South Africa, Race, and UNESCO in Its Early Years

Friday, January 5, 2018: 8:50 AM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 3 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Michelle Brattain, Georgia State University
The Constitution of UNESCO represented in many ways the acme of the postwar generation’s idealism about the potential to promote peace and security by instilling a new, shared appreciation of a common humanity. At the same time, however, UNESCO was also very much a product of the world it inhabited in the late 1940s and early 1950s – a world still influenced by the dominance of Western culture, persistent nationalism, European imperialism, and profound inequalities. Many of the signatories to the Constitution, perhaps most conspicuously the United States and South Africa, failed to meet that document’s standard in their domestic social relations. And yet both nations’ representatives were initially enthusiastic, even effusive, participants and supporters of UNESCO. This paper is about that tension between expressed ideals and real world politics and will examine some of the ways that it was embodied and contained in the initial process of founding UNESCO and how it influenced the initial vision for UNESCO’s race program. The tension was particularly evident in the relationship between UNESCO and South Africa, which will serve as a case study. South Africa was an active founding member state, but within a decade it would become the first non-communist state to request formal withdrawal. The paper examines why South Africa initially embraced UNESCO and why it remained a member state during the most active years of UNESCO’s anti-racist campaign. What begs to be explained is why South Africa’s white government ever thought that UNESCO would provide a comfortable home for its international aspirations. The key to understanding why and how this happened, I will argue, lies in a better understanding of some of the limits of UNESCO’s early vision, the experiences of South African delegates in UNESCO’s first years, and the context in which the race program initially unfolded.