Friday, 30 March 2012

Societies of Southern Africa: seminar papers series

Collection of the Month for April is the series of collected seminar papers from the Societies of Southern Africa seminar, which ran at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies from 1969 until the 1980s. The papers were published in twenty volumes, and we will be adding these to SAS-Space over the next few weeks. The first few are now live, including a 1969 paper by Albie Sachs, scholar and activist, and subsequently Judge in the Constitutional Court of South Africa, who completed a doctorate at Sussex University in the 1960s, which formed the basis of this paper, and his 1974 book Justice in South Africa.

Here, Professor Shula Marks, former Director of the ICS and founder of the series, reflects on the series and its seminal importance for students of southern African history and politics at a critical time. A fuller version of this reflection is also available.

Professor Marks writes:

"In a very real sense the seminars at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies were the equivalent for the social sciences of the laboratory for the natural and hard sciences – a place where ideas were tested and probed, expanded and at times jettisoned. Scholars – post-graduate students and staff - from all over London and often from all over the UK – were drawn to the Institute – to exchange research with one another and the many visitors to the Institute from all over the Commonwealth.

"It was with this model in mind that I set out in 1969 to establish a new seminar at the Institute on `The societies of southern Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’; from the papers that are reproduced here you will get some taste of its proceedings, though not of the lively discussions which characterised them. The intellectual mix was eclectic and heady: as Colin Bundy has remarked, the seminar was:
… a rich seedbed for a critical, self-consciously revisionist flowering of southern African scholarship, and especially South African, history. Its activities were fertilised by a number of currents: by British social historians, by French Marxist anthropologists, and by comparative history. One does not have to dig very deep in the first couple of volumes of collected papers to discern the influence of E P Thompson, Barrington Moore, Meillasoux, Genovese, Gunder Frank, and so on.

"To this list I would add the importance of the proximity of the recently established department of African History at SOAS, not least because it did not allow us – mostly radical white South Africans - to forget that South Africa was still in Africa, that any history of South Africa had to be the history of all its peoples, and that we had to address the most profound silence in the historiography of southern Africa, the silence of its African majority. In the 1960s there was no South African university teaching African history – though this was to change through the 1970s in part as historians who trained at SOAS and elsewhere in the UK and the USA began to filter back into university positions in South Africa.

"In many ways the seminar was launched at exactly the right moment – more by serendipity than by good management By 1969, the pall of quiescence that seemed to hang over South Africa after Sharpeville was beginning to show cracks; with the emergence of the Black Consciousness movement and splits in the façade of Afrikaner unity, there was room for more open discussion of Southern Africa. But what made the Societies of Southern Africa Seminar special was the presence, mostly, but not only, in London, of a substantial number of academics in a variety of fields; most were inevitably South African but the focus was always importantly southern and not simply South African, with papers on all the countries of the region. Many of its participants over the years had left South Africa – or been forced to leave – for political reasons during the era of apartheid, and were still passionately engaged in trying to understand the nature of southern African society. Many of the issues addressed could not be stated openly let alone answered in South African universities at the time. As a result, as fresh waves of South African students, émigrés and exiles came to the UK, the seminar remained in touch with what has happening in South Africa, and was in a state of constant renewal. This gave its proceedings a particular edge even when the subject matter was remote - in time if not in place - from their immediate concerns.

"In retrospect it is astonishing how many young and not so young South Africans who were later to make their mark passed through the doors of the ICS – no fewer than four of South Africa's future high court and constitutional court judges were among its student audience in those years. In South Africa itself the volumes of the Collected Seminar Papers reproduced here were widely – if secretly – read by succeeding cohorts of young students in South Africa in the 1970s and 80s. Today, however, as we greet the digital recording of the ICS seminar papers perhaps we can be forgiven for rejoicing in the way in which this project will nonetheless safeguard our past.

Shula Marks, March 2012

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