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Oral History Office Is Commissioned by Carnegie Corp to Document Anti-Apartheid Work

By A. Dunlap Smith

(Photo by Ron Sherman)

Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town

What is the significance of recording on video the "oral history" of South Africa's anti-apartheid leaders? Nothing less than preserving the vigor of those who brought freedom to their people.

"The charismatic power of a man like Tutu doesn't come across on audio tape, but can only be seen and felt, really, on video," explained Mary Marshall Clark, the associate director of the Oral History Research Office at Columbia.

Clark interviewed Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, during a recent trip to the Carter Center in Atlanta. Tutu was the last of 10 South Africans prominent in the struggle to end apartheid whom she videotaped for the Carnegie Corporation, the New York-based philanthropic foundation. The other nine anti-apartheid leaders were taped by Clark and two colleagues in either Cape Town or Johannesburg during a two-week trip there in August.

The South Africa project is a part of a larger oral history about the Carnegie Corp.'s work from the mid-60s to the present that the foundation commissioned Columbia's Oral History Office to produce. The Office has so far amassed 200 hours of audiotape and 75 hours of videotape since beginning the $690,000, four-year commission in 1996.

Tutu Had His Doubts: 'Like Whistling in the Dark'

"There were very many moments when [freedom] was doubtful," Tutu said, explaining that convictions, even among the faithful, were fragile. "You often held on to them by the skin of your teeth: the fact that this was God's world; that goodness would ultimately prevail. It was almost like whistling in the dark. There were many moments when you were saying it really to keep your own morale up, let alone seeking to boost the morale of our people."

That he has lived to see freedom come to South Africa is so marvelous to him he occasionally must remind himself of it. "Sometimes I go to our Parliament when I'm feeling a little low and I sit in the public gallery and I look down on all those guys. And here are all these 'terrorists', and now they are cabinet ministers. And the chief terrorist was the president at the time, Nelson Mandela. And you say, God does have an incredible sense of humor."

More Than Just a Professional Impact

As videotaped interviews such as these accumulated, so did Mary Marshall Clark's appreciation for this medium new to her profession. The once staunchly aural oral historian was finally converted to wholehearted advocacy for the visual as an important new form for oral history while in Atlanta.

But hearing the stories of South Africa's liberation had more than just a professional impact. "Life-changing" was what came to her first, but no, she says, that didn't quite explain it. What the experience had really done was . . . focus her life.

"It was 'life-focusing' because I know now what I've got to do," Clark said. "For me, I want to focus my intellectual energies on comparing South Africa to the American South, where I grew up; and for my work, I want to establish a professional studio where we can make and archive videotaped oral histories--I'm now convinced that the future of this field is in video."

Carnegie stipulated that the Oral History Office shoot video interviews as both a complement to the traditional audio format and an exploration of the newer medium's role in what has until very recently been a strictly aural endeavor. It earmarked $300,000 of the budget for video, allowing the office to work with top-of-the-line equipment on high-resolution digital beta suitable for multimedia environments and formatted for wide-screen TV.

The foundation will play the tapes to its trustees and new staff to show them the effect its grants can have when applied to such struggles as the anti-apartheid movement. The public will have access to the tapes at the Oral History Research Office where a complete set will be stored. The Office will add these to the 400-hour, 10,000-page, oral history of the Carnegie Corp., from its founding in 1911 to the mid-1960s, that it produced in 1972.

Of Clark's South Africa experience, it is perhaps even more precise to describe it as a "re-focusing," for race relations is a subject that has fascinated her since childhood. She grew up in the southeastern corner of North Carolina in Clarkton, a town founded by her ancestors and populated by 600 people. Here, while Clark was growing up, a transgressor of the jim crow laws might have had to answer to the Ku Klux Klan.

"The only gas station in town shared its building with the only restaurant," she says, "and I remember that a black friend of mine was not allowed in when we wanted to have lunch; black people could buy gas, but they couldn't eat with whites."

Clark was reared in a family of transgressors, however. Her grandmother, a social reformer who tried to integrate the local black and white schools in the 1920s and '30s, carried the Bible with her on nightly visits to her neighbors to cite passages demonstrating that Christianity was antithetical to racism.

"She had a real vision of a multiracial society that she passed down to all of her children and grandchildren," Clark says. "[She] was the formative influence for me in terms of religion and race . . . [I] wish I could live up to her someday."

Clark's first cousin, Margaret Ray, formed the group that devised 30 years ago a busing plan to desegregate the school system in Charlotte, N.C. The plan, Clark says ruefully, was overturned by the city this September, allowing Charlotte's schools to slide into de facto segregation once again.

