Books

Ambitious tomes offer grand, unrivalled sweep of history

Andrew MacDonald

Handsome, rigorous and reasonably priced, these admirable books on South Africa's past surpass many of the others on the market

Many Zulu chiefs were loyal to the Natal government during the Bambatha rebellion. Hashi (­centre) remained faithful for the period of unrest. (Photo: Gallo Images/Natal Witness Archives)

THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF SOUTH AFRICA: Volume 1 edited by Robert Ross, ­Carolyn Hamilton and Benard K Mbenga; Volume 2 edited by Robert Ross, Anne Kelk Mager and Bill Nasson (Cambridge University Press)

The late master Eric Hobs­bawm, in his biography Interesting Times, recalled his time as a young radical in the English fens in the 1930s and described what he called Cambridge University's peculiar "principal of unripe time": whatever somebody may propose and however good the proposal, the time is inevitably not yet ripe. Thus it is that the last time Cambridge University Press produced a general volume on South African history, pneumonic plague took the lives of 350 South Africans.

That year, 1936, Davidson "DDT" Jabavu's All-African Convention met in Bloemfontein to discuss Africans' diminishing rights on a budget of just £100, barely enough to cover the costs of printing the minutes.

Meanwhile, in Cape Town, torrential rain broke up a virulent anti-Semitic crowd who had gathered to disrupt the arrival of 500 Jewish refugees from Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany. And near Pretoria, the Afrikaans lawyer and opium eater Eugene Marais shot himself on a farm near Pelindaba, where South Africa's first atomic bombs would later be developed.

In short, the new two-volume, 1 000-plus-page Cambridge History of South Africa — a synthesis of recent advances in the field, dazzling in parts — has been a long time coming. Several decades of thinking and several years of planning and editing have produced rich, ambitious tomes unlikely to be matched in scale for some time to come.

In the combustive world of South African historians, it's fair to say that consensus has been a rare and unwanted thing. The 1936 work had marked one moment in the ascendency of a so-called liberal school among historians that dominated the middle years of South Africa's 20th century.

The 1920s was a decade of impoverishment, growing shanty towns and disillusion. The liberal school formed as a small cohort of anti-segregationist white scholars made the first attempts to integrate the histories of Southern Africa's different "peoples" into a single story, take a critical look at how race attitudes had emerged on the early colonial frontiers and take seriously insights drawn from archaeology, linguistics and anthropology.

Reaching its apogee with the 1969 Oxford History of South Africa, the liberal school did much to improve so much of South African history writing that had, until their intervention, been partisan, polemical, regionalist, triumphalist, antiquarian or instrumental, or some combination thereof.

Yet, for all that was innovative in recouping the histories of the African precolonial past and the inequities of the socioeconomic present, by the late 1960s the liberal school had come under sustained critique from a new generation of scholars, drawing in part on Marxist writings and dismissive of the possibilities of South Africa's liberal project once the guns had silenced Sharpeville.

Unable to shake off accusations of paternalism, liberal school histories of African societies were, in the final reckoning, footnotes to the march of Western civilisation: thin, static and one-dimensional, in which Africans could only respond to the prodding of settler initiatives, much like the proverbial rat in the laboratory. Crucially, the liberal account of the origins of South African racism, blaming it on retrograde Afrikaners of the early 19th century, had failed to consider, and indeed sometimes obscured, the role of modern capitalism in the creation of a sharply divided racial society.

From the 1970s, this so-called radical challenge produced a riot of new works that turned fresh attention to South Africa's past, creating sophisticated histories of the internal dynamics of Africa's preconquest kingdoms and the early frontiers, influential studies "from below" of African, Asian and European workers in South African towns and countryside, the connections between class and race consciousness, and the inner workings of the South African state.

Later, criticism within the broad church of radical history produced several trenchant works on the politics of gender, the symbolic importance of ideas rather than material factors in South Africans' lives and, belatedly, cultural histories that pushed sources in increasingly expansive and creative directions.

