Democratic Discord: The (Ugly?) Process of Creating a Nation-Building History in South Africa


Politicians might think academics a bit schizophrenic in their views of the government’s role in sponsoring of historical scholarship. On the one hand, historians and other members of the academy who produce artifacts and archives that shape public memory often rely on government sponsorship to conduct research and then deliver the fruits of their intellectual labors to the public. On the other hand, scholars lay claim to a certain level of objectivity and are (in my humble and probably naive opinion) morally obligated to work outside the reach of undue political influence. Despite the academy’s assertions of objectivity, the political prerogatives of a given time can be deciphered from the names given to ships and streets, the iconography used in war memorials, and even the hallowed pages published histories. Through government sponsorship and public reception these expressions of memory become the threads of a national narrative. There is nothing overtly sinister about this process, as long as it remains a process and the ‘truth’ is not dictated to the masses from on high.

            In South Africa the process of forming a national narrative is still unfolding, following S.A.’s liberation from apartheid oppression. Diverse entities have been involved, but the new democratic government took the lead early on through public initiatives (and some might argue the TRC). One such initiative the South African Democratic Education Trust was established by President Thabo Mbeki out of his “concern for the paucity of historic material on the arduous and complex road to South Africa’s peaceful political settlement after decades of violent conflict.” The SADET project was quite successful at alleviating the paucity of material President Mbeki identified. “SADET’s mission became the publication of five substantial volumes covering the South Africa’s movement toward democracy through its liberation struggle in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and from 1990-94,” (Houston, 5).  SADET also developed a collection of oral history of “South Africans from all political persuasions and experiences of the liberation struggle,” (Houston, 5). Select chapters of SADET’s volumes of The Road to Democracy and other material are available on the SADET website.

SADET produced these voluminous accounts of the liberation struggle with input from leading South African scholars, generous funding, and a presidential charter.  By creating a national project Mbeki mustered a host of scholars working at six research institutions. “In 2004, SADET secured a R3-million grant from the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund, which was used to bring on additional researchers,” (Houston, 6). Besides making the project truly a national production the deployment of regional research teams proved to be cost effective, for example, to send researchers from Pretoria to interview informants in Cape Town, or to collect archival material at Fort Hare, (Houston, 6).

            Despite the numerous successes of the SADET project, some scholars have levied serious criticism against the national narrative contained within the pages of The Road to Democracy. In the November 2008 issue of the South African Journal Kronos, Martin Legassick alleged that chapters he contributed to The Road to Democracy were severely diminished through the editing of Prof. Ben Magubane. According to Legassick, “The editing process culminated in a unilateral decision by Professor Magubane to retitle their chapter: White activists and the revival of the workers’ movement,” (1).  The chapter was also repositioned within the volume to follow another chapter on the labor movement by Jabulani Sithole and Sifiso Ndlovu that [in Legassick’s view] tended toward the position of Magubane. Legassick and his coauthors Dave Hemson and Nicole Ulrich agreed to the changes under the condition that the editors include the following footnote:

The authors disagree with the retitling of this chapter by the editors from the original…This racialization of the title, imposed by the editors belittles the part played by the African workers themselves and the efforts, initiatives and self-sacrifice of many black activists, all covered in this chapter. It is also in conflict with the non-racialism of the South African Congress of Trade Unions [SACTU] and the democratic unions of the 1970’s.  


 Legassick’s essay in Kronos summarizes how the editing process directed by Magubane minimized the political contributions of independent labor unions while inflating the role of SACTU. In Legassick’s view this distortion obfuscates the political contributions of workers movements that were not affiliated with larger liberation movement led by the ANC. He claims Magubane rejected the idea that [independent] democratic trade unions could exist in apartheid society. To this end he categorized them as ‘parallel unions’ and ‘upholders of the status quo of apartheid’. Legassick asserts that Magubane’s criticism of his work wrongly alleged that their organizers wanted to ‘liquidate the national struggle’ and that he dismissed democratic trade unions as ‘economistic’. Legassick concludes by suggesting that Magubane, Ndlovu and Sithole are under pressure to be ‘organic intellectuals’ for a contingent ANC leadership that has compromised with capitalism, and promoted the rich and neglected the poor.” (Legassick, 14). This final allegation directs attention back toward the sponsorship of President Mbeki, who promoted neoliberal economic policies to stimulate economic growth.

In his response to Legassick in Kronos Jabulani Sithole states that he and Ndlovu were drug into the fight as “a mere side show,” (8). Sitohle points out that “Legassick’s views were echoed and elaborated upon in the works of various, predominantly white academics,” and cites Peter Hudson and Bill Freund (9). Sithole rejects Legassick’s claim that his scholarship tows the current ANC party line. Sithole argues that the oral and archival sources he consulted are what informed his position on SACTU. Sithole claims that it is in fact Legassick and his supporters who have let their “ideological world outlook…[inform] their line of thinking,” (9). Sithole suggests that revisionist efforts are largely directed at the academy in South Africa from political outsiders. Sithole for his part, “refuse[s] to embrace uncritically a version that is espoused by academic intellectuals who, for historic reasons…, have always considered themselves as holding the correct left line on the history of SACTU and yet they were never a part of it,” (9).

