In the postcolonial world of which South Africa is now officially a part, much of the old currency of academic discourse on the colonial state and popular struggles has been devalued. Whereas it was once possible to couch debate on the nature of any given colonial society in terms of a well-defined struggle between oppressor and oppressed, with the nature of colonial oppression being seen in straightforward national, class, and (later) gender terms, the experience of postcoloniality raises a host of questions that were previously unaddressed or, at best, undervalued. Postcolonial discourse is replete with the inconsistencies, gaps, unexpected complexities, and ambiguities which all too plainly plague the postcolonial world. In postapartheid South Africa, for example, many are realizing -- from politicians and academics to trade unionists and the youth in the townships -- that nothing is as simple now as it had seemed in prospect, and to some the ending of white rule already appears as a mere footnote in a continuing struggle between the dominant and subordinated classes in that society.
Historians have not been immune to the general climate of the times, caught in the maelstrom caused by a crisis of raised expectations, academic self-doubt, and radical pessimism. Such were the paralyzing effects of these conflicting emotions in "the new South Africa" that the History Workshop Conference which met at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in July 1994, three months after Nelson Mandela had won the first nonracial elections in the country's history, was remarkable chiefly for the relative absence of history from the many papers presented. This was despite the fact that the discipline was very well represented among the attendees. While outwardly deploring the conservative sentiments that motivated Francis Fukuyama's much vaunted announcement of "the end of history," many at the conference seemed to feel that with the