Indigenous Storytelling: Human Science Research Council briefing

Arts and Culture

06 September 2005
Share this page:

Meeting Summary

A summary of this committee meeting is not yet available.

Meeting report

6 September 2005


Mr S Tsenoli (ANC)

Documents handed out:

Indigenous Stories and Storytelling: Human Science Research Council PowerPoint presentation
The Subtitle Power of Intangible Heritage



The Human Science Research Council (HSRC) briefed the Committee on indigenous stories and storytelling. The collection of indigenous stories had been neglected in the past, despite the fact that these stories played a key role in South Africa’s ‘intangible heritage’. The HSRC highlighted that best practice programmes should ensure the proper collection of stories. The Council hoped that the Committee would play an important role in directing the programmes.

The Committee supported the initiatives of the HSRC. Members also suggested that songs and music be listed as another source of indigenous storytelling. Committee Members also enquired about the exploitation of indigenous communities and storytellers by outsiders who collected stories and received all the recognition. Members also enquired if it was possible to get the youth more interested and enthusiastic about indigenous stories. The Committee hoped to address the funding and communication problems surrounding indigenous knowledge initiatives in the future.


Human Science Research Council briefing
Ms Harriet Deacon (Senior Research Specialist) and Ms Inez Stephney (Researcher) briefed the Committee on indigenous stories and storytellers. Stories were a key part of South Africa’s rich legacy of ‘intangible heritage’. The briefing concentrated on the collection of indigenous stories and the role of storytellers. Stories were important as they brought communities together in a shared understanding of the world and their place in it. They served as an important knowledge base and often spoke about real issues such as nature, history and moral lessons.

Collecting stories was not new and there were a number of important reasons for the collection of stories. Indigenous stories were especially important in Africa as oral traditions continued to play a strong role. A number of programmes existed to collect indigenous stories neglected in the past. In order for these programmes to be successful national facilitating, coordinating and funding capacity had to be enhanced and indigenous knowledge had to be broadened to include storytelling. A number of best practices should also be followed for these programmes to be successful.

Most importantly the skills of storytellers needed to be recognized and the intellectual property rights of indigenous communities needed to be protected. One way to achieve this was that Researchers had to be trained to collect stories within their own communities. Examples of good practice in other countries such as America and India should also be adapted for South African story collecting initiatives.

The Chairperson commented that the HSRC’s attempt to define storytelling by using a few of the official languages was extremely useful. This was a positive direction to take for the future. However, he pointed out that there were many African words and names that had been miss-spelt in the presentation. These needed to be corrected as they would be problematic in the future.

The promotion of indigenous knowledge, including its destigmatisation and growing acceptance, was extremely important. Africa’s inclusion in the World Heritage Committee in 1994 lead to the issue of intangible heritage being placed on the international agenda for the first time. A number of issues that had been raised at this briefing resulted from this inclusion. These issues surrounding indigenous knowledge would also play an important role in reaching an African consensus on social cohesion.

Mr L Zita (ANC) had a number of questions. Firstly, he highlighted the existence of a technique used to tell stories of myths in European culture. This form of story telling seemed to resemble African storytelling as it reported on ancient times and even particular events in history. He felt that this resemblance meant that South Africa could learn from these techniques in order to recover it own memories. He was therefore curious to know if the HSRC had been analysing European techniques to uncover how a person should be relating to the issue of storytelling within the African context.

Secondly, another important source of indigenous knowledge was traditional music. He questioned how one could deal with the problem of patenting with regards to traditional music. Most African music, for example African jazz, was community based. How could African music be patented when it represented an entire community? His third question was how myths could be made active and "alive" in the present day. What mechanisms could be put into place to keep these old stories alive? Lastly, South Africa was a mixture of both European and African cultures. Which of these should be dominant when collecting stories and dealing with intangible heritage?

Ms Deacon responded that Government policy had made it clear that African identity dominated. African identity would always be consulted first when trying to understand the South African identity. This could also be seen in the fact that Government policy valued living and intangible heritage locally. Once confidence existed in a country’s own identity it could then comment on the identities of other countries. Other countries’ identities became less hegemonic and controlling once confidence existed in the local culture.

Mr C Gololo (ANC) also enquired whether music was not an additional way in which stories could be told. For example, a great deal of South African jazz described how black people had lived in the past and how they lived in the present.

