UJ History Seminar Series

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The Department of History hosts a regular seminar series. The seminar is a forum for scholarly works in progress and aims to be a rigorous intellectual space of scholarly exchange within the university and the wider academic community.

We pre-circulate the seminar paper via the departmental email list, and in order to enhance discussion we strongly encourage seminar participants to read the paper before-hand.

Should you wish to be added to our mailing list or present your work please email Stephen Sparks at sjwsparks@uj.ac.za.

10 Aug 10

Deborah Posel (University of the Free State)

South Africa’s consumer revolution of the late 19th /early 20th century

The voluminous literature on the mineral revolution produced by the discovery of gold and diamonds registers its profound, far-reaching effects within Southern Africa. The abiding emphasis, however, is on the sphere of production, and particularly, the economics of the mining industry and its politics, class interests and struggles, racial dynamics. The commercial consequences of the mineral revolution have engaged less interest; even less so – albeit with pioneering exceptions – the changes in the scales, varieties and geographies of material consumption that ensued, and their articulation with global changes in the availability and circulation of commodities. In this paper, I make a case for a consumer revolution in South Africa that accompanied the mineral revolution. I do so on the strength of a sea change in the conditions and patterns of material consumption that occurred in South Africa in the wake of the mineral discoveries and their conjunction with the first modern wave of globalization afoot in the wider reaches of the British Empire. In the aggregate, these shifts ushered in a new order of things, clearly in evidence by the time of Union in 1910. Its significance would reverberate beyond the things themselves, however, as they acquired a potent symbolic charge and ideological currency. In this, the idea of civilization as a material accomplishment took centre-stage. The paper’s primary purpose is to make the case for the consumer revolution and the new material order that it initiated, but also to identify some of its key symbolic and ideological registers, particularly in relation to the emergent project of racial governance.

11 May 2021

Joel Cabrita (Stanford)

Written Out: The Work and Life of Regina Gelana Twala

Regina Gelana Twala, a Black South African woman who was born in 1908 in South Africa, and died in 1968 in Eswatini, was an extraordinarily prolific writer. Twala wrote at least two book manuscripts, authored over 180 politically radical columns and articles for newspapers across Southern Africa, and penned close to 1,000 letters to her husband of thirty years. Yet today Twala’s name is largely unknown beyond the small circle of her family. Her letters languish in the dusty study of a deceased South African academic. Twala’s newspaper writings are buried in forgotten discontinued publications. Her sole surviving book manuscript is locked in a university archive in the United States, folded within the papers of a famous white anthropologist of Eswatini.

Twala’s posthumous obscurity has not been the product of chance. My biography of Twala argues that an entire cast of characters – censorious editors, territorial white academics, apartheid officials, and male African politicians whose politics were at odd with her own – conspired to erase Twala’s literary legacy. Through her unique documentary output, Twala marked herself out as a radical voice on issues of gender, race, and class. The literary gatekeepers of the racist and sexist society of twentieth-century Southern Africa clamped down by quite literally writing her out of the region’s history.

Recently, historians of twentieth-century Africa have celebrated new evidence of an egalitarian Black literary sphere. The profusion of Black-authored books, pamphlets, tracts, letters, diaries, and newspaper articles – many self-published, inexpensively produced or circulated in manuscript form – seemed a hopeful pocket of democratic African cultural production in an era of repressive white rule. Apartheid may have stalked the land, but anyone could write and almost anyone could publish in some form. My book offers a cautionary note to this utopian narrative. I argue that just as important to our understanding of Southern Africa’s history were the very many writers who were not permitted to publish nor establish reputations. Women, and specifically Black women, especially struggled to publish their work, stymied by both their race and their gender.

Examining Twala’s life thus gives us fresh insight into the vanishingly small number of women in accounts of African intellectual life of the twentieth century. It is not that female thinkers and writers did not exist; rather, the conditions for intellectual production were punishingly obstructive. Unpublished writers, moreover, could more easily be written out of the documentary record. Twala’s life, then, offers us a radically alternative perspective on the well-worn narrative of apartheid and colonial rule in Southern Africa. Rather than telling the story of Black experience through the prism of protest movements and political activism, my book focuses on the cost of white rule for Black female writers and for their written production – and the consequent invisibility of female intellectuals in twentieth-century African history.

13 April 2021

Prof Jeff Peires (Fort Hare)

‘The Story of Dosini’

The “Story of Dosini” is a Mpondomise oral tradition about 400 years old, never reduced to writing during the colonial period, a full text of which is here provided for the first time. It relates the deposition of Dosini, heir to the kingdom, in favour of the son of Mthwa (San) woman, who was never married to their father, the king. The Majola clan, descendants of Mthwakazi, ruled the kingdom until 1881 when Mhlontlo, the last Mpondomise king was deposed for the murder of Qumbu magistrate, Hamilton Hope. The amaDosini never gave up, and renewed their claim with greater intensity when, in 2006, opportunity offered the possibility of resuscitating the Mpondomise kingdom. The first part of this paper outlines the legal battles, first for the kingdom, then between the two factions, in which, it argues, History was pitted against Customary Law. The second part concentrates on the oral tradition itself, debating the extent to which oral tradition may be taken as reflective of historical events, and how a proper utilization of oral tradition can contribute to precolonial South African history more generally.

23 February 2021

Dr Vusi Kumalo (Nelson Mandela University):

The Marshall Square Prison Escape: The Liliesleaf Farm Trust archive, Politics of Memory and the Creation of Historical Archives

The 1960s are widely recognised as a tumultuous, painful, yet inspiring period in South African history, where significant socio-political upheaval occurred as a result of the banning of key political resistance organisations and the mass-scale arrests of political activists who waged a catalytic fight against apartheid. Like most movements, history is often distorted, bent to accommodate the interests of the powerful. The story of the 1963 Marshall Square Prison Escape is not exempt from such revision. This article examines how a popular narrative, spread by newspapers of this period, depicted Harold Wolpe and Arthur Goldreich, both white activists, as key figures of the escape while simultaneously erasing the presence of Mosie Moolla and Abdulhay Jassat, both Indian South Africans, from the story. The article illustrates how archival composition presents a methodological challenge to historians seeking to represent the complexity of the 1963 escape.

Time: Feb 23, 2021 03:00 PM Harare, Pretoria

The paper is here (Kumalo2021.pdf) and participants are required to read the paper beforehand. Join Zoom Meeting: https://zoom.us/j/94316071217?pwd=SkNDbndMVTJkZFowUzcyd280bER2UT09. Meeting ID: 943 1607 1217.Passcode: 285386