The striking minority of black contributors

Why does South African history continue to be written primarily by white scholars?

Wikimedia Commons.

In an eloquent and insightful review of the new Cambridge History of South Africa, historian Andrew MacDonald broached this elephant in our collective bedroom. A work of enormous labour, this two volume, one thousand page summation of the radical or “revisionist” generation of scholarship includes a striking minority of black contributors—a troubling fact after over forty years of self-consciously progressive South African history. Somewhat pre-emptively, MacDonald tells us that only the most parochial of critics would “begrudge the quality of the work” on this basis. The editors are mostly left-leaning historians with long, and unquestionable, commitments to writing the country’s history from an anti-racist perspective. Moreover, South Africa’s history of white supremacy, the exile of black intellectuals during apartheid, the economic challenges faced by many black students, and the institutional crisis of the universities has meant that many would-be scholars have (in MacDonald’s words) “jump[ed] the historian’s ship.” But something doesn’t sit quite right here.

Yes, we need (and many of us are having) a serious conversation about the limits to institutional transformation in the South African universities and the obstacles to training a new generation of black historians. But as an explanation for the predominance of white contributors in a project presenting itself as an authoritative synthesis, the institutional argument too quickly glosses over the fact that a large and diverse body of historical writing exists by black scholars, many of whom have played a central role in the field for decades. I have no desire to conduct an apartheid-style census of my colleagues, but I know that I regularly read the work of at least as many black historians as there are contributors to the CUP volumes. Add scholars doing historical work in other fields—sociology, art history, literary studies—the number probably doubles, and I am thinking only of university employed academics. That, already, is a fraught limitation in deciding who counts as a historian in the South African context. Editors rarely get the set of contributors that they initially imagined; many factors (including those outside of anyone’s control) determine a table of contents. But the appearance of the field’s most comprehensive and accomplished survey in this form is unnerving.

I’m not going to attempt a full review of the Cambridge volumes. The editing and writing are exemplary, and some of the chapters will probably achieve the status of classics. My own taste runs towards the contributions by Paul Landau, John Wright, Tlhalo Radithlahlo (who is a black South African), Deborah Posel, Philip Bonner, and Bill Freund. Such projects are virtually designed to invite dissent, baiting the ambitions of younger scholars hungry for their mark. The magisterial tome conjurers many a would-be Oedipus. Reviewers will certainly query the rational behind cutting off the narrative at 1994 and the excision of other African countries, especially Southern African, from the later account. There are also important questions to ask about the genre of the grand national synthesis, the historical and theoretical problems it privileges, and the forms of writing and critique it pushes to the margins—issues that have been central to scholarship informed by feminist, transnational, and post-colonial studies for some decades. Would a more capacious sense of the discipline, and an effort to include a wider variety of political and methodological perspectives, have produced a more diverse group of authors? It’s a thought worth considering.

The Cambridge volumes provide an opportunity to raise some uncomfortable questions regarding race and the field of South African history. At one level, this discussion rages interminably in spaces like conference organizing committees, hiring committees, and the living rooms of friends. Shadow discourses about race—which only emerge occasionally in the pages of journals or conference debates—shape the day-to-day politics of our profession in far-reaching ways. Among white historians, they frequently take forms that are exculpatory (“we were stuck with the people who actually applied”) or tokenistic (“does anyone know a black Lesbian scholar who can speak on the environment for my conference panel?”). I won’t deny for a second that I have participated in such discussions—and worse. The result is that the problem of race is displaced elsewhere. We rarely seem to reflect on the general whiteness of South African history as a field, at least not publicly. When this issue does get discussed, we often use a self-congratulatory language of progress and generational transition: the old tropes of liberal stewardship.

