The Black Hole of Apartheid History

tags: historiography, South Africa, apartheid



Jamie Miller is Visiting Assistant Professor at Quinnipiac University.


South African National Party fundraising poster, circa 1960.


Cross-posted from Imperial and Global Forum.

Last week’s death of Nelson Mandela prompted outpourings of both admiration and introspection across the globe. Public figures scrambled to portray themselves as long-time supporters of the anti-apartheid cause -- even where the historical record of their organisation’s relationship with Mandela undercut the credibility of such posturing (the British Tories readily come to mind). Yet amid the panegyrics, there was plenty of consideration of Mandela’s complex legacy. When Tea Party favourite Ted Cruz declared common cause with Mandela, a supporter wrote on his Facebook page: “Tell the truth Ted!!! Who are you??!! Obama?? Don’t rewrite history to try to get people to like you!!! Educate them!! Mandela was a murderer, terrorist, and a Communist!!!! Can we even trust you to be honest now??!!” A more nuanced analysis appeared in an incisive piece in Foreign Affairs. Historian Ryan Irwin traced Mandela’s elusive legacy to his willingness to embody a pluralist and inclusive vision of the anti-apartheid movement, rather than imposing his own ideological litmus test for would-be allies -- be they liberals, pan-Africans, union leaders, or communists.

And yet one thing was conspicuous for its absence over the last week. There has been no effort to describe with any similar specificity what Mandela had defined his life against: the apartheid regime itself. [1]

Since the end of white rule in 1994, historians, artists, writers, filmmakers, and victims alike have contributed to a vibrant corpus illuminating the effects of apartheid on South Africa and its people. However, our knowledge about what went on in the corridors of power to cause these abuses remains very limited. New major scholarly works on the regime itself, its ideology, and how decisions were made are few and far between. Hermann Giliomee’s new Last Afrikaner Leaders (2012) and David Welsh’s Rise and Fall of Apartheid (2009) take new approaches to old themes. [2]

But when I’m writing about the mechanics of politics in Pretoria or ideological battles within the ruling National Party, I find myself reaching for the same well-worn, dog-eared books time and again. Dan O’Meara’s underrated Forty Lost Years, shorn of its Marxist framework, is a perennial staple. [3] So too Chris Alden’s insightful Apartheid’s Last Stand. [4] Both were published in 1996.

Overall, our knowledge has scarcely advanced in the last twenty years when it comes to trying to answer the big questions: why the architects of apartheid saw their system as moral and feasible; how they tried to render it viable; what misgivings existed at the highest levels; and what debates existed among National Party (NP) leaders over reforming or rebranding the social order. [5] 

The list of lacunae in our knowledge of the regime is extensive, a panoply of known unknowns. How did articulations of the morality of apartheid change over time? What was the real role played by non-state organisations in sustaining apartheid, like the shadowy Afrikaner Broederbond, the Bureau for State Security (BOSS, intelligence services), and the Dutch Reformed Church? What avenues of dissent existed within the party or its auxiliary bodies? How influential was the far right wing of Afrikaner politics in obstructing reform? How did South African leaders understand other forms of political or racial organisation, particularly those they came into regular contact with in renegade Rhodesia or the nearby Portuguese colonies? Bookshelves are waiting to be filled with doctoral dissertations on these fundamental topics.

The Scholarly Scramble for South Africa, 1976-1990

All of this is a far cry from the voluminous literature on apartheid that appeared in the late 1970s and 1980s. Throughout the crisis years (roughly 1976-1990, from the Soweto riots to Mandela’s release from prison), ‘apartheid’ was crack to social scientists. Political scientists and economists were in thrall to Pretoria’s desperate efforts to maintain white political and socioeconomic dominance. The intersection of eroding legitimacy, domestic insurrection, uncontrollable urbanization, racial tensions, capitalist economics, and international sanctions provided fertile terrain for an astonishing array of academic enquiries and intellectual disputes. Some of this work, particularly the writing of Heribert Adam, Martin Legassick, Harold Wolpe, Robert Price, Stanley Greenberg, and Giliomee, remains of inestimable value for understanding how the apartheid regime functioned and why. For others, the intense politicisation of apartheid even became a major obstacle: detached academic analysis was often influenced (and sometimes corrupted) by the present-day imperatives of delegitimising white minority rule. In late 1983, Greenberg recounted his experiences while testifying before the Africa Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs: ‘Some [members of the Committee] felt that whatever the course of change [in South Africa], one should avoid an academic discourse in public forums that only confounds the anti-apartheid forces and that detracts from the clarity with which apartheid is perceived as an immoral state practice with “enormous emotional and significant political value”.’ [6] This attitude was not limited to politicians. ‘This book is not about South Africa but because of it,’ social scientist Joseph Hanlon declared in one book. ‘The ending of apartheid is the only way to bring peace.’ [7]

