The Cambridge History of South Africa: Volume 2, 1885-1994

By Gordon, David M. | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, September 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Cambridge History of South Africa: Volume 2, 1885-1994


Gordon, David M., The International Journal of African Historical Studies


The Cambridge History of South Africa: Volume 2, 1885-1994. Edited by Robert Ross, Anne Kelk Mager, and Bill Nasson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 201 1 . Pp. xi, 724; appendix, bibliography, index. $165.00.

During the heady days of the South African uprisings and rebellions of the 1970s and 1980s, and then the ultimate demise of apartheid in the early 1990s, a homegrown South African historiography flourished. Styling themselves as a class of radical, organic intellectuals, historians detailed the fragile hegemony of the racial order and the many challenges to it. They positioned themselves against an older tradition of "liberal" historians, such as Monica Wilson and Leonard Thompson, who wrote the previous Oxbridge compendium of South African history, The Oxford History of South Africa in 1968, by highlighting the capitalist underpinnings of the apartheid order. As rebellions widened the cracks in the apartheid state's authority through the 1980s, these historians also gave voice to its many victims and resistors. This volume, with many chapters penned by the doyens of these radical historians, is the best compilation and synthesis of this scholarship to date.

The first approach evident among these radical historians, influenced by theoretical Marxism and other forms of structuralism, sought to expose the structures of oppression, in particular the rise of that edifice of racial capitalism- the apartheid state. Here three chapters illustrate this approach. Stanley Trapido, a leading theorist on the class alliances that constituted the rise of the settler state, carefully analyzes the economic and strategic interests during and immediately after the mineral discoveries of the late nineteenth century and their major conflagration by the end of that century, the South African War, all of which set the stage for a political incorporation that conformed to the then dominant economic interests. With special attention to the political economy during the Union years (defined here as 1910 to 1948), Bill Freund considers the consequences of this political incorporation: the establishment of an interventionist and segregationist state that attempted but failed to exert its hegemony. Insisting on the relative autonomy of the apartheid state from economic interests, Deborah Posel illustrates apartheid's statecraft and governmentality, in Foucault' s sense (although Posel is sensitive to the limits of the state's ambitions). Her contribution distinguishes apartheid chronologically within South African history and comparatively from other forms of statecraft with which it is frequently associated, such as U.S. segregation and German Nazism. This chapter will appeal to students of comparative politics, and, as an excellent analysis of the apartheid state, should find its place in many graduate and advanced undergraduate classes on South African history.

The second approach of these radical historians was to detail the many ways people challenged the hegemonic order. They grappled with the role and influence of popular agency in the context of a seemingly omnipotent and oppressive racial order. Shula Marks and her many students pioneered an approach that convincingly integrated historical agency within this structural context. Her two chapters here, detailing the period from 1880 to 1910, skillfully illustrate her historiographie technique and mastery of the period in a discussion of various social and political movements and their respective ideologies, including the competing nationalisms that drove Boers and Brits to war in 1899, African popular and elite Christianity, ethnic mobilizations, and the origins of working class agency on the sprawling mines of Kimberley and the Witwatersrand. Philip Bonner achieves a similar attention to local agency in the face of broader structural forces in his analysis of South African society and culture from 1910 to 1948.

Radical historians also debated and wrote about different forms of social and cultural agency. …

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