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The Revolution in South African Historiography

Iain R. Smith looks at the changes in the study of South Africa's past.

During the past twenty-five years, the study of South African history has undergone a transformation which, in historiographical terms, represents a revolution. The history has been decolonised even if the society itself has not. The long overdue Africanisation of South African history, and the shift away from an ethnocentric, and particularly a white ethnocentric approach, has led to enormous advances in our knowledge of the previously neglected history of the African societies of the area. South African history is no longer presented purely within the parameters set by a white-settler society or the history of European expansion overseas. Rather, it is in the process of being assimilated into the history of the African continent. None of the several recent short histories of South Africa begin with the Portuguese voyages of discovery, or the Dutch settlement at Cape Town in 1652, but with the history of the African peoples of the area. Probably the best overall synthesis of South African history is now to be found in the relevant chapters of the Cambridge History of Africa (8 vols. 1975-86).

Recent historians of South Africa have learned much from specialists in other disciplines, from historians of other parts of the world, and especially from historians of other parts of Africa – whose work has formed one of the most remarkable advances in any area of historical scholarship during the past thirty years. The influence of American writing on the frontier, race and slavery, of the Annales school, of British social history, and of the History Workshop movement have also been important. There has been a particular interest in the historical development of structures of oppression and white domination in South Africa, and in comparative studies which have combined the history of South Africa with that of societies of white settlement elsewhere. G.M. Fredrickson's White Supremacy (1981), H. Lamar & L. Thompson's study of The Frontier in History (1982), Donald Denoon's work on Settler Capitalism (1983) and John Cell's book on the origins of segregation in South Africa and the American South, The Highest Stage of White Supremacy (1982) are all good examples.

Recent historians of South Africa have shared with historians generally a preoccupation with economic and social history and they have moved away from political history, narrowly defined, and especially from the issues of white political history which so largely preoccupied an earlier generation of South African historians. They have also shared with historians generally an interest in exploring the history of ordinary people, as well as that of elites and policy-makers, i.e. in 'bottom-up' as well as 'top-down' history. Much of the most innovative, fruitful and influential recent work has come from historians with a loosely Marxist approach and a particular interest in the processes of social stratification and class formation in a multi-racial, industrial and capitalist society. As a citadel of capitalism, as well as a plural society based upon racial classification, South Africa challenges the late twentieth-century world in two of its most sensitive spots. Issues of class and race have therefore been amongst those most hotly debated by historians during the 1970s and 1980s.

The transformation in the writing of South African history began in the late 1960s when a number of South African historians encountered, in Britain and the United States, a much more inter-disciplinary and wide-ranging intellectual environment than then existed in South African universities. Both Leonard Thompson (at UCLA, later at Yale) and Shula Marks (in London) established seminars and supervised doctoral dissertations which challenged the assumptions of much previous writing on the South African past. The publication of the Oxford History of South Africa (1969-71) marked a watershed. It was the first general history to provide a substantial body of information about the African population and its first volume de- voted as much space to blacks as to whiles. It was a pioneering and inter- disciplinary venture, written when very little research had yet been done on the many topics it surveyed, yet it provoked a great deal of controversy, especially amongst radical historians, who were more eager to attack its weaknesses than to acknowledge its strengths and innovations. Certainly, it helped to stimulate much of the work of the 1970s.

Much of this new work emanated from London where, since 1969, Shula Marks has run a seminar which was soon recognised as the single most important forum for the presentation of research on South African history. Some of her post-graduate students went back to posts in South African universities and there encouraged further research of growing importance, diversity and vitality. The path-breaking work of Charles van Onselen, for example, on the social and economic history of the Rand, resulted in two key volumes of essays, New Babylon and New Nineveh (1982), whilst many of the best papers from the London seminar were published. Three volumes of essays, edited by Shula Marks with various co-authors (1980, 1982, 1987) have been especially notable for introducing new work to a wider audience. The Journal of Southern African Studies and the recently established Southern African Review of Books have also been important in this regard. Today, South African history is probably more widely taught than that of any other part of the African continent in universities worldwide.

In South African universities, the teaching of South African history was transformed during the 1970s as a new generation of younger historians became absorbed in the recovery of the history of the majority, African population of the country. Because of the distances, the great regional diversities, and the riches of local archives and resources, much effort went into local history. The History Workshops, organised by Belinda Bozzoli at the University of the Witwatersrand since 1979, have become the forum where the most important work underway in all the South African universities is now presented in a uniquely stimulating and informal context before specialists from all over the country and the world. The South African Historical Journal and the publications of the Ravan Press, Johannesburg, have also played an important role in disseminating recent research.

