Political Change in S. Africa Spurs Interest in US History

Article excerpt

RECENT political changes have revived interest in American studies at universities in South Africa and have led to the first initiative to coordinate programs nationwide.

"With the changes that are taking place here, many American issues are finding a resonance in South Africa," says Greg Cuthbertson, senior lecturer in history at the University of South Africa (Unisa) and director of one of the few postgraduate courses in US history in the country.

The United States Constitution and concepts like affirmative action and free enterprise have acquired a new significance since South Africa entered a political transition two years ago, Dr. Cuthbertson says.

Interest in African-American history has also surged because black South Africans wanted to discover the experience of their counterparts in the US under segregation and through the civil-rights struggle.

"Renewed interest in African-American studies is the spark for the resurgence of interest in American studies in this country," he says.

From the mid-1970s until the end of the '80s, interest in American studies waned in South Africa. During the '70s, white South Africans began to react to what they regarded as a hostile US position, while many black South Africans turned against the US because they regarded it as an ally of the white establishment.

This trend intensified during the Reagan administration because the US Congress initiated sanctions against South Africa, while Reagan's policy of constructive engagement with Pretoria further alienated black South Africans.

During the Bush administration, white attitudes toward the US began to soften because of the lifting of sanctions. Black opinion has also softened because of Bush's support for the black cause and his even-handed approach in bringing the two sides to the negotiating table.

Peter Vale, professor of international studies at the University of the Western Cape, says that in the '70s most political science departments at South African universities included comparative studies in American government, but no attempt was made to coordinate different academic disciplines with American components.

"In the 1960s and '70s it was taught as a separate module," he says. Although history and literature courses now focus most keenly on American studies, "The whole subject of American studies is approached in a very ad hoc way at present," says Ernest Messina, a history lecturer at Western Cape University, who runs a postgraduate course in African-American studies (see story on Page 12). …