Ms Stephney responded that a number of well-known storytellers used the mediums of music and dance to tell their stories. In the past a number of songs had been stolen from indigenous communities. An example was the song with the lyrics "the Lion sleeps tonight" where the original singer was only given the rights to the song after his death. It was important that people realized upfront that when launching storytelling projects clear parameters should be set up. These parameters included direct community involvement from the beginning of the project so that indigenous stories and songs were not taken away from communities. This had been one of the main problems in the past. Communities had not been involved from the beginning of these initiatives to collect stories.

Mr M Sonto (ANC) directed his questions to the HSRC in Xhosa. When the speakers did not understand him he questioned whether they were "indigenous" enough to be dealing with the issue of indigenous storytelling. He suggested that the HSRC had not been taking the work it was doing seriously as it did not take into consideration the importance of understanding the official languages. He then explained that he had basically asked two questions. Firstly, he commented that a number of issues had been raised. He enquired whether there had been any progress made regarding these issues; were targets being reached? Secondly, he highlighted the fact that most of the briefing dealt with the word "indigenous". However, when references had been made, America and Australia were mentioned as examples and not South African provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal. Did such mechanisms not exist in these provinces and if not, what needed to be done to create these mechanisms?

Ms Deacon felt that the HSRC definitely took all eleven official languages very seriously. The briefing had tried to emphasise the importance of all the official languages in indigenous storytelling. The HSRC agreed with Mr Sonto’s argument that language was important, despite not everyone being able to speak all eleven official languages.

She also responded that the ability to look beyond the country’s borders to outside cultures and identities tied in with using other countries as examples on how intangible heritage was managed. The same issues came up in many different countries. The mechanisms used to deal with these issues could be adapted to deal with the issues or problems that South Africa faced. On a policy level, the actual content was not important but the mechanisms used to deal with this content could be adapted to fit South Africa’s purposes.

Ms D van der Walt (DA) commented that she had grown up with many traditional Afrikaans stories for example "racheltjie de beer". These stories usually gave a number of moral lessons including the lesson of being more caring towards others. She enquired what success rate these stories had with the young people of today. How did one promote storytellers and stories in the different communities? Secondly, when telling people traditional viVenda stories from her province it was often difficult for these people to understand these stories. The reason for this was that people could not picture the stories as they had not visited the places these stories spoke about. How did one deal with this problem?

Thirdly, she highlighted the fact that people told stories differently. She asked if this did not mean that the original true version of the story was often lost due to so many different accounts being given by different people. Lastly, she enquired about the link between indigenous stories and South African television. The SABC broadcast a number of European cartoons to their youth audience. However, she felt that indigenous stories should rather be shown in the form of cartoons that would make them entertaining to children. She also suggested that radio be used to tell indigenous stories to small children. Stories could also be told to those who were illiterate through the use of pictures.

Ms Deacon responded that a true, perfect version of a story did not exist. If this was recognised from the beginning stories could be understood far more deeply. The factors that shaped stories could then be studied, as well as the reasons for why these stories changed. What often occurred was that too few versions of stories were collected. This had to be avoided.

It was also important to note that storytelling was not solely directed to tourists who were complete outsiders. Often people had come from certain rural areas and on returning to these areas they would come into contact with storytellers. An example was thatching techniques in Japan that had been almost forgotten in urban areas. Programmes were initiated where people from the cities returned to the rural areas in order to learn these thatching techniques. These kinds of models could be adapted for South African purposes. Storytelling initiatives were not only created to generate money from tourists. A number of initiatives had been set up that were aimed solely at developing communities.

The Chairperson agreed that most people approached stories differently according to who they were. These people also adapted their stories according to the audience they were telling the stories to. It was therefore extremely important that all versions of stories be collected.

Mr C Gololo (ANC) agreed with Ms van der Walt that it was very difficult to tell stories to today’s children. Most of them were only interested in the latest technology, for example DVDs. How could these stories be told in a way that would make children interested in them?

Ms Deacon commented that globalisation was extremely problematic. An example of this was the fact that teenagers identified easier with the Coca-Cola brand than with their own cultural or historical background. The interest in indigenous stories and storytelling could be seen as a movement against globalisation, by concentrating on what could be done locally.

