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The Cambridge History of South Africa: “We Live in Tragic Times”
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If an archival discovery is the grand gesture of authority for the historian, the kind of text presented here as The Cambridge History of South Africa, with its sweeping synthesis from “early times” to 1994, is the grand gesture of authority for the discipline. The gift represented by these two volumes resembles the satisfaction we feel when we can stand atop a monument (or in this case, perhaps, what several authors in the volumes call the South African “miracle”) to look out at the horizon, take in the grand view, and then look back at where we have come from. In this case there is satisfaction in being able to hold in our hands, in two substantial and dense volumes, the “complete” history of South Africa—if not a “master narrative,” at least “a reasonable summation of the current state of knowledge” (vol. 1, xiv). In this, the Cambridge History of South Africa is true to its goal, of producing “broad essays that cover a given field of history at any given point and that serve as a starting point for those who need to gain access to the established historical scholarship on a given country or field of inquiry” (vol. 2,1).

The Cambridge History is an authoritative, coherent, and comprehensive account which, in the arrangement of its chapters, follows a rough chronological outline (with many detours). It rejects a teleological reading of apartheid and colonialism more broadly as a tale foretold and, at least to a certain extent, takes account of the unevenness, complexity, and ambiguity of history. With some exceptions, however (in essays, for example, by Paul Landau, Tlhalo Radithlahlo, and Deborah Posel), it remains firmly grounded in what the editors of the second volume call “one of the most dynamic and innovative fields of African historical scholarship”: the social history “produced by so-called radical or revisionist historians in the twentieth century (vol. 2, 1). Paul Landau reads the archive less as a source than as a grid of intelligibility for meaning, consciousness, and practices in a changing world; Tlhalo Radithlahlo engages with the archive of the unexpected by bringing into play the field of cultural production and aesthetics; and Deborah Posel reads apartheid’s articulation with the concepts of modernity, knowledge production, and (Foucault’s) concepts of biopolitics and genealogy.

The editorial decision to limit the geographical reach of these volumes to “South Africa” and to end them in 1994 is explained, somewhat inadequately, by the unifying context of white domination. Two major lacunae are its consequence. One is the absence of Namibia, whose history was deeply entangled with that of South Africa throughout the twentieth century and arguably remains so. In fact, one of the most egregious and perhaps symptomatic errors in these unevenly edited volumes is the misspelling of the sole reference to Namibia (“Nambia”), which appears in the index of volume 2—a blunder that is evocative of the exclusion of South Africa’s dependent territory from the geographical boundaries the Cambridge History sets itself. The other is the absence of new historiographies (“as yet there have been limited signs of a blooming of new historiographies” [vol. 2, xiv]). The 1994 cut-off point not only ends the historical account there, but also (clearly uneasily, in the case of several of the contributors) avoids the inclusion of the considerable historiographical work since the early 1990s that has not only addressed the “legacies” of apartheid and colonialism, but has also called into question the very basis of the concepts, chronologies, and turning points that are assumed here to be, in the words of David Scott (2004:3), the “stable ground of explication and justification.”

These volumes take their place in a long line of synthetic histories of South Africa—some of them prestigious, some of them notorious, but all claiming to be authoritative. How influential such syntheses have been is open to question, but the question itself is indicative of the important relationship between history and historiography. The production of such a synthesis is an endeavor that is fraught with immense responsibility, and so we must ask what these volumes reveal, as well as what remains unexplored or unthought—and at what cost...



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