publication offers the national and international research community as well as other interested parties a comprehensive, yet accessible overview of innovative and interesting research being done at the institution.The theme of the edition is Research for Impact which is one of SU's core strategic themes from its Vision 2040 and Strategic Framework 2019–2024.