History of Central Africa / Black Politics in South Africa since 1945

Neil Parsons | Published in History Today

The historiographical revolution in sub-Saharan Africa began in West Africa in the 1950s – 60s, and has since passed through East and Central Africa into Southern Africa. New countries have needed new histories for new schools and universities, and new university departments of history or politics in Africa and African Studies in America and Europe have been happy to supply the want. Now is the time to synthesise this scholarship for wider audiences. However, while the output of scholarship has continued unabated, the economics of recession have reduced its availability through publication. One therefore rejoices to see a few new books slip through, such as the ones under review here.

The two-volume Longman History of Central Africa has been long awaited. It is doubly welcome as an undergraduate text-book and as a standard work of Anglo-American scholarship on Africa. One may quibble at the higher price and shorter length than its companion Longman History of West Africa, but one is relieved to see it at all after sometime rumours of the publisher's axe.

'Central Africa' is covered in both its French/Belgian and erstwhile British sense – from the Central African Republic in the north to Zimbabwe in the south, plus Angola and Mozambique. These French-speaking territories and Angola are largely ignored in other English- language works on Africa, because they do not fit neatly into 'West', 'East' or 'Southern' Africa as conceived by Anglo-American scholarship. One may object that Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique are included in this book on commercial grounds, to provide a market for its publishers. But historically Longman's 'Central Africa' does have validity in covering the great bulk of Africa in which Bantu languages are spoken, unified by a common language group and presumably by common cultural traits for the last three to five thousand years.

Volume One covers the 1400 – 1870 period. Each chapter is a clear bright gem, combining thorough synthesis of extensive scholarship with lucidity. David Birmingham sets the pace with a chapter on earliest times to 1400. Unlike earlier comparable books, we have an historian rather than an archaeologist introducing the remote past – and it pays dividends. Very rarely in this volume do we find the a-historical anthropologese of culture, kinship and custom that burdens, for example, the Oxford History of South Africa. The present work places emphasis on continuities and trends of indigenous development, though due regard is given to underdevelopment by overseas mercantilism without portraying the latter as over-arching or all-determining.

Volume Two takes up the story from the beginning to the end of European empire in Central Africa. Phyllis Martin opens with her chapter on 'The Violence of Empire'. It is indeed such direct and naked exploitation and violence that strikes one as so characteristic of colonial Central Africa, vide the robber-rubber economy of King Leopold's Congo. For parallels one looks first to other equatorial plantation regions of the world rather than to other regions of Africa. The main disappointment for the general reader in this volume will be the all too brief treatment of armed liberation in Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe – compressed into one final chapter.
Both volumes are equipped with excel- lent bibliographical essays for each chapter. Longman's History of Central Africa has been worth waiting for. One hopes it is not the last in the series: more than East or Southern Africa, the great gap in synthesis of scholarship is a History of Northern Africa seen from an Africanist rather than an Arabist perspective.

Black Politics in South Africa since 1945 has an obvious appeal to newspaper readers as well as lovers of history. When the schoolchildren of Soweto were mown down by the bullets of the South African police in June 1976, the world reacted with horror. People with longer memories remembered similar events at Sharpeville in 1960, at Cato Manor in 1949, and others before. But such events were ancient history to the children of Soweto, who saw themselves as pioneers in protest. And the outside world saw Soweto more in the recent tradition of Watts in Los Angeles, rather than in the remoter traditions of South Africa – urban and rural protest, police state repression, black nationalism, cultural segregation, as well as Afro-American connections, all dating back eighty years or more. For 'background' to Soweto, the world press even resorted to Anglo-Zulu military history!

Other more ephemeral or more partisan works have tried to explain and describe the 'events' of 1976 in historical context. Tim Lodge's book is the first comprehensive attempt at academic description and explanation. It takes off where books by Jack and Ray Simons and by Eddie Roux leave off, around 1950, though from a liberal viewpoint rather than their Marxist viewpoints." Lodge takes us step by step through the heyday of the African National Congress in the 1950s, up to its split into two parties, post-Sharpeville repression, and nationalist retreat into exile. There are useful summaries of recent research on the political movements during these tumultuous years in South Africa up to 1965, and in exile up to 1975. However this leaves one desultory chapter, the last in the book, for what we have been waiting for – Soweto, and associated internal developments in South Africa (notably Black Consciousness and trade unionism) from 1965 to 1980.

This is a useful book but not an indispensable one. One suspects that this is another case of souped-up lecture notes from the author's teaching (at Witwatersrand University). There is a breathless rush to say something about everything. But not enough is said about major events to really inform the general reader, nor enough about other scholarship on the topic to enlighten the academic reader. Though each chapter is peppered with end-notes, there is no general bibliography of other printed books or articles.
*Class and Colour in South Africa 1850 – 1950 by Jack Simons & Ray Simons. 702 pp. (Penguin, 1969 – reprinted International Defence and Aid Fund) Time Longer than Rope: a History of the Black Man's Struggle for Freedom in South Africa by Eddie Roux. 469 pp. (University of Wisconsin Press, 1966).

Neil Parsons

History of Central Africa
edited by David Birmingham and Phyllis M. Martin. 2 volumes, 315 pp. & 432 pp. (Longman, hardback £24.95 & £27.95; paperback £7.95 & £8.95

Black Politics in South Africa since 1945
by Tom Lodge. 389 pp. (Longman, hardback £15, paperback £5.95).

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