 Sithole expands on his views of Legassick’s ‘revisionist’ position, in a very candid interview with Peter Alegi on the podcast Africa Past and Present. During the interview Sithole suggests that Legassick’s criticism stems from his frustration over SACTU’s inability to influence the masses during his time as a labor organizer. He points out that SACTU veterans admitted that they could not operate within the country, as Magubane’s comments suggest. According to Sithole Legassick and labor activists created front unions to increase the impact of the labor movement. However even those front unions were problematic because they worked as a parallel process instead of infiltrating the mass based labor movement. Sithole’s retort that Legassick is also quite partial to a particular kind of politics underscores the problems that arise when personal politics enter into the historic process. Perhaps the influence of personal bias is inevitable, and the best solution is to lay bare and contextualize one’s political position as both Legassick and Sithole have done to some degree in their debate. In any case, the vigorous exchange between Sithole and Legassick exemplifies the openness called for in academic debates that have such high stakes.


In addition to Legassick’s allegations other academics have argued more broadly against government involvement history and memory projects. Heritage scholars and critics have argued that in contemporary South African heritage discourse and practice, processes of public memorial making have been conceptualized implemented and controlled by the state in some cases in partnership with the private sector, (117). As the only provider of resources, the state will hold and exercise power in the representation of the past (Mokwena and Segal 2006 p. 18) Non-profit and public present the avenues for the creation of national histories outside the influence of parties and politicians. To some degree a counter narrative can be found in the Sunday Times monument project. The Sunday Times embarked on a project to erect a trail of memorials to some of the remarkable people and events that made our news century to show how quickly news becomes history.

In Methodologies of Engagement, Anthea Josias cites Sabine Marshall’s claim that the Sunday Times Heritage Project “clearly aimed to substitute the conventional monument’s sense of weighty presence and self-conscious importance with one of lightness and even fun, albeit without being frivolous” (Marshall 2010b, p.43). Yet the Sunday Times and its partner the South African Historic Archives both approached the project with institutional biases. They Sunday Times priorities lay with its readership and producing projects that created buzz, and SAHA’s agenda remained tied to the goals of its primary funder Atlantic Philanthropies. Atlantic Philanthropies stated its priorties in their agreement to fund the project:

The sponsorship rational, produce well-defined objectives, “outline potential community involvement”, “create discourses for hidden histories”, “create an archival platform”, identify an institution home for the project in a nongovernmental organization, create none-monetary partnerships, particularly with the government Department of Education, and look at how Atlantic Philanthropies could contribute to already existing monetary investments in the project (Mokwena and Segel 2006, p.5).

The contrast between the institutional goals of the Sunday Times and SAHA created a some tension between the two institutions. Sunday Times’ focus on discourse creating popular pieces that also carved out a space for the media company as a mouth piece of the masses were balanced by SAHA’s educational and community building goals.  Anthea Josias states that “SAHA’s involvement extended the longevity of the Sunday Times Heritage Project by ‘broadening it out’ by deepening the content for selected memorials, and by initiating the production of a series of complementary resources over a two year period,” (135).

Several of the interviewees quoted in Anthea Josias’ Methodologies of Engagement noted that the differences between the two collaborators led to a tension that was ultimately creative. “Despite the partnership difficulties between the Sunday Times and SAHA, a heritage partnership of this nature is unprecedented in South Africa, and the project was able to maintain its functionality with defined areas of responsibility, and common nationalistic commitment to the project’s success,” (173). Josias’ piece does mention many of the projects shortcomings. For example the pieces were not always well received by members of the community and it appears that community approval was not always a priority.

Nevertheless, the creative tension that occurred between these institutions offers a nice counterpoint to the disagreement between Legassick and Magubane. The two scholars have a very long history together that goes back to their days in graduate school. It is a shame that their political differences has not yet led to the same creative tension. . Furthermore, President Mbeki’s position as both a politician as the commissioner of the SADET project complicates matters, because he often portrayed as a politician who has compromised the pro-labor agenda of the left in favor of big business.

 Apart from the specific South African implications Mbeki’s politics and Legassick’s allegations draw attention to questions about the role of governments in the creation of their own narratives. Oftentimes, historians are required to balance what they hope to accomplish through government sponsorship against the political prerogatives that accompany such projects. There is no clear method for the creating a popular history, it is rare that heritage and memory initiatives on the scale of the Sunday Times and SADET projects could happen organically ‘from below’.  A solution might lie in creating diversity of involvement at the highest levels of ‘nation building’ history projects and ensuring non-profits, private institutions, and the government check each other in full view of the public.

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