Christopher Saunders: The Making of the South African Past (1988)

Chapter 16: The Challenge Begins

From about 1970 a concerted challenge was mounted to the pre­vailing liberal view of South Africa's historical evolution by scholars who, to a greater or lesser degree, adhered to a materialist view of the past. These revisionists were centrally con­cerned to explain the nature of South Africa's political structures in terms of its economic development. They rejected any idea that the political could be separated from the economic and focused on the inter-relationship between the two. Beyond a general commit­ment to a materialist approach, however, these revisionists were far from united, and there was soon a more vigorous debate amongst them than between them and those they criticised, for few liberals, and none of them historians, chose to respond di­rectly to the new challenge. As in previous chapters, the new work will be considered through an examination of the careers and work of some of the principal scholars involved.


The intellectual origins of the new radicalism lie more in new cur­rents in Western historical scholarship generally, and in African history specifically, than in earlier radical writing on South Af­rican history. Of the professional historians, Macmillan was the one who - correctly - was most frequently seen as a pioneer, for he had called for the writing of social history, had investigated social conditions through field-work, had begun the study of rural stratification, and had stressed the importance of economics. His insights, and more specifically his work on the Herschel district in the 1920s, were to be used by Colin Bundy in the 1970s in his work on the African peasantry. But many of the early revisionist writers tended to be dismissive of all previous writing, including that of Macmillan. In its hostility to liberalism, the new writing belonged to a radical tradition with deep roots, some of which we surveyed in Chapter 13, though it is difficult to trace direct links with the earlier writing. The proposition that segregation was inte­grally connected with the capitalist system - a key argument in the early 1970s - was asserted, for instance, in the work of Hosea Jaffe in the early l940s, but the revisionist scholars of the early 1970s did not explicitly draw upon such earlier radical writing. Most of the writings of the intellectuals associated with the small Com­munist Party or Trotskyite movements were unknown to the young revisionist scholars of the early 1970s. They saw themselves as academics, not polemicists, even if they hoped that their writing would serve a political as well as an academic purpose.

One work that was widely read by the new generation was Class and Colour in South Africa 1850-1950 by Jack and Ray Simons, which appeared in a large Penguin paperback in 1969 and formed something of a bridge from the earlier, polemical and often recondite radical wilting to the scholarly work of the 1970s. Jack Simons (born 1907) obtained degrees in law and politics while working in the civil service in Pretoria. He then went to the London School of Economics to study for his doctorate, returning in 1938 to head a sub-department of Native law and administration - the name was changed in 1960 to comparative African government and law - at the University of Cape Town. He wrote on legal and political topics, and was active as a leading member of the Communist Party of South Africa. In December 1964 he was barred from teaching in terms of the Suppression of Communism Act. Ray Alexander, born in Latvia, had joined the communist movement before she emigrated to South Africa in 1929. In the 1930s and 1940s she worked tirelessly as a trade-union organiser in Cape Town and surrounding areas. In 1954 she was elected to parlia­ment by African voters but was prevented from taking her seat be­cause she was 'listed' as a communist. She and her husband left the country in May 1965, and Jack Simons took up a research fellowship at Manchester University for a year. In Britain they completed their detailed history of radicalism in South Africa, for which they had collected material over many years.

They called their book, not a history, but 'an exercise in po­litical sociology on a time scale', and they made it clear that their purpose was not merely to recover the history of left-wing political activity, but to move beyond description to an analysis of the in­teraction between class interests and racial interests, between radical politics and the 'national movement', by which was meant the opposition of blacks to their oppression as blacks. They wrote, for example, of how in the first decade of the twentieth century members of the Social Democratic Federation, and later other so­cialists, insisted that class, not race, was 'the basic cause of con­flict' in the society. To such people - and the Simonses did not hide their own sympathy for this position - colour consciousness was something 'artificially stimulated', whereas class consciousness was natural. Yet the attempts by radicals to forge a non­racial labour movement failed; the radical vision of a single so­ciety without class or colour distinctions did not materialise. Colour, not class, triumphed. Working-class solidarity had de­creased, not grown, over the years; white working-class racism had been a powerful force. The Simonses explained all this by saying that white workers had traded their socialism for a share, in white power. Also, the white minority regime had used fascist means to perpetuate a racial order in a country with an advanced industrial economy. In their concluding chapter, the Simonses explicitly challenged the liberal view that the industrial colour bar was in­compatible with economic expansion. In reality, they pointed out, racial discrimination had intensified as the economy had grown.

Class and Colour included much more detail - from left-wing newspapers and journals in large part - on the history of the radical left than had Roux's Time Longer Than Rope, and was alto­gether a more scholarly work. But its chief importance lay in the way it grappled, over more than 600 pages with the inter­relationship of class and race in South African history. It was less successful in analysing class formation, or showing how the class structure had been transformed over time.


