- Unsettled History: The Making of South African Public Pasts by Leslie Witz, Gary Minkley and Ciraj Rassool
In post-apartheid South Africa, some academics feared that history would lose its sense of urgency. The growing tensions surrounding popular efforts to reclaim and re-make the past, however, have revealed a revived dynamic force in the realm of public history. While place names and monuments to the likes of Cecil Rhodes and the doyens of imperial, segregationist and apartheid South Africa still abound, they have received much-needed critical attention. The Rhodes Must Fall movement, for example, was just the most recent in a series of popular efforts to decolonize objectionable celebrations of questionable pasts. In the same vein, the authors of Unsettled History: The Making of South African Public Pasts, Leslie Witz, Gary Minkley and Ciraj Rassool argue for the need to counter the persistence of various intellectually and politically corrupt historical influences that not only blanket the landscape but also prevent academic efforts to revision history. In so doing, they examine the different threads that have been woven into a resilient fabric, one that has withstood efforts to displace the dominant racialized, gendered and class-based perspectives of the past. Unsettled History is at once a trenchant critique of arguments for academic primacy in the making of public history and a useful chronicle of the major figures who shaped the dominant thinking and the public representations of it.
Witz, Minkley, and Rassool are well known for their important contributions to South African history, especially their post-apartheid analyses of its production and associated public performances. In their writings, both individually and collectively as the "Troika," they have sought to highlight the limits and pitfalls of social and radical history within the South African academy, especially from the History Workshop at the University of the Witwatersrand. As such, this present volume is a welcome compendium of some of their past collaborations.
The authors are primarily concerned with "the accumulative limits of change, the performance of commemoration, visual strategies of history making and practices and policies of public history…" (160). The book spans nine chapters; the first is concerned with mapping out the methods and practices the authors see as dominating the landscape, both literal and figurative, of public history and heritage in South Africa. The remaining chapters (five of which [End Page 1466] have been previously published in whole or in part) deal with specific cases illustrating the central theme of the need to unburden present historical praxis from past forms, especially as they relate to embedded tropes such as "ethnicity," "race" and "tribe." These range from an insightful analysis of the limits of oral history, to critiques of commemorative celebrations such as the (Jan) van Riebeeck (the first Dutch governor of the Cape of Good Hope) Festival and the Anglo-Boer Centenary to the development and appropriation of photo archives and the burgeoning heritage and cultural tourist industries. The book includes a number of interesting black and white photographs, some of which are too small, blurred or faint to illustrate or support the analyses, but there are no maps to show the spatial relations discussed in many chapters. Overall, the writing is lively, erudite, and provides close analyses of compelling evidence though it is occasionally burdened with terms which may be obscure to those outside the field.
Unsettled History is, above all else, a challenging book, both in terms of the ambitious scope of coverage of the pre and post-apartheid historical terrain, but also in its efforts to contest so many complex subjectivities in the casting of public history. While the authors challenge the validity of the production of various exhibitions, pageants, monuments and spaces on multiple levels, from their inception through various efforts by academics to provide "objective" analyses, they do not take up one crucial dimension; the ways in which the nonacademic public perceived and experienced these spectacles. Their argument that public history should be more discursive and inclusive of multiple...