Social Death and Reconstruction: Slavery and Emancipation in South Africa

By Morton, Fred | African Studies Review, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Social Death and Reconstruction: Slavery and Emancipation in South Africa


Morton, Fred, African Studies Review


John Edwin Mason. Social Death and Reconstruction: Slavery and Emancipation in South Africa. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2003. xiii +334 pp. Map. Tables. Index. $59.50. Cloth.

Here we have yet another comparison of slavery in the South African Cape with slavery in antebellum America. What Mason adds is his unmatched familiarity with the massive corpus of the records of British slave protectors during the periods of amelioration (1826-34) and apprenticeship (1834-38) that led to emancipation. The experience of slaves is narrated with liberal quotations from the protectors' entries, reflecting as closely as possible the slaves' own words. Written deliberately in a storytelling style, the book evokes clear views of the master's household, skilled slaves, domestic servants, urban laborers, farm labor, violence and resistance, Christianity and Islam among slaves, slave families, and the moment of emancipation. All reveal that "slaves made history" (6): that is, they took initiatives that increased their autonomy and helped to create communities.

For his analysis of these stories (what he terms "linking the empirical to the theoretical" [8]), Mason uses a framework drawn from Orlando Patterson's notion of of slavery as a form of "social death" and of slaves' desires for "social resurrection." Mason sees these concepts, which provide the title of his book, as "literary metaphor rather than a social theory" (9), and he incorporates Nell Irvin Painter's notion of "soul murder" in his assessment of Cape slavery. Leaning heavily on the literature of American slavery, Mason draws parallels between his work and that of Gutman, White, Genovese, Rose, Jones, Wade, Parish, Blassingame, Du Bois, Ruiz, and Foner. Correspondingly, he takes his African lessons almost entirely from the literature on the Cape itself.

Largely missing in Mason's exposition is an interest in the literature on slavery and the transition to freedom in the Caribbean and especially in the rest of Africa. Though the similarities between the Cape and the American South have long been noted and deserve amplification, Mason perpetuates the tendency of too many to think of Cape slavery and U.S. slavery as mirror images of one another; like many historians of Cape slavery, he is disinclined to seek enlightenment elsewhere. Yet the parallels between slavery in the Cape and the rest of Africa are striking-and unexplored. Like slaves in other parts of Africa-but in contrast to slaves in the American South-Cape slaves lived in close proximity to a large free population of persons not dissimilar to themselves in appearance. …

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