Academic journal article Tydskrif vir Letterkunde

Can New Histories Be Written Objectively by Old Historians?

Academic journal article Tydskrif vir Letterkunde

Can New Histories Be Written Objectively by Old Historians?

Article excerpt

New History of South Africa.

Hermann Giliomee & Bernard Mbenga. 2007. Cape Town: Tafelberg. 454 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-624-04358-4.

What is a 'new' history? When is a history 'new', and who decides what is no longer 'old'? With a volume intended for general readership, splitting hairs like this is perhaps a little unfair, for the adjective is probably just what that general reader will assume it is: a signifier that this is a history of the beloved country for the 'new', democratic, South Africa as opposed to a history for (rather than 'of ') the 'old', predemocratic, now not-so-beloved apartheid state. A history, then (as the Introduction states clearly) that eschews the earlier tendency to begin in 1652 with some form of terra nulla. But as the Introduction also points out, the excellent Oxford History of South Africa of 1969-71 (still a good read today) had already extended South African history into--well, South African pre-history. Since the Oxford History was an 'Oxford' history, however, not a 'South African' history, I suppose it would count as (at best) 'prenew', rather than 'new'. Nor is the Giliomee-Mbenga the first 'new history' of South Africa, as there was one over twenty years ago, by Trewhella Cameron and Stephanus Spies (which I suppose we'd then have to classify as 'post-pre-new'; but let's not get too carried away by all this).

So what makes this New History new? Well, the fact that it has one black and one white editor, for a start; and one suspects that it would not have been published (at least not as 'New'), were this not the case. As the Introduction states, the New History draws on the 'revisionist' historical work of the past three decades and the reinterpretations of such events as the Mfecane, the Anglo-Boer Wars and the role played in the Second of the latter by blacks, coloureds, Indians and the San; it rightly aims to "redress past distortions and biases". To sum it up: "Our goal has been to present our history in all its complexity in a fair and balanced manner " (x).

How successful have the editors been in that goal? On the whole, remarkably so, for the first two-thirds of the book at least. It is elegantly produced, with many illustrations (black and white plus colour), and as a historian hitherto better versed in the modern than in the old, the present writer has learnt a lot from it. To be sure, there is much that will be familiar to readers from other sources, not least Giliomee's own Afrikaners, and as the Introduction also admits, the book as a whole "rests to a large extent on previous published work by the different contributors" (x). While anyone can quibble about this or that being left out (there was some displeasure in the Afrikaans press a few months ago at the treatment of the early years from 1652 on, for example), any concise telling worth its salt is going to displease everyone in some small way. What really counts in a book such as this is whether or not the resultant narrative comes across as fair and representative. And for much of the time, this book succeeds. The complex history of early South Africa, of its many immigrants from different places, the importance of slavery, the conflict between Boer and Brit after the arrival of the latter, the impact of the missionaries, the emergence of the various nationalisms--all this makes for a darned good read. Perhaps surprisingly, certain key Afrikaner figures do not get the prominence one might expect (such as President Steyn of the Orange Free State). But again, a history of less than 500 pages can't satisfy everyone. And one is simply reminded that it's high time that we get decent biographies of men such as Steyn and Kruger (Giliomee is not alone in having in recent times argued, rightly, for a re-evaluation of Kruger; yet one must not forget that there are in fact hardly any reliable biographies of any leading South African political figures). The book barely touches on cultural issues, however, restricting itself (intentionally) to the political and, to a degree, the economic fields. …

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