The Simonses, who settled in Lusaka, Zambia, did not make fur­ther interventions in the historiographical debate. Because they were 'listed' people in terms of South Africa's Suppression of Communism Act (from 1982 the Internal Security Act), their book was banned for possession as well as distribution in South Africa; though soon read clandestinely by people on the left in that country, it remained largely unknown to professional historians there, most of whom would anyway have dismissed it as the work of non-historians. But it helped shape the ideas of those who led the radical challenge.

Most of these were young emigres from South Africa who were studying in Britain for doctorates in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That a number of individuals were inv6lved reflected the new opportunities offered thanks to the economic and population boom of the 1 960s: universities expanded, new jobs became avail­able, and there was more money for research. Some of the white exiles or emigres had been active in South African student pol­itics, but could find no political role abroad and so turned to his­torical research. They had been radicalised by the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and by what had followed: the banning of the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress in April 1960, the decision by the nationalist movements the fol­lowing year to turn to armed struggle, and the progressive dis­mantling of most of what remained of the rule of law by John Vorster, Minister of Justice from 1962. Any prospect of peaceful reform or opportunity for extra-parliamentary protest seemed to disappear, and liberalism increasingly appeared to have no further role to play as South African society polarised, with blacks within the country preferring to work on their own in the black con­sciousness movement. The emigre's no longer believed in the possibility of evolutionary change and instead hoped for a rapid, revolutionary transformation.

The radical challenge developed in large part as a response to the publication of the two volumes of the Oxford History. The first volume appeared only months before Shula Marks and Anthony Atmore began their seminar on the societies of southern Africa at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. Both Marks and Atmore wrote critical reviews of the first volume, as did Stanley Trapido, who had taught briefly in Jack Simons 's department at the University of Cape Town in the early 1960s before moving to Britain, where in 1970 he completed his doc­torate on Cape liberalism in the nineteenth century at the Univer­sity of London. In these reviews a new revisionist perspective on South African history began to emerge. That the Oxford History presented an Africanist interpretation, in which the history of South Africa was equally that of blacks and whites, was welcomed, but the revisionists concentrated on the failure of the volumes to explain central processes in South African society.

In his chapter in the second volume of the Oxford History the economist Hobart Houghton suggested that the history of indus­trialisation in South Africa was much the same as that in Britain. In an earlier unpublished but widely circulated paper, a young executive at the Anglo Amencan Corporation, Michael O'Dowd, had predicted that just as industrialisation in Britain had led to greater democracy, so South Africa would follow a similar path. Trapido now argued that whereas Britain had been the first country to industrialise, South Africa, like other late industri­alising countries, had taken 'the Prussian road', an autocratic route to modernisation, with the state intervening massively to impose discipline and to mobilise labour. State intervention had not hindered economic growth, but had been designed deliberately to promote the industrialisation process. Developing capitalism had not merely adapted itself to the racial system; it had played a major role in the creation of segregation and apartheid, the latter-day manifestations of that system. Segregationist racial policy had indeed served capitalist interests.

Those revisionists whom David Yudelman in 1983 christened the 'elder statesmen' of 'the new school - Frederick Johnstone, Harold Wolpe and Martin Legassick - were not old in the early 1970s: the two trained as historians were under 30 when they began to pioneer the new approach. Frederick Johnstone was a Canadian with a cosmopolitan background, who had received some of his education in Geneva, Switzerland. As a graduate stu­dent at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, in the mid-1960s, he was drawn to work on a South African topic under Arthur Keppel-Jones. His master's dissertation at Queen's was a largely empirical and descriptive study of the 1922 Rand Revolt. He then went to St Antony's College, Oxford, on a Canada Council schol­arship in 1967, and there both expanded his master's thesis into a doctorate, and adopted class analysis, for which his subject was eminently suited. The May 1968 student revolt in Paris and the anti-Vietnam war protests in America were radicalising influences, and a new, more flexible Marxism was taking the place of the old Stalinist dogmatism in British intellectual circles. Edward Thomp­son's classic account of The Miaking of the English Working Class, first published in 1963, became available in a Penguin paperback in 1968, and made a profound impression on Johnstone and others, with its stress on the importance of class as a relationship, and therefore as an historical phenomenon. Barrington Moore's Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (1967) was almost as influential. By the late 1960s Marxist scholars - Edward Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill in Britain, Eugene Genovese in the United States - were producing exciting historical work, which grappled with great themes of social and economic change.

