Apartheid’s Legacy: Reflections 70 Years after the National Party’s Rise to Power in South Africa

AHA Session 153
Friday, January 5, 2018: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Thurgood Marshall West (Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level)
Rick Halpern, University of Toronto

Session Abstract

In May 1948 Daniel Malan’s National Party scored a surprising victory in South Africa’s election. Few commentators, inside or outside the country, expected this outcome. Running on a platform of unabashed white chauvinism, the National Party’s extremism seemed certain to relegate it to the opposition benches. Moreover, neither locals nor those following events from afar had any sense that, once in power, Malan and his colleagues would embark on a path leading to one of the more extreme forms of racial oppression, labor control, and authoritarian politics the modern world had seen, or that National Party’s grip on power would last unbroken for forty-six years.

From (at least) the mid1960s onwards, scholars from a range of disciplines – but especially historians -- have tried to come to terms with apartheid. A search for origins led writers to connect apartheid to the older principles and practices of segregation widespread in southern Africa and linked to British imperialism. Others pushed back the origins even further, to initial Dutch colonization and the peculiarities of Afrikanerdom. Efforts to limn the internal logic and purpose of the apartheid system yielded a flood of books and articles on political economy, migrant labour, urban dynamics, and the fortunes of specific industries. Similarly, questions about apartheid’s distinctiveness as a system of racial control produced a stunning comparative literature, laying the American and Brazilian experiences (amongst others) alongside the South African. Last, but not least, academics in conscious opposition to the apartheid regime, many in exile, took the lead in crafting studies on the opposition to apartheid, the freedom struggle, its various constituent organizations and forms of protest, as well as the various forms that African nationalism assumed over the course of several decades.

This panel considers our collective understanding of apartheid by looking at its specific appeal to white South Africans (Lichtenstein), the nature of the radicalism of its main oppositional current, the African National Congress (Moguerane), and the complex connections between the way scholars constructed apartheid and the manner in which anti-apartheid activity was conceptualized (Dubow). More than research papers, each of the presentations reflects on the problems and possibilities offered by decades of historical writing on a topic that remains, in certain key regards, complex and even opaque. The roundtable format, and the presentation of a limited number of provocative papers, will encourage a maximum of audience participation; firm guided moderation will keep the focus on a reckoning about legacy and possible promising directions for future scholarship rather than the vagaries of empirical detail.

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