Africans Study African-Americans US History Courses in South African Universities Are Putting More Emphasis on Black Issues

Article excerpt

HISTORY departments at universities in South Africa are placing greater emphasis on African-American studies.

Black history month in the United States was the catalyst for South Africa's first postgraduate course in African-American history.

"We have observed black history month since 1989," says Ernest Messina, lecturer in history at the predominantly mixed-race University of the Western Cape near Cape Town.

"As things were changing at the university - and in the society outside - there was a need to expose students to other influences elsewhere in the world," says Professor Messina, who has pioneered the country's first bachelor of arts honors-degree course in African-American history.

"In February 1989 we had a telephone debate with our black counterparts in the US, and the course developed from there."

Messina says the University of Western Cape's honors-degree course in African-American history had initially been hampered by the limited range of books South African publishers offered on the subject.

"What I know about African-American history is self-taught," Messina says. He was supported by the innovative University of the Western Cape, which - although a creation of apartheid - has drawn many former exiles to its staff and is known as South Africa's "university of the left."

Messina was further inspired by a visit to the US in May last year and returned with the acclaimed civil-rights public television series, "Eyes on the Prize," which now forms part of the course materials.

The course explores the rise of black power, black theology and black consciousness, the philosophy of nonviolence and the similarities in the US civil-rights and South African anti-apartheid struggles - including the role of the clergy and the role of Islam.

The course also focuses on slavery, the alienation of African-Americans, how black-studies programs evolved at US universities in the '60s, and economic advancement and underdevelopment.

"We also examine the phenomenon of the black underclass," Messina says. "We see whether parallels can be drawn with the phase that black South Africans are in now."

African-American studies are often a special topic in undergraduate and postgraduate courses in history departments at other South African universities. …