- History Making and Present Day Politics: The Meaning of Collective Memory in South Africa
Historiography is always difficult. It is retrospective, brought together by historiographers who claim to find cohesiveness among works that may not [End Page 186] have been apparent at the time of writing; and, although these works may signal discord and unevenness, historiographical assessments almost always move in a singular direction. It was with a sense of defying the conventions of historiography that, in a paper presented at the meeting of the South African Historical Society in 1999, Ciraj Rassool, Gary Minkley, and I asserted that a "historiographical rupture" had occurred in South Africa in the 1990s. We referred to a "break with the positivist methods, hierarchical knowledge sequences and narrative forms of academic history," and said that the "landscape of history" had shifted "from bringing the agency and experiences of the underclasses into the purview of the academy—so much the terrain of social historians—to making visible and visual the representations of productions in public domains." While this assertion may have been deliberately provocative it did indicate the emergence of a new South African history which was beginning to challenge the conventions of history production.
However, a very different picture of South African history in the 1990s emerges in this volume of essays, selected from a workshop convened by Hans Erik Stolten at the University of Copenhagen under the auspices of the Nordic Africa Institute. Although some papers (particularly those of Burns and Baines) signal otherwise, the dominant assertion is that there has been a crisis in South African history since the 1990s; student enrollments in history have declined at both schools and universities, and despite dramatic political changes, few new historians have emerged and little fresh historical writing is apparent.
Despite some differences among the seventeen authors in this volume, the reason for this pessimistic conclusion derives from the hierarchies of historical production. At the apex is something called "real history"—with its core in the academy and characterized by an "assessment of the balance of evidence" (Unterhalter, 113) and the search for a single truth. Countering this, lower down the scale, are recollections, memories, and heritage. These are presented at best as sources to be molded into proper history through the intervention of the professional historian; at worst, they are considered malleable, and subject to manipulation and amnesia. What is not adequately considered in this volume is how admitting the latter into the ambit of history alters the conceptualization of the profession. Such a reconsideration, though at the forefront of much exciting and innovative work in South African historiography since the 1990s, is barely mentioned in this collection. Moreover, in a volume that accepts these hierarchies it is ironic that several essays are actually based upon personal memories, reminiscences, and recollections, with little substantial research or theoretical engagement.
Stolten claims in his introduction that the book attempts to "give a broad and inclusive picture of South African historiography" (27). But this so-called inclusivity is based on the notion of crisis in the 1990s; with longing and some sense of desperation, it harks back to the issues and debates of the 1970s and '80s when South African history was supposedly flourishing. [End Page 187] The only pause for reflection comes from Dubow (52), who questions the "golden age," given its universalist assumptions and insularity. Since the 1990s, new histories have taken Dubow's assertions further, developing a critique of social history and explaining alternative ways of thinking about history. Unfortunately much of this new history, challenging the conventions of the 1980s, is missing from History Making and Present Day Politics. The claims to range and inclusivity that Stolten makes for the volume are very difficult to sustain.
Cape Town, South Africa