The editors of the new Cambridge History are rightly wary of offering a "master narrative" of South African history and the opening chapters of both volumes show an editorial deference to what is now the common, but not unanimous, convention of studying what people have written about events rather than the events themselves. Some readers may feel short-changed, yet the rest of the two thick volumes stand as something of a monument to victories of the revisionist school of social history.

Of the new school of radical historians, two figures stand out, both born around the time the first Cambridge History was published. They, their ideas and their students form much of the intellectual ballast of the new volumes. One is Stanley Trapido, a Krugersdorp athlete and occasional pit miner who, in the late 1950s, changed focus after conversations with communist activists at the University of Cape Town. Retreating to Britain after 1960, he read widely — the history of New World slavery, Old World industrialisation and working-class social history — and completed a doctorate at the University of ­London.

Finding tenure in the staid intellectual atmosphere of 1970s Oxford (where one don had only recently described African history as "the unedifying gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe"), Trapido soon became a magnet for young scholars eager to find an intellectual rebuttal to apartheid "common sense".

Trapido's "kitchen table seminars" at his home have since entered the lore of the South African historians' guild and without it the scholarship on display in the Cambridge History would be much the poorer. Trapido's own contribution is posthumous, rescued after his death in 2008.

The other is Shula Marks. That she became a historian of South Africa at all owed much to historical chance. Marks was the South African child of a family that had spent the turn of the century dodging the pogroms of the Latvian and Lithuanian borderlands. An impoverished grandfather had come good after winning a tender to supply the British Army, bivouacked at Potchefstroom, with bread. Marks's father had to make do with travelling the Karoo as a salesman, but married a progressive young woman who, on the surface of things, might have seemed out of his league.

Marks's own early politics had been sharpened in the 1950s at Habonim, the Cape Town socialist-Zionist youth movement. Like Trapido, she was one of many talented emigrés to leave South Africa, reaching London in 1960 for a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies. She had planned ultimately to shift to Israel, but the outbreak of the Six-Day War with Egypt in 1967 marked a critical turning point for Marks as Israel morphed from a haven of refuge into a state with colonial pretensions of its own. ­Israel's loss was South Africa's gain.

Marks, while straddling the School of Oriental and African Studies and the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, helped to set up the now famous Societies in Southern Africa seminar. Over several years it would attract a committed group of cosmopolitan and political participants to take seriously the study of the African past, making exciting use of new archaeology, oral and written sources.

The seminar proceedings ultimately ran to some 20 volumes — now happily in the process of digitisation — and Marks's own published work would range widely. Best known for book-length studies on the 1906 Bambatha Rebellion, bio-graphies of several ambiguous figures in black politics and the history of nursing, a full list of her publications now fills seven closely spaced pages. This kind of output is prolific enough, but she also supervised more than 50 doctoral students. Their topics usually focused on the moment when dynamic African polities collided with European settlers, marking the beginnings of a series of uneasy, often messy entanglements whose subsequent histories belie any of the easy moral lessons of the sort that successive Nationalist governments in South Africa favoured. That tension lay at the heart of the latest Cambridge History.

The Cambridge History therefore reflects the Angloworld networks in which the revisionist school was, for many obvious reasons, forged. The vast majority of the 28 contributors, almost all South Africans, have studied, written or taught in a quadrangle bounded by Cape Town, Johannesburg, London and Oxbridge. To readers already familiar with the work of these historians there are relatively few surprises; authors have, not surprisingly, stuck to their areas of expertise and, for the most part, recount arguments available in published works elsewhere. But as a compendium of those ideas these volumes are without rival and despite some inevitable grumbles in a work of this scope — a by no means exhaustive bibliography to volume two is more than 50 pages long — it surpasses, by some distance, several other good general histories on the market.

Although written primarily as an introduction to scholars and students in other fields, one of the many virtues of the chapters are an almost uniform clarity of expression and structure, making it accessible to general readers, teachers and, dare one say it, public servants.

The sombre covers, typical of the decades-old Cambridge Histories series, are strangely reassuring; the no-nonsense chapter titles have had no need of translated proverbs, contrived alliterations and needless jargon — common in some quarters — to disguise the worth of their insights.

Map-lovers will delight in numerous excellent depictions of the regional changes, but perhaps be disappointed to find no index to them. Number crunchers will be similarly pleased to find an extensive statistical appendix of 20th-century population data with an explanatory chapter by a demographer.

Handsomely produced and edited to exacting standards, the publishers have released affordable paperback editions of both volumes in sub-Saharan Africa, at about R200 and R300 respectively (the hard covers, by contrast, each cost in excess of R2 000). As a sign of its worth, it has already been uploaded to obscure Russian websites, about which comrades will hopefully feel well ­satisfied.

The editors pre-empt charges of the glaring paucity of contributions from black scholars. Only the most parochial would begrudge the quality of the work on this score and one can hardly doubt the politics of the contributors, but in a country in which the faculties of few, if any, history departments are even close to representing local demographics the question is well worth putting.

In an extended meditation on the many different strands of South African history writing that opens the first volume, the editors note that the colonial origins of modern history departments resulted, over the 20th century, in the "almost complete exile of black historians".

Pre-1994 restrictions and post-1994 market opportunities have compounded the problem and account for the relatively small number of black history postgraduates. Certainly, a career in history is still not always the most attractive option and one might have expected the editors to go further here.

The well-known conditions in which historians have been working in South Africa have caused one recent authoritative commentator to note that if the academy flourishes "it is despite, rather than because of, the institutional circumstances" in which South African historians find themselves.

High administrative workloads, uneven support for research, wavering ethical standards, the increasing corporatisation of universities and misguided management interference all give good reason for some to want to jump the historians' ship, or not board it all.

Although there is much overlap between volumes, for practical reasons they must split. The editors chose 1885, the moment when the region that would eventually become South Africa unambiguously came under the political and economic domination of the British and the Boer republics, setting in motion continuities that would last until the 1990s and beyond.

In saying that South Africa was merely "a geographical expression" — a point taken up by Saul Dubow, who shows in his substantial intellectual history how "there was nothing self-evident about South Africa or South Africans" — there is a hint that we will learn much more about the regions beyond the borders of the current republic.

The first volume succeeds much better at this than the second in which, bafflingly, Namibia, Zimbab-we, Swaziland and Botswana each merit only a single reference in the index. The omission is conspicuous, because the editors are eager to recall the region's fluidities.

Also omitted are contributions made by South African historians to transnational or global history. Besides the historical sociology of why and how people move, several questions could be asked about the effect of world events (anything from the American Revolution to the Cold War) on South Africa (and vice versa), comparative government, the circulation of anti-colonial literatures, global labour solidarities and polyglot underworlds. In all these cases South Africa has been a major vector and although the themes are briefly alluded to in individual chapters, a dedicated discussion would have further enriched the intellectual stew on offer.

There are many ways to read the 23 chapters and it is impossible here to provide anything other than a crude summary for the general reader.

Perhaps the enduring theme of Southern African history is that of mobility — geographical, economic and social — followed by attempts to restrict, channel and/or encourage it. Both the elite and ordinary people have had to find original ways of coming to terms with this evolving and ever-present tension during the past 2000 years.

In volume one, two chapters on archaeology draw attention to renewed collaborations between historians and archaeologists, now driven by government funding initiatives. Together they demonstrate the wide variety of interacting social groups in pre-conquest Southern Africa of the past two millennia — hunter-gatherers, herders, farmers and traders.

Scholars debate the timing and nature of these relationships, but generally agree that the diversity of environmental contexts and any given group's relationship to trade and migration routes shaped their contours. Evidence suggests that an economic revolution began among hunter-gatherer society in the early centuries of the first millennium, during which a "package" of cereal agriculture, iron technology, livestock and pottery arrived from Angola and East Africa, probably brought by people speaking an ancestral form of chiShona.

Between the 11th and 14th centuries, the arrival of isiNtu speakers from East Africa also complicated the landscape, so that we have several interacting layers of people. A study of the spaces in which they lived suggests a clear privileging of men and cattle. These small, decentralised societies with pronounced and conservative gender divisions existed alongside the great states of the Limpopo valley, notably Mapungubwe, whose wealthy but deeply stratified society was dependent on its profitable connections with the great Indian Ocean trading world.

The close proximities between the variety of people made for intellectual and political cultures that valued mobility, shifting alliances and identities — what the editors term, slightly anachronistically, as "inclusive citizenship".

For Paul Landau, in a stimulating closing chapter that takes seriously the languages and philosophies of the pre-conquest period, the emergence of similar totems, words, spatial forms, systems of loyalty, fealty and authority and rituals across the region suggest a widely connected social system by the 18th century.

The colonial project was an attempt to freeze this world and rule it in the interests of profit and world economy. Beginning with the importation of Asian slaves, the integration of most Africans into early "globalisation" was deeply traumatic. As Robert Ross and Martin Legassick detail in a powerful chapter that barely conceals its dismay, the Khoisan were reduced to serfs in the Dutch Cape and during British military expansion from 1806 the Xhosa ecology was systematically and deliberately destroyed.

The concept of "extermination" made its first appearance on the subcontinent. Amid the "frontier wars", settlers linked Christianity and civilisation and vigorously defended both against "savages" by transforming a legal system built on equality into an instrument of violent coercion.

Importantly, there also emerged a taxonomic imperative, drawn out in several chapters. Writers, intellectuals, administrators and explorers drew maps, gave the region's inhabitants names they did not ask for, introduced new concepts of time, new kinds of clothing, manners and censuses that imposed surnames and birth dates, so that it was not merely Africans' independence that was imperilled, but an entire world view.

But colonial expansion was not so simple, as each writer of these chapters well demonstrates. Colonialism was a fitful, uneven process, dependent on topography, disease environments, settlement densities and the capacities of local power brokers.

For Ross, race was not the primary category of social life in Dutch Cape Town. Racial ideology took even longer to evolve on the frontiers, where authority was similarly not always linked with race. A recurrent theme in several chapters is the Africanisation, or "reverse colonisation" of Boers in the interior, because they shared with their African neighbours similar husbandry practices, wore similar clothing, ate similar food, developed similar ways of government and fought and raided in similar ways, often in alliances with one another.

Norman Etherington, Patrick Harries and Bernard Mbenga consider how the need to defer rebellion and win supporters frequently interrupted British rule. This led to the elaboration, in Natal especially, of indirect rule and the "accommodation of patriarchs" that made ­possible some mutually beneficial compromises between coloniser and colonised.

Amid these lapses and uncertainties in colonial South Africa, Africans found ways to reconstitute their societies. John Wright, in a chapter that recounts the demise of a Shakacentric theory of the Mfecane, shows the durability of African social systems and that colonialism's primary effect was to change the nature of, rather than to destroy, their foundations. Trading and raiding economies emanating from both coasts caused African chiefdoms to engage in defensive centralisation or exploit open areas. In turn, this promoted the building of a state and new kinds of ideologies to legitimate leaders, of whom Shaka was but one.

The long-standing politics of decentralised alliances persisted with complex relationships managed through cattle, land and tribute. Many kingdoms remained powerful enough to launch military resistance or to force the peace. Amid these developments, a humanitarian and missionary movement, powerful for a time, provided avenues of escape for some Africans, who often converted on their own terms and domesticated the faith.

Small, creolised elites emerged. These groups could exploit land and market opportunities and from this emerged the first stirrings of a distinctly modern politics for the 20th century.

The rules of engagement thus set, the second volume describes how the mineral discoveries after the 1870s upped the stakes. The discoveries meant expanding production in town and countryside and white landlords and labours began to tighten their grip on the spoils.