The explanations offered by MacDonald and the Cambridge editors are a crucial part of the story. But we also need to reflect on the kinds of history that we write, and the voices and experiences that our discipline privileges in practice. I have two observations based on my own position teaching in North America. First, South African history abroad remains largely identified with the Marxian social history of the 1980s, which in U.S. and Canada was read through a paternalistic project of “giving Africans a voice.” Don’t get me wrong. I am against cheap social history bashing. Some of my best friends (and most important mentors) were revisionists, and they have long ago come to terms with the weaknesses of their early scholarship, such as the absence of gender analysis or the downplaying of ethnicity and religion. But the version of the historiography institutionalized in the U.S. and the UK often feels like a strange time warp, as if each generation of graduate students must rise against the old liberal masters (which they almost never read), vicariously participating in the politics of a bygone era. At the same time, the work of black scholars—particularly black historians critical of social history from nationalist or post-colonial perspectives—is often missing from course syllabi, comps lists, and edited volumes. Undoubtedly, the reasons behind these absences are complex. But we should start to discuss them.

Second, I think that it is important to interrogate the place of South Africa in different American and British cultural imaginaries, and the ways in which the field has sometimes reproduced these narratives. South Africa has frequently served as the mise-en-scène for a powerful set of racial fantasies. The most infamous is now the most thread-bare: South Africa as the “Rainbow Nation,” the site of a reconciliation and forgiveness cruelly denied in the post-Civil Rights-era U.S. But we should not forget the radical tourist, the white activist seeking the centre of the world revolution, who has come to help lead the “black masses” whose languages he doesn’t speak and history he barely knows—a Lenin-complex meets Tarzan of the Jungle. There are Afro-pessimistic versions as well: the thrill of exploring a perilous and legendary country of witches, shebeens, and gangsters; or the imperative to bear witness to a violence stricken nation, to endow tragedy with meaning through listening to the testimony of the suffering. Some roles die hard: the desire to be accepted, to be forgiven, to be the revolutionary, the adventurer, the missionary. I am not the only young scholar that I know who has unconsciously adopted, struggled with, and attempted to move beyond one or more of these scripts. Needless to say, these play books leave little room for the voices of black students or scholars.

As several friends have warned me, this form of critique risks erasing the enormous amount of work that has been done and the emergence of a younger, more diverse, generation of scholars. Polemics don’t substitute for institution building, and one could point to a several crucial projects, such as the Wits History Workshop, the South African Democratic Education Trust series, and the District Six museum, that have sought to re-envision the field in far reaching (and very different) ways. These efforts underline that expanding the discipline requires the rethinking of our platforms and collective practices.

Recently, I was involved in co-editing a volume on the 100th anniversary of the ANC on behalf of South African History Online (SAHO). While the volume has its own shortcomings (including a majority of white contributors), it attempts to include intellectuals of widely varying methodological, political, and disciplinary perspectives. SAHO has ensured that all of its contents will be available online and, in the coming year, will begin to collect and link the primary and secondary sources referenced in each chapter, producing a new archive immediately accessible to the reader. At the same time, SAHO will integrate this material into its more popularly accessible accounts of liberation history, creating multiple entry points geared toward different audiences. The project will be connected to two internship programmes—one consisting of South African students, the other run through a small group of North American universities—that will encourage aspiring scholars to identify lacunae and work together (through residencies and online collaboration) to write new histories. This type of undertaking strengthens research infrastructure in South Africa while developing a new generation of black South African and foreign historians trained through collaborative intellectual production. We should find new ways to support such initiatives.

At the end of the day, I am not sure which I loathe more: the odious practice of racializing my colleagues by counting their bodies or a “non-racial” colour blindness that refuses to grapple with institutionalized white privilege. I am desperate for another set of conversations. I agree with Ciraj Rassool and Andile Mngxitama that we need to have a discussion about the liberal scripts of voice giving and racial atonement that frequently play themselves out in the practice of social history. But that is only the start. Is it possible to have a conversation about who gets counted as a historian and what projects are valorised through their associations with traditional centres of academic prestige and power? Or about the continuing role that certain South African “historically white universities” play in mediating funding and access to international academic networks in ways that continue to marginalize important scholarship produced in still very black universities? Can we talk about the ways that the historiographic concerns of the field in Britain and North America sometimes overshadow new directions of research that have developed in South Africa since 1994? Can we address why, after years of debate over South African “exceptionalism,” we can still produce histories that abstract the country from the continent? Can we speak about the ways that white colleagues often shield each other from criticism on the basis of past commitments and current good intentions? I ask these questions as a provocation, and as someone who is fully implicated in the global asymmetries that shape the practice of African history today.

* Jon Soske teaches history at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

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