She remembers that her father, who occasionally preached and gave eulogies in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was forced out of his position as an elder in the local Presbyterian church when he became active in the civil rights movement. "The K.K.K. didn't like any of us much and were good about letting us know that."

Combining her fascination with race and religion, Clark went on to earn two master's degrees from Union Theological Seminary on Morningside Heights. One of her degrees centered on black theology in the U.S. and the other on the ecumenical aspects of liberation theology in the developing world. But these, she says, only whetted her desire to know more.

Personal and professional obligations, especially a long stint at The New York Times where she helped compile the paper's oral history, sidelined plans for further investigation of America's brand of apartheid, though. Then, this summer, the Oral History Office, through a special grant from the Carnegie Corp., sent her and her associates and 300 pounds of audio and video equipment to South Africa.

"Ever since I was a kid I dreamt of a place where the system was reversed, where blacks ran things," Clark says, "and South Africa was that place--it completely amazed me."

Filming on Location in South Africa

Clark and her crew, which grew to about 10 with the addition of the South Africans she hired on location, worked 20-hour days preparing and shooting the 22 hours of interviews they brought back to the States. As fatiguing as the work was, just to be in post-apartheid South Africa and to speak with some of the people who helped create it kept Clark's spirits high. "Try to imagine going back to interview people seven years after the American Revolution; that's what it was like."

They interviewed such Carnegie grantees as Arthur Chaskalson, now the Judge President of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and one of the authors of his country's new constitution. Chaskalson abandoned a thriving corporate law practice in the late 1970s to open, with Carnegie's support, free legal clinics and to challenge the constitutionality of apartheid laws.

They also interviewed Francis Wilson and Mamphela Ramphele, co-authors of Uprooting Poverty: The South African Challenge, the book based on Carnegie's Second Inquiry into Poverty in South Africa. Wilson directed the inquiry, which involved coordinating the work of more than 300 researchers in the 1980s, and resulted in the seminal study of black poverty that documented apartheid's active hand not just in segregating blacks from whites but in promoting black impoverishment as a means to subjugation.

Ramphele, who also authored Across Boundaries: The Life Journey of a South African Woman Leader, was consequently barred from travelling outside her province for seven years; in 1996 she was named vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town. Next year Ramphele will join the World Bank in Washington, D.C., as one of its four managing directors. She is the first South African woman to be appointed to an international agency.

It was Ramphele who, Clark says, stated in her interview that Carnegie's support of a study on poverty focusing on blacks "helped clean up the mess they made [earlier]." She was alluding to the first Carnegie Inquiry on Poverty in South Africa, which focused on rural whites, conducted in the 1930s. The study was used by the National (Afrikaner) Party to support its call for an apartheid South Africa during its rise to power in the 1940s, and later to enact the laws that built the racist regime.

The most notorious of these laws was probably the Bantu Education Act of 1953. The Act barred black South Africans from receiving more than a rudimentary education and dismantled the country's mission schools established by the Dutch Reform Church. The schools had provided blacks one of their few avenues to a full education and therefore to advancement in South African society.

(Photo by Ron Sherman)

Archbishop Emeritus Tutu is interviewed by Mary Marshall Clark, the associate director of the Oral History Research Office at Columbia.

'We've Got to Remember'

Yet, even as it fortified the apartheid regime, the Act was also in part responsible for creating one of the architect's of the regime's ultimate destruction. Desmond Tutu was a young school teacher at the time the Bantu Education Act passed into law. He abandoned teaching in disgust, however, saying that the purpose of the Bantu school system that the Act established was to educate black "children into perpetual serfdom." Tutu was forced to look for another forum--the ministry--in which to help his people and to give voice to his anger with South Africa's institutional racism.

Since her conversation with Tutu, Clark has come to disagree with him over one question: How should the victims of apartheid cope with its memory? "He told me 'It's good to have a little bit of amnesia, because when you think about the details of repression . . . you would really go crazy'," Clark said, "but from both a professional and a personal standpoint, I feel he's wrong: you risk going crazy if have amnesia. It's thanks to speaking with him and working on this South Africa project that I'm more certain than ever--we've got to remember."

Note: The Oral History Research Office just received an additional grant of almost $70,000 from the Carnegie Corp. to produce a documentary video on the role of the foundation in South Africa from the material collected there by Clark and her colleagues. It is the office's first such video.

Published: Nov 30, 1999
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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