She suggested that storytelling projects be included in the education system by introducing them into school curricula. A number of young people had shown interest in collecting intangible heritages. These cases should be studied in order to determine the reasons for this interest, so that it could be used to encourage the youth to become involved. However, including storytelling projects in school curricula was not as simple as it seemed. Many storytellers had in the past felt that their stories were being stolen by the teachers who had taken over the role of telling the stories to their learners. The inclusion of storytelling in the education system needed to be approached in a sensitive manner.

A number of interesting television initiatives had taken place in the past. An example was a program on cosmology. Television was an important way of grabbing the attention of people regarding local issues and keeping them focused on these issues.

The Chairperson added that a programme had started on one of the local SABC channels that told stories from the rest of the continent. It was based on the concept of opening South Africa to stories from the rest of the continent. He also stated that it was important to be imaginative in order to gain the interest of children for indigenous stories.

Mr K Moonsamy (ANC) asked how the HSRC imparted the findings of research done on local heritage to the rest of the nation. Secondly, he enquired whether it would be possible to have storytellers tell the learners at schools about indigenous stories. The direct inclusion of storytellers in the curriculum would mean that teachers would not be accused of taking over from the storytellers. He also asked if it would not be possible to hold storyteller evenings in the various communities in order to promote the country’s indigenous heritage.

Mr M Sonto (ANC) further highlighted that many excellent storytellers were not educated. If these storytellers could be used to promote indigenous stories at schools with the aid of teachers, the divide between the uneducated and the educated could be breached. This would be positive for social cohesion as many communists often spoke of the wish for a classless society.

The Chairperson responded that storytellers often requested large amounts of money from schools that wanted them to tell stories to their learners. This was especially problematic for the poorer schools that could definitely not afford these storytellers. However it was extremely important to find a way to bridge the gap between storytellers and teachers.

Mr Zulu (ANC) mentioned that there were a number of problems surrounding indigenous storytelling. One of these problems was when white researchers such as John Player collected stories from traditional communities and then took all the recognition for these stories, while the communities received nothing. Another problem was that it was almost impossible to find indigenous stories and information in bookshops. Many storytellers wished to publish their stories. However when approaching publishing companies they received no support or assistance. He asked what role the HSRC expected the Committee to play when trying to overcome these problems as well as numerous others.

Ms Deacon responded that the HSRC aimed to create a framework within which the Committee could help direct the projects designed to collect stories. It was extremely important that people did research within their own communities. In other words, the HSRC wanted to prevent people coming from the outside and collecting stories and then gaining all the recognition.

She also highlighted that a number of institutions had launched projects to promote the publishing of indigenous languages. However the publication of indigenous stories was still problematic. It would only be solved if publication initiatives were included in storytelling projects so that sufficient vehicles were created for people to get their stories into the public domain. She suggested that publication projects be tied to storytelling projects so that royalties could go back to the communities.

The Chairperson argued that John Player had played an important role. He had linked local stories to a way of life beyond the territory from which these stories originated. Many people did not understand these stories in their original Zulu form but benefited from John Player’s interpretation. It was important that this positive aspect of John Player’s work be highlighted.

Mr H Maluleka (ANC) enquired whether the HSRC was able to establish the origins of indigenous stories and music. How did the HSRC protect people so that their music and stories were not stolen?

The Chairperson highlighted the fact that an interdepartmental team had been created to deal with indigenous knowledge systems. Each department would obviously have a bias in the area in which they worked. However, these departments tried to come to together to look at the entire holistic picture. The Department of Science and Technology could therefore not be accused of bias as science was their area of expertise. It was therefore expected that this Department would approach the issue of indigenous knowledge systems from a scientific point of view. However, it was important that all departments involved make concessions.

The Chairperson also commented that it was important to identify what state institutions were doing about the promotion of indigenous knowledge systems. This issue was important as it tied in directly with the African Renaissance. The Committee needed to address the problems of communication and funding of indigenous knowledge initiatives. The Committee hoped to discuss and address these issues in the future with the departments concerned.

The meeting was adjourned.


No related


No related documents


  • We don't have attendance info for this committee meeting

Download as PDF

You can download this page as a PDF using your browser's print functionality. Click on the "Print" button below and select the "PDF" option under destinations/printers.

See detailed instructions for your browser here.

Share this page: