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).

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