The Forgotten Compass of Death: Apocalypse Then and Now in the Social History of South Africa

By Carton, Benedict | Journal of Social History, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The Forgotten Compass of Death: Apocalypse Then and Now in the Social History of South Africa


Carton, Benedict, Journal of Social History


Ten years after South Africa's transition from strife-torn apartheid to multiracial democracy, HIV/AIDS has superseded freedom struggles as the urgent matter of the day. (1) Untimely death, in other words, no longer looms as a residual outcome of societal upheaval but transforms society itself. With one of the highest national rates of HIV infection in the world, South Africa faces a bleak demographic prospect on a continent harboring three-quarters of the global AIDS cases. (2) As more and more social historians investigate the devastating reach of the pandemic, they will not only rise to a challenge in the international scope of historical inquiry; they will also traverse "contemporary" pasts requiring greater sensitivity to sexuality, death, and crisis mortality--the decimation of multitudes. (3)

The principal mode of HIV transmission, unprotected intercourse between men and women, and the stigma that surrounds this issue have distressed scholars, recently spurring historians to probe patterns of sexual and etiological socialization. But an equally important and related theme, perceptions of mortality, has yet to receive this level of recognition. Indeed, comprehensive studies of death seldom feature in the social history of South Africa. (4) The lack of historical engagement with mortality is more apparent now as leading AIDS scholars grapple to discern what drives elders to accuse wayward youths and women of fostering the promiscuity that leads to wide scale bereavement; why African churches urge stricter penitence to cleanse the "evil" loosed by a nameless fatal illness; and why hearsay circulated in black communities that apartheid agents released toxins spawning ukufa, the pervasive "bad death" caused by poisonous "pollution, idliso, a synonym for AIDS. (5)

This exploratory article analyzes the possible roots of such reactions. It identifies the topical and intellectual currents propelling social historians to broaden their critical understanding of promiscuity and health, two phenomena determining views of mortality in the age of AIDS. In addition, it reasserts a forte of the "new" social history--the study of the "ways of death" in the West--which offers comparative insights to researchers seeking to integrate studies of sexuality, disease, and mortality. I then examine penitential mourning in several distinct contexts as both a medium of power through which people command deference, assign blame, or challenge authority, and a ritual of coping with umnyama, the "pollution" of death and sexual impurity. To this end, I outline lethal epidemics in Zulu- and Xhosa-speaking societies that profoundly affected attitudes toward the renewal and conclusion of life-affirming practices: the 1890s rinderpest cattle epizootic, Spanish Influenza of 1918, and the AIDS catastrophe. Such momentous episodes of untimely death not only reconfigured expectations of bereavement; they also fostered rumors that Western medical interventions protected white domination at the expense of black vitality. (6)

Currents and Analyses Leading to New Social Histories of Death

In the decade preceding the pandemic, when liberation movements transformed South Africa into a battleground, social historians combined two commitments: fighting against apartheid and recovering voices buried by white rule. Their pathbreaking monographs of "history from below" concentrated on European conquests that led to capitalist exploitation, class conflict, and black resistance. In so doing, they treated themes such as untimely death in indigenous societies dislocated by colonial invasions as one of many tragic consequences of white oppression. (7) In the early 1990s, however, researchers inspired by post-modernism, post-structuralism, and post-colonialism scrutinized what they said was the instrumental purpose of social history: to demonstrate how colonial and capitalist intrusions determined the plotline of modern South Africa's past. …

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