When Johnstone visited South Africa in 1968-9 to undertake re­search in the Pretoria archives and in Cape Town, he was not only horrified by the inequalities in South African society; he was struck by the prosperity of most whites. Economic growth was said to be second only to that of Japan, and the average white standard of living to be comparable to that of Californians. Yet this was accompanied by ever more rigid apartheid policies. Lib­eral scholars seemed unable to explain this. Historians offered no answer, and economists assumed that the demands of a modern economy were at odds with an archaic, racist political system. Economic growth would bring about the elimination of racial dis­crimination. On his return to Oxford, Johnstone published in Af­rican Affairs an article which sought to explain how segregationist policies were compatible with economic growth. In 'White Pros­perity and White Supremacy in South Africa Today', he did not confront explicitly liberal interpretations of the course of South African history, but his challenge had implications for the way the past as well as the present was viewed.

Johnstone first outlined what he called 'the conventional wisdom': that there was an essential contradiction between racism and capitalism; that racial discrimination was dysfunctional to the rational development of an industrial economy; that restrictions on the mobility of black labour - influx control - and the reserva­tion of jobs for whites made no economic sense. Liberals had tended to see industrialisation as a progressive, modernising pro­cess that required new social relations in which race would be ex­cluded as a determining factor. If left unimpeded, they had implied, industrialisation would establish a rational, free social order. In his Anatomy of South African Misery de Kiewiet had spoken of the laws of the country' frustrating economic growth. Other lib­erals had argued that greater foreign investment would promote economic growth and so help break down the racial order. Johnstone argued instead that the system of racial discrimination had aided economic growth. The liberal view of an incompatibility between state policies and economic interests was wrong; it 'mystified' the true relationship between capitalism and apartheid: apartheid had been functional for capitalism and aided its devel­opment.

Walker, de Kiewiet and other English-speaking liberal historians had indeed traced the origins of segregation to an Afrikaner, fron­tier tradition of racism. A younger liberal, David Welsh, who suc­ceeded Jack Simons as head of the department of comparative African government at the University of Cape Town, suggested in a book published in 1969 that 'The Roots of Segregation' lay in­stead in Shepstone's policy in pre-industrial Natal. Johnstone ad­vanced a different argument: that industrial capitalism had been responsible for many of the key elements of the system of segrega­tion. The liberal historians had failed to link the development of the economy to the evolution of the system of racial domination, or to explore the history of industrialisation. That was a task the revisionists began to take up.

After his visit to South Africa, Johnstone spent some further years at Oxford, completing his doctorate and then turning it into the book eventually published as Class, Race and Gold in 1976, the first full-length scholarly monograph on a South African topic from a radical perspective. For Johns tone the gold-mining industry was 'the play within the play', which revealed what the struggle in South Africa was all about: a struggle not of white against black but one in which a capitalist class sought to exploit two different groups of workers, the one white, the other black. Johnstone set out to explain the actions of the white mineworkers in 1922, not by their race, but in terms of their structural, class position.

Harold Wolpe, another influential figure among the early revisionists, had been a member of the central committee of the underground South African Communist Party while working as a lawyer in Johannesburg in the 1950s. A member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the organisation set up by the African National Congress in 1961 to plan sabotage, he was among those arrested in the police raid on the Umkhonto headquarters in the Rivonia suburb of Jo­hannesburg in 1963. Together with another Rivonia detainee, he bribed a warder, escaped from jail and fled overseas. He became a lecturer in sociology at the new University of Essex and there began writing influential theoretical articles on South Africa from a Marxist perspective. They were not based on documentary re­search - he was not trained as an historian - but they threw up questions that directly challenged the liberal view of South Af­rican history. In his much-cited 'Capitalism and Cheap Labour Power: From Segregation to Apartheid', which appeared in Economy and Society in 1972, Wolpe argued that the reserves, a central ele­ment in the whole system of segregation, had served the interests of mining capital by subsidising labour costs. Migrant labour was highly exploitative because the mineowners paid a minimal wage, on the grounds that the families of the migrant workers could sup­port themselves in the reserves and that the migrants themselves would, after their period on the mines, resume subsistence farming in the rural areas. This was not a new idea - it could be found in Leo Marquard's Black Man's Burden, for example - but Wolpe elaborated it within a sophisticated Marxist framework which spoke of the articulation of pre-capitalist and capitalist modes of production.


The single most important figure in the radical challenge of the early 1970s was Martin Legassick. Born in Scotland, but educated in Cape Town, where he attended the Diocesan College, he began studying science at the University of Cape Town in 1959, where he was soon active in student politics (he later wrote the history of the National Union of South African Students). Before com­pleting his degree at Cape Town, he went on a Rhodes schol­arship to Oxford. He was radicalised by Sharpeville and the repression that followed, while the dismissal of his father as head of the General Botha naval academy by the Nationalist govern­ment because he was English-speaking increased Legassick's hos­tility to the regime. After gaining a first class for physics at Balliol in 1963, he switched fields. He first went to study at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana for a year, there working with Thomas Hodgkin a British Marxist then pioneering the study of the politics of tropical Africa. From Accra Legassick moved in 1964 to the University of California, Los Angeles, to work under Leonard Thompson, the leading South African his­torian of the day, who had served under Legassick's father on a Royal Navy ship in the North Atlantic during the Second World War.

