A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility and White South Africa, 1820-2000

By Stapleton, Tim | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility and White South Africa, 1820-2000


Stapleton, Tim, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility and White South Africa, 1820-2000. By Saul Dubow. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pp. xi, 296; 1 1 illustrations. $1 10.00.

This book argues that the development of white intellectual institutions in the Cape were at the heart of emerging South African identity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It examines the development of scientific and literary institutions, mostly based in Cape Town, such as the South African Museum, the South African Library, Cape Town's Botanical Garden, the Cape Archives, the University of Cape Town, and the Cape Monthly Magazine. There is a detailed examination of the growing network of white intellectuals, including biographical information, connected by these institutions and the rise of the "expert" within the Cape Colony, and ultimately the Union of South Africa. One of the main points in the book is that the desire to comprehend the new country of South Africa created a sense of settler identity and ownership that simultaneously sought to subjugate and control the indigenous majority by making them the subjects of scientific enquiry (p. 118). Another important point, and one that is well taken, is that historians of South Africa's late nineteenth and early twentieth century mineral revolution era have tended to focus on the country's interior while ignoring the Cape, which is where most of the wealth and power was located. Dubow insists that the Cape institutions remained the most important and enduring, and he urges historians to look forward from the mineral discoveries of c. 1870 and not backward from the Union of 1910 (p. 121). The last chapter looks at how, in the mid- to late twentieth century, the outward looking, wartime South Africanism of Jan Smuts gave way to the technocratic, inward looking Afrikaner nationalism of Apartheid that ultimately produced the likes of the infamous Dr. Wouter Basson and his bizarre chemical -biological warfare experiments. The last few pages are devoted to science in the new, post-apartheid South Africa, particularly Thabo Mbeki's "African Renaissance" and his controversial statements regarding HIV/AIDS. …

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