In the writing of popular history, South African historians have made a contribution, during the 1980s, which should be of interest to anyone writing or teaching in a Third World context. Luli Callinicos' two volumes, Gold and Workers (1981) and Working Life (1987) are good examples of well-illustrated 'people's history', whilst Belinda Bozzoli and her team are producing tape-slide shows, about ordinary people and their lives in the recent past, which form a new way of communicating the findings of historians to audiences in black schools and townships.

The subject matter of South African historical research has also continued to change and diversify. The discovery of diamonds at Kimberley and gold on the Witwatersrand began, in the 1870s, one of the most rapid and astonishing industrial revolutions in world history, the social, economic, and political repercussions of which have dominated South Africa's history ever since. During the 1970s, much attention was focused by historians on the mining industry and the development of its concomitant system of black migrant labour, whilst the effects of this, together with the other transformations affecting African rural societies, were the subject of seminal studies by Colin Bundy, William Beinart, Tim Keegan and others. More recently, the pre-industrial history of South Africa has also come in for fresh appraisal with excellent studies of slavery and the early inter-action between the European settlers and the Khoikhoi (Hottentot), San (Bushmen) and other African peoples. Today, South Africa enjoys a historiography of exceptional richness, vitality and diversity which includes some outstanding exercises in African biography, such as Leonard Thompson's account of Moshweshwe (1975) and Brian Willan's study of Sol Plaatje (1984). There is, however, as yet no single, satisfactory synthesis of South Africa's history within one volume. C.W. de Kiewiet's A History of South Africa: Social and Economic (1941) – a superb distillation for its time – is now hopelessly out-dated; the third edition of T.R.H. Davenport's South Africa: a Modern History (1987), though more a marvellous digest of up-to-date information than a successful synthesis, probably represents the best there is.

In a country where the past is seen as having a direct relevance to the present, and where political commitments in the present inevitably affect the approach to the past, there is a very strong pull towards the twentieth-century and to exposing the still living history of the very recent past. Much current work is being done on the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, where the use of oral evidence and the development of oral history projects are most fruitful. In this, South African historians have much in common with what is going on elsewhere in Africa and in the Third World generally. These are parts of the world where history is recognised as a potent weapon: where it is used by governments, via control of the media and the school history syllabus, to distort the past and justify their positions; by historians – where possible – to challenge and correct these distortions and assert the truth; and by all sorts of people as a source of inspiration for change in the future.

In such a culturally-divided and fragmented society as South Africa, it would be extraordinary if such a thing as a single historiography existed. What has been described is the dominant historiography, taught and advanced at English-speaking universities in South Africa and abroad. Although this historiography has been greatly enriched by the important contributions of many Afrikaner historians, it remains a fact that History departments at Afrikaans- speaking universities (e,g. Stellenbosch and Pretoria) still have rather limited relations with those of even nearby English-speaking universities and speak a different language in more than one sense. A recognisably separate Afrikaans historiography has developed over the past century, within a framework of Afrikaner nationalism, and this influences much that is still taught in South African schools. Here, the examination syllabuses and the available textbooks ensure that what is taught generally reflects the outlook of the white minority of a generation ago, with an emphasis on the 'known facts' of mainly white political history. There is also an ominous tendency, as in many other parts of the world, including Britain, for history to disappear – as a separate subject and discipline – as it is incorporated with- in a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding the present.

Finally, there is the peculiar absence of a major contribution, as yet, from African South African historians to the historiography of a country which is the most developed and urbanised in Africa. This is, of course, a direct reflection of the separate and discriminatory education systems, especially in the schools. There are, of course, South African classics of African writing, and the situation is changing but, so far, the transformations in South African historiography have been brought about by white historians. One does not have to believe that only blacks can write black history to acknowledge that a crucial dimension is still largely missing from South African historiography without which it is greatly impoverished. If what has happened in other parts of Africa is anything to go by, when this dimension comes into its own it is likely to upset a fair number of white historians' apple-carts. The process of integrating South African history with that of the rest of Africa may have begun but, in this respect, South Africa still lags behind what has already been achieved in the rest of the African continent.

  • Iain Smith is a lecturer in modern history at the University of Warwick and is author of 'Smuts, South Africa and the Commonwealth Dream' (forthcoming).
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