In California Legassick chose to research the Cape northern frontier in the early nineteenth century. He could not return to South Africa to consult the archives, for the government had barred his return after he had urged the executive of NUSAS to adopt a more radical stance, but he went to London to use the ex­tensive mission records there. The result was an outstanding thesis, which was never to be published because he was soon un­happy with ~ and his interests moved to other fields. In over 700 pages, Legassick examined what he called the politics of a 'frontier zone', a concept derived in part from the insights of Jan Vansina' s work on the kingdoms of the savanna region of tropical Africa. Legassick focused on relations between the Griqua, the Sotho-Tswana and the missionaries along, and to the north of, the Orange River from 1780 to 1840. He was later critical of the limi­tations of his analysis, arguing that the very concept of frontier was descriptive rather than explanatory, but many other scholars found most fruitful the way he developed the idea of a 'frontier zone', in which there was no single legitimate authority, yet in which acculturation took place. Legassick wrote his dissertation as an Africanist, wanting to understand the dynamics of African society, and arguing that the establishment of white supremacy had been no easy, straightforward process. He stressed, too, the long history of autonomy for black societies, and criticised the failure of white-supremacist historians to recognise this. Like the liberals, Legassick was concerned to ask whether South Africa could have taken 'a different path'. He suggested that had the Griqua states survived, they might have 'provided the nucleus for a South Africa less dichotomized along "racial" lines'; the growth of a class of freed slaves and persons of mixed descent at the Cape might have provided the social base for 'a society whose div­isions were not based on colour'. But even in his dissertation, Le­gassick began to move away from a liberal Africanist approach: his introduction noted that two major themes dominate the history of nineteenth-century South Africa: the extension of white colonial control and the integration of the peoples of the region into a capi­talist system which had its ultimate centre in industrialising Europe. He was soon to believe that the second theme - not tackled in his thesis - was the determining one.

In California in the late 1960s various personal, intellectual and political influences further radicalised Legassick. While com­pleting his dissertation, he taught South African history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, from 1967 to 1969, years of much turmoil and ideological flux: of black power, the Berkeley free speech movement and the protests against the Vietnam war. Among American historians, a 'New Left' began to demand a rel­evant and usable past. Some of these historians criticised their predecessors for assuming that white racism had always existed and had not undergone change over time, and that it could be ex­plained adequately in psychological terms. They started to explore the ways in which it had served capitalist interests, securing privi­lege and dividing the working class. Vulgar Marxists reduced racism to a class phenomenon, but Legassick was influenced by the much more sophisticated work of Eugene Genovese, of the University of Rochester, on slavery and racism in the American South. Genovese denied a simple relationship between the devel­opment of American capitalism and the growth of racism, pointing to the precapitalist roots of racism, and observing that, in the af­termath of the First World War, American capitalism had no longer needed racial discrimination and had sought to remove it. Genovese concluded that racism in America grew out of a com­plex conjunction of historical forces, and that, while it could only be adequately explained in class terms, it could not be reduced to a question of class.

His dissertation completed, Legassick settled in Britain, where Marks, Atmore, Trapido, Johnstone and others were developing their criticisms of the Oxford History and other liberal work. A Ford Foundation grant enabled Legassick to research the development of segregation in South Africa, its intellectual roots and material underpinnings. He now argued that the essential features of segre­gation dated, not from the seventeenth- or eighteenth-century frontier, but from the early twentieth century, and that they were intimately related to the development of the modern economy. The larger work he planned was never completed, but in London in the early 1970s Legassick produced a number of preliminary papers - some not published, and only circulated in cyclostyled form - of seminal importance to the development of the new radical perspective. The most famous of these developed what he had sketched in the first pages of his dissertation; a critique of the frontier thesis advanced by Eric Walker in his Oxford lecture of 1930 and then by other liberal historians. Legassick knew that Frederick Jackson Turner's thesis on the significance of the fron­tier in American history, which had so influenced Walker, had come under heavy fire from American historians. Presented to Shula Marks's London seminar in 1970, Legassick's critique of 'the frontier tradition in South African historiography' questioned the use to which the notion of frontier had been put by liberal his­torians, and suggested that racism could not simply be explained on its own terms, as something carried intact from the eighteenth ­century frontier into the twentieth century, but had to be related to the changing material base of society. That mature racism was intimately related to capitalism in its mining phase was a theme he explored further in other papers.