Economic divisions soon began to sharpen ethnic identities. Trapido offers a deft take on the alliances between the imperial state, settler ambitions and capitalist enclaves in the lead-up to the South African War. The war's legacy, covered by Marks, included the creation of most of South Africa's modern state institutions, the consolidation of its modern political boundaries and the entrenchment of African and Asian exclusion as part of the cultivation of a white "South Africanism", the clearest expression yet that the region was to be a "white man's country".

A clutch of chapters on economic history by Bill Freund, Phil Bonner and Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass detail the massive — and episodically violent — intervention by successive governments. This was done in the manner of a "development state" simultaneously to uplift and protect white citizens and suppress African subjects, setting South Africa on path dependencies with which policymakers still grapple.

Economic growth was sometimes explosive in the early decades of the century, but dependence on minerals made for highly uneven development. The result was frequent stagnation in the agricultural economy and several waves of urbanisation. Unhealthy slums, often multiracial, mushroomed across South Africa, the details of which are covered in Bonner's truly magisterial chapter. Increased militancy from both white and black workers undercut economic growth plans.

In this world, people acquired livelihoods in a variety of ways. For Marks, the rapid changes presented opportunities for ordinary people to create ambiguous "multistranded" identities that looked both forward and backward.

African politics of the 1930s and 1940s had "some insurgent spirit" but amounted more, for Bonner, to a "local collective self-assertion" under an array of charismatic leaders, sometimes with religious overtones, than it did to a coherent national project.

Many people sought out distraction rather than formulate explicit political programmes, in marabi, sport and other forms of cultural expression that segregationist planners thought of as subversive. A brief shopping list of rather less controversial high culture is offered later in the volume.

Apartheid was a reaction to these developments, because it sought to renew the project of assuring white, and for a time specifically Afrikaner, political supremacy and economic prosperity. Those who have lived through apartheid will be familiar with its major aspects: Kafkaesque bureaucracy, the fixation with space and race and its pronounced interference in the regulation of family and sex.

Deborah Posel recounts her widely cited work on its fractures and fissures: how personnel shortages, the inability to truly prevent the "intimacy of strangers" and consequent multiethnic alliances, friendships and solidarities rendered Pretoria's "blustering dogmatism" confused and contradictory at the local level.

Amid these crevices, popular responses to apartheid were forged. Anne Kelk Mager and Maanda Mulaudzi cover the wide variety of associations, informal networks, burial societies, prayer groups and stokvels that made up day-to-day responses to new pressures, but remain sceptical of romantic struggle narratives.

Popular politics were riven with internal tensions, ideological conflicts and were largely squashed by banishments, relocations, moments of complicity and corruption, and often retreated in the face of the heavy demands of mere existence under apartheid.

As Tom Lodge details in a long chapter with the richest primary-source material, a new kind of struggle consciousness only emerged in 1973 with a series of working-class strikes. Lodge goes on to evaluate the convergences between the Black Consciousness movement, the United Democratic Front and ­Umkhonto weSizwe in the 1980s, finding that armed struggle never seriously challenged the apartheid state and never won unanimous support even from within the ­movement.

For its part, the apartheid state was under fiscal pressure and faced a lack of sufficient popular white support as well as internal divisions, all of which led to the abandonment of military strategy and, by the late 1980s, stalemate.

Lodge concludes by touching on a coincidence of factors that allowed for a negotiated transition, ending the history in 1994 and leaving it to a new generation of scholars to take up the challenge of identifying contrasts and continuities with the post-apartheid period. One hopes the wait will require rather less patience.

Andrew MacDonald is a historian, writer and postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at the University of the Witwatersrand. The Cambridge History of South Africa will be launched at the Origins Centre, corner of Yale Road and Enoch Sontonga Avenue, University of the Witwatersrand, Braamfontein, on November 16 at 5.30pm for 6pm

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