Delicate Distillation of Our History

Cape Times (South Africa), September 19, 2008 | Go to article overview

Delicate Distillation of Our History


THERE are so many misconceptions, partisan opinions, rampant examples of frustrated wishful thinking, myth-building when it comes to unravelling the complex history of South Africa, that it is with relief, and, indeed, hope, that one encounters Nigel Worden's superb work of historiographic synthesis.

As the title suggests, the canvas he is working on is vast. Yet, the ambitious task he has set himself in The Making of Modern South Africa is a much-needed and welcome distillation of our history, as seen from various points of view.

Worden has allowed the salient ideas and events of our past to come to the fore, assessing their significance and striking a fine balance between the events themselves, how these events influenced historians, and how historians have in turn responded to them.

This fourth edition of the work, updated, is, however, more than a dry survey of historical approaches, it is, as one would expect, a penetrating analysis of the forces that have shaped South Africa, and is written in a style that is engaging and economical.

It does not express superfluous opinions, but is a roller-coaster ride through South Africa's traumatic past.

This is couched in a way that sees South Africa not only as a fascinating melange of historical forces, but that highlights the unique characteristics that have made this country what it is.

Living in South Africa, one can lose sight of the fact that the country's history has an effect on us today, whether we call it the new South Africa or not.

South Africa, this step-child of the British Empire, would seem to have undergone all the inimical forces that history could conjure up, and which history has thrown together all in one geographical area.

South Africa has had to contend with fratricidal wars, an ethnic mix, rigidly entrenched racism, as well as colonial capitalism at its most rampant and virulent.

As Worden reminds us:

"This kind of white supremacism took strong root in South Africa, as it did in other British colonies in Africa and Asia, as well as in the United States. But in South Africa it developed into a systematic and legalised discrimination shaping the economic, social and political structure of the whole country in a more pervasive way than elsewhere."

To many readers this might be stating the obvious in that we live with this legacy every day, as evinced, in part, by the crime statistics.

Worden also refers to these, and links them to the gaping disparities created long before apartheid, but, of course, immeasurably exacerbated by it.

Hannah Arendt, in her classic study, The Origins of Totalitarianism, also devotes a lot of space to the fact that in South Africa racial considerations overwhelmed economic, let alone social, considerations.

The uniqueness of the South African situation is thoroughly and lucidly fleshed out by Worden, explaining succinctly the links between the mining industry and segregation.

He goes on to unravel the complex relationship between governments - whether it was the Hertzog government, the Smuts government, the fusion government, or the PW Botha era - and the mining industry.

His chapter on the various land ordinances which culminated in the notorious 1913 Land Acts is most instructive and makes it quite clear how apartheid legislators already had a welter of extant legislation upon which to graft the infinitely harsher measures initiated by DF Malan's Nationalist Party after its slender victory in 1948. …

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