One of the most important of these, entitled ‘South Africa: Forced Labour, Industrialization, and Racial Differentiation’, was completed in 1971 and circulated in mimeographed form, but not published until 1975 in a volume of case-studies written, according to its editor, 'as a protest and hopefully as an alterna­tive to the conventional Western social science literature on Africa'. In it Legassick rejected the idea that 'modernization' would necessarily have led to a reduction in racial inequality, had it not been for white racism and the existence of a separate Af­rican 'subsistence economy'. He cited Barrington Moore's Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy to make the point that 'modern­ization' had taken different forms in different countries, depending on pre-existing social relationships. In South Africa no 'dual economy' had developed, but rather one 'forced labour economy of gold and maize'. Economic growth had not taken place despite white racism but as a result of a variety of forms of non-economic coercion, created through conquest and justified by an ideology of white racism. In a dazzling 30-page outline of South African his­tory, Legassick sketched how economic changes had produced new classes, how racial segregation had emerged, and how what he termed 'the development of underdevelopment' had taken place in South Africa.

Like both Wolpe and Johnstone, who joined the staff at Memor­ial University, Newfoundland, in the mid-1970s, Legassick became a lecturer in sociology when he took a tea~ching post. That Johnstone and Legassick should, despite their historical training, have become sociologists was a reflection of the way their pol­itical-economy approach drew them from detailed empirically based research to more theoretical, conceptual work. After the publication of Class, Race and Gold, not having access to original sources in South Africa, Johnstone turned to writing general his­toriographical articles on the 'new school'. At the University of Warwick Legassick became increasingly involved with trade-union activity related to South Africa and exile politics, and his aca­demic writing virtually ceased. Suspended, and then expelled, from the African National Congress because he and others criti­cised the organisation for laying too much stress on armed struggle and not enough on mobilising workers, he resigned his lectureship to devote himself full-time to political and propaganda activity, and then worked in the East End of London for the Southern African Labour Education Project, formed in 1980 to provide materials for workers' education to trade union movements in southern Africa. He spent much of his time pro­ducing the journal of the Marxist Workers' Tendency of the Af­rican National Congress, Inqaba ya Basebenzi.

In the early 1970s Johnstone, Wolpe, and Legassick by no means always agreed with each other's work. Legassick's 'Forced Labour' paper was criticised in print by Wolpe, as well as by non-Marxists, before it was published. That the radical revisionists criticised each other's work helped keep the flood of papers ap­pearing in the early 1970s, as did a sense of intellectual excite­ment similar to that among the Africanists at the time of the Lusaka conference. They were developing what seemed to them a quite different interpretation of South Africa's past, one which they believed had important political implications and would in­fluence the course of the struggle in that country. If the system of racial segregation was indeed intimately connected with the form of the capitalist economy that had evolved in South Africa, then it could be argued that both should be eliminated together. Many of the new revisionists believed that the power of black labour would grow and the capitalist order eventually be swept away in a rev­olutionary transformation. A number, after writing of the past, ended with some such prognostication for the future.

Chapter 17:Class and Race, Structure and Process

For liberal historians, race was the dominant social reality in South Africa, and therefore the key element in any explanation of the overall course of South African development, though, as we saw, Macmillan in particular had not been unconcerned with social class. In emphasising class rather than race, the revisionists of the early 1970s were reacting especially against the emphasis given race in writing of the 1950s and 1960s, which had largely, if not completely, ignored or rejected class. In the mid-1960s Pierre van den Berghe, an American-based sociologist who had done field-work in South Africa, went so far as to state explicitly that social classes in the Mancian sense of relationship to the means of production... are not meaningful social realities in South Africa'. And there were various reasons why professional historians at that time paid no attention to class.**

Though Anglophone liberal historians were shocked when an Afrikaner nationalist government came to power in 1948 com­mitted to the implementation of a thorough-going policy of racial separation, they did not respond to the advent of apartheid by re­jecting the importance of race in the country's history. Monica Wilson, seeking in the Oxford History to counter the apartheid myth that people were happiest when separated racially, did cite examples of individuals co-operating across ‘the colour line’ in the pre­industrial past. But liberals continued to conceive of South Africa essentially in terms of the interaction of 'racial groups'. None of the contributors to the Oxford History spent time tracing the emer­gence of classes; the reader of those volumes gathered that race had been the dominant cleavage in the country's past. The liberal historians of the 1950s and 1960s abhorred racism, but the obses­sion with race in the politics of the day made them focus on - and exaggerate - the importance of race in the past. In a somewhat similar way, in Guyana the racial tensions which erupted on the eve of independence encouraged historians of that country to ana­lyse its past in terms of racial animosities and divisions, and to ignore the fact that historically other divisions had been as, if not more, important.