But the transition to democracy in the early ‘90s brought the scholarly scramble for South Africa to a screeching halt. Put simply, there was nothing left to fight for. ‘South African historians were in one way or another, to a greater or lesser degree, caught up in the deep and narrow groove of “struggle history”,’ historian Wessel Visser wrote in his perceptive 2004 overview of South African historiography. ‘The degree to which they became involved in fighting political battles on the terrain of their discipline meant that when the political climate suddenly began to change, as happened from 1990 onwards, many of them, on the right and the left alike, were left without clear academic agendas.’ [8] Another study, published the same year, concurred: ‘With the formal end of apartheid in 1994, some of the passion and the energy has gone out of the production of scholarship and been transferred into tackling the problems of post-apartheid South Africa… History is not a growth industry in South Africa.’ [9]

Nowhere was this process more marked than among political historians with expertise in understanding and studying the apartheid regime. Overnight, the revolution in South Africa’s national identity changed the meaning and definition of the polity itself. There was a long overdue impetus towards foregrounding the histories of liberation movements and recapturing the political teleologies of South Africa’s suppressed peoples. Inevitably, studies of how the ancien regime functioned were commensurately marginalised. This process has been most marked in South Africa itself, where experts in the ways of the apartheid regime often found their relevance in the new era implicitly -- and more than occasionally explicitly -- questioned. It is notable that most of the exciting research that has emerged in recent years on Pretoria’s foreign policy, for instance, has been conducted by foreigners.

Confronting Apartheid Politics in the Post-Apartheid Era

Why does the apartheid regime continue to have this alienating effect on scholarship? Why are scholars so reticent in seeking to comprehend the architects of racial rule long after they have done so with similarly unsavoury regimes (I’ll eschew the usual but distracting comparisons)?

These are important questions for Africanists, decolonisation specialists, and historians generally. For me, the difficulty of confronting apartheid is inextricably bound up with its role as a counterpoint to an extraordinarily wide variety of political visions and ideological templates: that is, a function of the very process that Irwin describes in his Foreign Affairs article. The emotive weight of apartheid affects all scholars of South Africa, regardless of how independent and path-breaking we might think we are. And if the successful fight against apartheid is a badge of honour for political cultures of nearly every stripe, then the current government is the guardian of the legitimacy of those claims.

In order to understand what this guardianship entails for scholars, we need to understand the place of history in post-1994 political culture. The African National Congress’s (ANC) legitimacy as the representative institution of South Africa’s black population continues to derive largely from its ownership of the anti-apartheid legacy. This is intrinsic to its identity and power. An almost unwatchable photo-op featuring Jacob Zuma and a visibly unresponsive Mandela in April 2013 was indicative of the lengths to which the government will go to in order to ensure that this relationship remains at the forefront of increasingly disgruntled voters’ minds.

In order to keep the myth of ANC triumphalism alive, the regime it conquered must remain the ultimate evil -- impermeable, inscrutable, monolithically evil. Every Bellerophon needs his chimera. [10]

The state has therefore sponsored and cultivated heroic narratives that obscure the complex and opaque reality of the fall of apartheid from public memory. [11]

A corollary has been a lack of investment in resources that might support independent research into the regime. The chronic mismanagement of the National Archives in Pretoria remains an embarrassment. [12] A favorite pastime among South Africanists is exchanging stories of non-existent records, undertrained archivists, or even, in one case, a finding aid published before the records that it referred to had even been created. [13] Many of the surviving figures from across the apartheid regime -- soldiers, civil servants, diplomats and more -- are very advanced in years. Where is the funding for an oral history program to record the nature of a system of oppression so unique it galvanised opposition on every continent? [14]

Preserving the history of the apartheid regime is very low on the current government’s list of priorities. To open up debate about the nature of the oppressor, to increase funding for its study, to encourage young South Africans to look into the records of the old regime would be to risk opening the ANC’s legacy up to challenge and revisionism.

For historians and South African citizens alike, this is a tragically short-sighted stance.