Most professional historians of the 1950s and 1960s, whether in Britain, America or South Africa, worked within an empirical tra­dition in which concepts such as class were distrusted for their imprecision. The Marxist definition linked class to the means of production, and few historians of this era attempted to integrate economics into their analyses. While the Cold War was at its height, any economic interpretation ran the risk of being branded Marxist, and Marxism was associated with communist politics. In South Africa, ideological divisions ran particularly deep. Heavy penalties were prescribed by law for what the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 defined, very vaguely, as 'communism. Professional historians had no time for ideas thrown up on the radical left. Under the influence of neo-capitalist economics, they took capitalism as given, something outside of and seemingly un­related to the racial order.

For de Kiewiet, going to London in the 1920s had meant expo­sure to new ideas, where race seemed so much less relevant than it had in South Africa. Young South Africans who went abroad to study in the 1960s not only found in Britain and America a strong anti-racist climate, but also a new freedom to consider ideas taboo in their repressive country. When South Africa was viewed from a distance, race seemed to diminish in importance. How indeed could something as irrational as race prejudice explain the course of South African development? By the late 1960s, as we have noted, a new, more flexible Marxism, given intellectual respect­ability by the work of such eminent historians as Edward Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill, was gaining ground at British universities. Marxism, as a coherent body of theory, attracted emigre intellectuals searching for a way to under­stand South Africa. Many historians, not on the far left politically, nevertheless began to be influenced by a Marxist approach to his­tory. It gave them, if nothing more, a materialist perspective and a conviction that class, and class struggle, were the key to unlock the past.

In reaction to the liberal neglect of class, some of the radical re­visionists played down, and others entirely denied, the signifi­cance of race in the country's past. Legassick accepted the importance of racist ideology, but others more crudely stood Van den Berghe on his head, claiming that class explained all, and dis­missing racism as mere false consciousness. While the fact of racial discrimination could not be denied, revisionists could, and did, argue that it was merely a cloak, a mask for class exploita­tion, and that the significant cleavages in South African society were, and always had been, those of class rather than of race, hough they acknowledged that the two had often coincided. Some argued that the very concept of race was itself a myth, inasmuch as there existed no such groups as 'whites' and 'blacks'; by em­phasising ethnic and racial cleavages, the liberal historians had ac­cepted racial categories that had no existence outside segregationist ideology. Did not physical anthropologists agree that it was impossible to divide the human species into 'whites' and 'blacks'? By concerning themselves exclusively with 'race', liberal historians had obscured or ignored the fundamental transformation that flowed from the spread of capitalist social rela­tions .

Whereas for liberal historians irrational race prejudice, ex­plained in mere psychological terms, was often cited as the reason for segregation and apartheid, for the revisionists racism itself-even the very racial categories historians used - had to be ex­plained, and understood in its historical context. Racism had per­formed different functions over time: in the nineteenth century, it had helped justify white dispossession of blacks; in the twentieth it had served to divide the working class It was not the frontier tradition of racism - the no equality in church or state' of the trekker republics - that had spawned twentieth-century segrega­tion, as Walker and de Kiewiet had suggested, but the mining houses and other capitalist interests. Legassick found the origins of white racism to lie in the slave society of the south-western Cape rather than on the frontier,8 but he did not trace the origins of segregation to early white racism or to the spread of mercantile capitalism in the early nineteenth century Cape. Instead, for him the early years of the twentieth century were the crucial seedplot for segregation, as South Africa's industrial revolution got under way. The racial policies then implemented, far from handicapping capitalist development, promoted it. These policies had been de­signed to keep blacks poor, and give the mines and farms the plentiful supply of labour required. Segregation had propped up precapitalist societies and functioned to coerce a black labour force and restrict its bargaining power. The migrant labour system, linking the reserves and the more developed areas, had subsidised labour-costs. State and capital had worked together, the state intervening to create a hierarchical division of labour based on race, in capitalist interests. Segregation had not con­flicted with those interests, but had served them, whatever the in­dividual motivation of the policy-makers and legislators.

For the revisionists, then, class analysis offered an exciting new tool to be used to reinterpret the South African past. In The Making of the English Working Class Edward Thompson had used class not as a fixed category, but one that was defined in struggle. So attention swung to class formation and class struggle, whether in precapitalist African societies or the very recent past. Trapido pointed out, for example, that late nineteenth century Boer society on the highveld had not been monolithic and homogeneous, but highly stratified. Others spoke of how the mineral revolution had created a totally new class structure; with a vast African workforce of 100 000 on the Witwatersrand goldmines by the end of the cen­tury. For them the South African War had been fought over access to a valuable material resource - gold - and not mainly for reasons of British imperial supremacy in the sub-continent. Afrikaner na­tionalism was nq longer understood as a movement of ethnic mo­bilisation, but as a class-based phenomenon. Throughout, South African history was seen to have been shaped by material forces."

In South Africa, as elsewhere, arguments about the past have often reflected h6pes for the future. Radical revisionists hoped that black and white workers would combine in a non-racial mass movement for democracy'. They were concerned, then, to argue that racial divisions were artificial, and had been exploited, if not created, by segregationists to buttress their minority power. Claiming that there had been a much greater degree of class soli­darity than previously admitted, and that it had often transcended racial and cultural divisions, they hoped to promote the cause of a non-racial class alliance. Others redefined the white workers as a 'new petty bourgeoisie', which enabled them to interpret conflicts between white labour and black workers as class struggles.


In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the Oxford History of South Africa was published, a more critical attitude to the Africanist his­tory of tropical Africa gained ground. By the end of the 1960s it was clear that independence was not going to solve the problems of African development, as many naively had hoped. Those who became disillusioned with the governments of the new states often also grew critical of the historical writing which had accompanied the rise of African nationalism. Walter Rodney, a West Indian whose doctoral dissertation at the University of London was on the history of the upper Guinea Coast and who taught at the Uni­versity of Dar-es-Salaam, now argued, together with other 'radical pessimists', that much of the Africanist history of the 1960s had served to legitimise the national bourgeoisie, the new ruling class. It had not explained Africa's poverty. Rodney explained that pov­erty by using a concept borrowed from a debate on Latin America: in a classic polemic he surveyed the way Africa had been 'underdeveloped' by Europe. More detailed, scholarly application of underdevelopment theory was undertaken by others, most notably on East and South Africa. Cohn Bundy, a South African who wrote his doctorate at St Antony's College, Oxford, described how a group of Africans had responded to new market opportuni­ties and become successful 'peasants', producing for exchange, and how the state had then acted to cut off this development. Bundy and other revisionists rejected the idea of two quite sep­arate economies, one modern and white-run, the other backward and African. For them, as for Macmillan fifty years before, South Africa's history was the story of the development of a single economy. To this the historians of the early 1970s added that the other side of the coin to the emergence of the highly developed 'metropoles' had been the underdevelopment of the 'peripheries'. It was not African backwardness that had made the rural reserves such backwaters, but their structural relationship with the more developed regions. Underdevelopment seemed to explain the stark inequalities that had arisen in South Africa, where most whites were affluent, almost all blacks poor.

By the time Johnstone's Class, Race and Gold appeared in 1976, revisionist writing - a stream of articles, reviews and unpublished seminar papers - had become richly varied. Beyond a basic com­mitment to materialism, there was no unanimity among the new revisionists. Those who in the early 1970s tadopted a highly struc­turalist approach to the South African past were not specifically trained as historians, and their writing was heavily sociological. Robert Davies, Dave Kaplan, Mike Morris and Dan O'Meara - whom a critic labelled the 'gang of four', after Madame Mao and the Chinese 'hard-liners" - worked together as graduate stu­dents at Sussex University in the early-to-mid-1970s, and were in­fluenced by the structural Marxism of Poulantzas. They focused their work on the twentieth-century state, and sought to show its functionality for capital accumulation, especially in mining and agriculture, and demonstrate how different capitalist interests -fractions of capital - had shaped state policies. Belinda Bozzoli, another doctoral student at Sussex, investigated the ideology of the manufacturing dass, relating that ideology to the changing material base. Davies and his colleagues were more concerned with capital than labour, and with white workers rather than black. O'Meara did write about the African mineworkers' strike of 1946, but he set the strike in a broad political economy context. It may be that the relative lack of attention these scholars paid Af­ricans reflected the fact that they had been undergraduates in South Africa at a time when blacks had either been 'silent' or had taken a black consciousness position and rejected whites. In the early 1970s, state and capital seemed all-powerful, and able to de­termine state policy without any consideration for African re­sponses. These young South Africans were already abroad when the Durban strikes of 1973 ushered in a new phase of struggle in South Africa. They began their dissertations before 1976, after which black resistance was indelibly associated with the name Soweto In turning away from the study of African societies, the use of oral tradition, and the concern of Leonard Thompson and others to write an Afrocentric history, they rejected the Africanism as well as the liberalism of the historians of the 1960s.

Other revisionists had kept the Africanist perspective alive, and after Soweto the link between radical work and an Africanist per­spective was strengthened. This was in part a result of the influ­ence on South 4frican scholars of the work of French Marxist anthropologists on precapitalist societies, the revival of peasant studies, and the social history - 'history from below' or 'history from the bottom up - approach of the British Marxist historians and the History Workshop movement. Shula Marks, in London, was well placed to learn of the new developments in historical writing, and she exploited that opportunity to the full. Students who worked on doctorates under her supervision - most notably Jeff Guy and Philip Bonner - led the way in the exploration of the nature of precapitalist African societies, and the transition to capi­talism. In July 1976 the first of two workshops on precapitalist societies and colonial penetration in southern Africa was held in Lesotho, where Guy was teaching. Those who attended were inter­ested in the way precapitalist societies worked, the forms of strati­fication and exploitation which had existed in them, and how precapitalist modes of production were transformed, first by mer­chant capital and then by industrialisation. Whereas underdevel­opment theory focused on exchange relations - the capitalist core was seen essentially to control the dependent periphery through the market - the historians of precapitalist societies wrote of sys­tems of production and how they had changed over time. The development of new ways of approaching the precolonial past did, however, come at a price - the doctorates written by Guy on the Zulu and Bonner on the Swazi took a decade to bring to com­pie tion.