First, the ANC’s legacy is already being challenged. Welsh’s Rise and Fall uses extensive research to emphasise the many players involved in the transition to democracy, and implicitly downplays the “us and them” framework favoured by the ANC. [15] On the other side of the struggle, Stephen Ellis’ External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960-1990 (2012) has revealed plenty of uncomfortable details about how the ANC kept its members in line in the wilderness years. [16] The ANC can advance its own version of “struggle history.” It can set the tone of public debate. But it cannot control knowledge indefinitely. Already its efforts to do so have come under stinging criticism from established historians for its “‘patriotic history’ -- the falsification of history for nation-building purposes”. [17]

Second, Afrikaners (and, to a lesser extent, other whites) continue to be prevented from understanding on their own terms the political system forever associated with their group identity. Many feel deeply disconnected from the new order’s version of the past and weighed down by the unspoken barriers to alternative perspectives. This has direct repercussions for the study of the old regime. There is little space available in the South African public sphere for Afrikaners to talk -- really talk -- about apartheid, let alone commit their lives and livelihoods to its study. Afrikaners, precisely those with the linguistic skills needed to pore through vast reams of National Party files and relevant memoirs, have been encouraged as a precondition of social participation to utterly divorce themselves and their identity from the era of Afrikaner nationalist rule. Yet the history of Afrikaners, of which apartheid is just one part, cannot simply be wished away. Instead, as works like Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull has shown, that very shared history and identity furnishes scholars with a crucial perspective on the apartheid era. [18]

Our understanding of what Mandela achieved will only increase as our understanding of what he conquered improves. It was Mandela, more than the TRC, and more than the ANC, who became the very embodiment of reconciliation. Understanding more about those who violently drove South Africans apart from each other, why they did so, and why they thought doing so was right can only underscore the magnitude of his achievement. We owe it to Mandela, as historians and citizens of the world, to learn more about apartheid and expose the full barbarism of what he overcame.

Works Cited

[1] The Economist’s obituary, for instance, referred to the system as ‘one of the great abominations of the age’, but with no elaboration.

[2] Hermann Giliomee, The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A Supreme Test of Power (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2012); David Welsh, The Rise and Fall of Apartheid (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009).

[3] Dan O’Meara, Forty Lost Years: The Apartheid State and the Politics of the National Party, 1948-94 (Randburg: Ravan Press, 1996).

[4] Chris Alden, Apartheid’s Last Stand : The Rise and Fall of the South African Security State (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996).

[5] The last major book specifically on how Pretoria constructed its foreign policy, for example, remains Deon Geldenhuys’ Diplomacy of Isolation… published in 1978.

[6] Stanley B. Greenberg, Legitimating the Illegitimate : State, Markets, and Resistance in South Africa (University of California Pr, 1987), p. xx.

[7] Joseph Hanlon, Beggar Your Neighbours: Apartheid Power in Southern Africa (London: Currey, 1986), pp. 4-5.

[8] Wessel Visser, ‘Trends in South African Historiography and the Present State of Historical Research’, in Nordic Africa Institute (Uppsala, Sweden 2004), p. 16.

[9] Nancy L. Clark and William H. Worger, South Africa : The Rise and Fall of Apartheid (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2004), p. 9.

[10] Soon, fully 40 percent of South Africa’s population will have been born after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. On a slowly but steadily pluralising political scene, how long the ANC can maintain support based on guardianship of something increasingly more historical memory than lived reality is an open question.

[11] The semi-official Road to Democracy volumes for instance make no serious effort to understand or explore the nature of the apartheid regime at all. In Volume 4, focused on the 1980s, 2 of 32 chapters (the first and last) focus on the regime. In Volume 2, which looks at the 1970s, one of 17 does. See South African Democracy Education Trust, The Road to Democracy in South Africa, 2nd e., vol. 1-6 (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2004-2010).

[12] At the NA, the brilliant Gerrit Wagener remains a rare exception.

[13] Just last year, the fascinating records of Ian Smith’s renegade Rhodesian regime, held at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, were repatriated to Zimbabwe. Future access remains uncertain. It is hard to believe Pretoria could not have stepped in to prevent this from happening had it wanted to.

[14] A good model to follow would be South African History Archive, TRC Oral History Project, Record Number AL2985, Cullen Library, University of the Witwatersrand.

[15] Welsh, The Rise and Fall of Apartheid.

[16] Stephen Ellis, External Mission : The Anc in Exile, 1960-1990 (London: Hurst, 2012).

[17] Martin Legassick, ‘Debating the Revival of the Workers’ Movement in the 1970s: The South African Democracy Education Trust and Post-Apartheid Patriotic History’, Kronos 34, no. 1 (2008). Legassick cites here Terence Ranger, ʻNationalist Historiography, Patriotic History and the History of the Nation: The Struggle over the Past in Zimbabweʼ, Journal of Southern African Studies 30, no. 2 (2004). I would like to thank Simon Stevens for bringing Legassick’s article to my attention.

[18] Antjie Krog, Country of My Skull (Johannesburg: Random House, 1998).



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