Others followed Guy and Bonner in writing the history of a nineteenth-century African state or 'ethnic group': Jeffrey Peires, for example, wrote on the history of the Xhosa of the eastern Cape, for a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin, Peter Delius went to London to work on his doctorate on the Pedi of the eastern Transvaal under Shula Marks. Conservative historians who were apologists for the apartheid regime attempted to appro­priate the new work on precolonial societies for an ethnic interpre­tation of South African history which might fit the government Bantustan ideology. A conference on 'African History' organised by the Rand Afrikaans University in 1974 implicitly attempted just that. A leading Afrikaner historian, Professor F. A. van Jaars­veld, found in Omer-Cooper's Zulu Aftermath what he regarded as historical justification for the Bantustan policy; for him the Af­ncan states which Omer-Cooper had depicted emerging from the Mfecane were the precursors of the Bantustans being led to in­dependence in the 1970s. What Omer-Cooper had conceived of as an anti-apartheid project - one aiming to give Africans back their past, and so to promote their cause in the present - was used in support of Bantustan nationalism. The marrying of an Afri­canist and a materialist approach was one response to the 'ethnic trap.

The early work of the liberal Africanists tended to present Af­ncan societies as classless and undifferentiated. Now an attempt was made to understand the divide between rulers and ruled, chiefs and commoners, as the major cleavage or contradiction in precolonial African societies. Peires argued this in the Xhosa case at a workshop he organised in 1979 on Nguni history at Rhodes University, Grahamstown.31 When it came to explaining why these societies were destroyed, Guy, Delius and others emphasised - as Atmore and Marks had in their seminal article on the role of the imperial factoi£2 - the importance of the British army, but they also sought to show that the British intervention in the 1870s was a response to the new era of capitalist development ushered in by the discovery of diamonds.

Whereas the structuralists depicted Africans as victims of the overwhelming power of a new capitalist order which made them helots, those revisionists who studied African societies showed, through detailed empirical work, that Africans had shaped their own history. Migrant labour, for example, did not originate with the new needs of mining capital, but had an earlier history, and was to be explained in part in terms of inter-generational strug­gles within black societies themselves, as a response to ecological disasters, and as a means of acquiring guns for defensive pur­poses.

Other revisionists turned to the writing of South Africa's more recent social history, and in doing so adopted an empirical approach. Much influenced by the work of Edward Thompson, they distrusted theoretical abstractions, stressed the importance of human agency, and believed in bringing history to life by dealing with the activities of 'ordinary people' in the past. Though Mac­millan had recognised the importance of the productive and other activities of such people half a century earlier, by the beginning of the 1970s no professional historian had successfully rescued the lives of the underclasses from what Thompson, in a much-quoted phrase in The Making of the English Working Class, called 'the enor­mous condescension of posterity'. A highly structuralist approach could so emphasise the collective that the individual seemed to play no role. Those who allowed room for human agency and did not see state policies as only impositions from above - the mere diktat of capital - were able to point to how whites had often been divided, and how Africans had helped determine the way they were ruled. Consciousness became an important theme, to ex­plain, say, why some blacks had worked with whites in the elab­oration of the system of segregation. After the revival of worker action in the early 1970s - the Durban strikes of 1972-73 ushered in a new phase of militancy - historians turned from the institu­tional and organisational history of working-class action to worker experience. The doctorate which Charles van Onselen wrote at St Anthony's College, Oxford, on labour in the gold-mining industry in Rhodesia led him to study worker consciousness, and then the lives of ordinary people, black and white, criminals, cab-drivers and liquor-merchants, in the early years of Johannesburg. The best of such work always related individual lives to broader social processes, so opening new perspectives on the changing experi­ence of the majority. Van Onselen explicitly styled his volumes on Johannesburg an exercise in historical materialism', but though he analysed how the exploitation of the gold deposits on the Rand had social consequences for individuals and classes, he also showed how 'ordinary people', black and white, had to some extent made their own lives. As first director of the African Studies Institute at Wits, Van Onselen was a key figure in helping to set the agenda for work on both urban and rural social history, as was Belinda Bozzoli, his wife, a lecturer in sociology at Wits, who took the lead in organising in 1978 what became the first of a series of Wits history workshops, held at three-yearly intervals. They were a leading forum for the presentation of work in the new social history.

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