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Stolten’s discussant notes for Africa seminar: The Idea of Apartheid. By Professor Saul Dubow, University of London, at CAS, Copenhagen, 26 February 2015.


Link to seminar announcement.


Let me first say that I generally admire the research you have done on apartheid . And I agree in 90 percent of what you have said.

You manage to combine a magnificent overview and deep knowledge on South African history. Your knowledge is built on an extensive production of books and articles. Surely you must be one of the most productive South African Studies historians that I know.

Drawing on new independent research and primary documents you provide us with a fresh view on apartheid as a social and political system. An analysis that integrates histories of resistance with analysis of power and politics – and at the same time places South Africa in a global perspective.

By using a fresh view inspired by unconventional theoretical thinkers like Arendt, Derrida, and Mamdani, you have shown that apartheid ideology was not the most important part of the system compared to purely pragmatic maintenance of white domination. You have substantiated that that apartheid was never monolithic, that there was no master plan for apartheid’s implementation, and that apartheid’s priorities shifted over the years.

But it is the remaining 10 percent, I will have to focus on.

(Immediate questions:)

On the background of your paper, several questions come to my mind – some of them come close to what could be called counter-factual history, I’m afraid:

Was apartheid actually necessary – or would the segregation policy already in place have been enough to maintain control. Segregation was effectuated by, more or less, liberal-oriented governments, while apartheid came with Afrikaner-nationalist rule. Was there more than a degree of difference? English-liberal scholars have tended to see a fundamental change, while many radical-revisionists have seen just a new phase of the same.
Segregation systems came close to apartheid without the name. In Rhodesia, apartheid-like segregation was simply upheld when the British left. Was the main dissimilarity actually the number of white settlers? Was apartheid South Africa a kind of middle solution; somewhere between, where the indigenous populations were almost exterminated and the settlers became the majority like in the Americas, and where the number of settlers were comparably insignificant like in most African colonies? That could be constituted as a class-neutral point, I guess.

Was apartheid fascism? You use Hanna Arendt to discuss if the Afrikaner-nationalist regime was perhaps totalitarian or fascist. And you are right to point out that Brian Bunting drew attention to the demonstrable affinities between leading Afrikaner nationalists of the 1930s and 1940s and national-socialism. According to my 1989-interview with him SA was not fascist – because the business class was not united against a conventional working class. You spot a possible contradiction between totalitarian and fascist. But it could actually be fascist but not totalitarian, since also fascism gave lots of room for private sector initiative.

When you say that apartheid was a totalizing ideology, but that nevertheless apartheid was never totalitarian, because a measure of dissent was always permitted - is that not a white elite point of view – quite a lot of the people that showed dissent were actually tortured and killed. And dangerous literature was banned at black universities.

Could the label apartheid be used to describe situations elsewhere? For me apartheid is something specific, but similar situations could described as apartheid-like, I guess. Apartheid stands for me as an ethnically based exploitation system that also involves some kind of colonialism/neocolonialism, land grabbing, more or less forced labour, a wage system that is discriminating by race, and some degree of political repression of a majority population.

South Africa was special, however: It had a large, modern, racially divided working class. Partly therefore it also got communist ideological influence on resistance, no reformism, and mounting revolutionary situations.
Communist Party intellectuals called the system colonialism of a special type – was that an accurate description? Originates maybe from Comintern’s 1921-congress, but the concept  of internal colonialism was also used by liberals in the 1950s.

(I also have some more critical comments to your analysis, as it appears in your latest book:) 

You emphasise that black resistance was not a steadily growing force before after 1976. As I see this history, there were undeniably several set-backs and suppressions of resistance, but I ask myself if you give too little importance to the build-up of the Congress Movement during the 1950s, for instance, to an almost revolutionary situation – which in turn made the police state and the separate development policy necessary. I would say that it was characteristic for SA that from the beginning of colonisation to the end of apartheid – that resistance was present and that most people were aware of that.
One of the things that make South Africa unique was the long revolutionary tradition and the build-up of potentially revolutionary situations. A degree of popular consciousness of the long lines of history actually had importance for struggle-participants.

You place rather high weight on the emergence of the Black Consciousness Movement, Steve Biko, and independent left, white, liberal intellectuals, unattached to the ANC, and you emphasise the white domestic opposition; liberal writers, the Progressive Party, and the National Union of South African Students. Maybe too little emphasis is laid on the ANC-influenced trade union movements and organised revolutionary stimuli – as I hear you.
As I see it, you downplay the, I think, rather deliberate orchestrating of a strategy that involved a combination of social, national, and democratic struggles. Had the freedom struggle only been about western human rights, we would probably have seen rather incomplete democratic reforms – my point being that full scale national liberation struggle was necessary for real change.

It seems to me that you view external factors like solidarity, sanctions, and boycotts as less important than internal opposition. However, the anti-apartheid movement was probably among the 3-4 most significant global social movements during last century and really helped change public opinion. Is it possible at all to overestimate its importance?

You focus not only on why apartheid came to an end, but also on why it persisted for so long. One of the reasons were, I suspect,  that western governments, in the context of the Cold War, maintained a more or less active de facto support of the apartheid government on account of its pro-capitalist and anti-communist stance. Should you have weighted this a little higher in your analysis, I ask myself.

Asked today, we all were against apartheid – but that was not really the case, was it? Allow me to quote a paper that I delivered some years ago to a conference in Durban – and tell me if you agree: “An overwhelming majority of visitors coming to Southern Africa nowadays would probably say that they agreed with the anti-apartheid struggle. One has to wonder, why it took so long for South Africa and the region to become free of colonialism, when the whole world seems to have been supporting the struggle all the time. The fact is that the international community, including the Nordic countries, did not give Lutuli, Tambo, and Tutu the whole range of boycott, isolation, and militant support they wanted, until victory was almost certain. It was mostly later; when the ANC-dominated government needed to secure continued support and investment; when the West wanted to gain unlimited access to the growing South African middle class market; and when the alternative of socialism did not exist any longer, that we could all agree in making South Africa the darling of the world”.

And now allow me to move on to a more ideological angle in which I have been engaged in in my own research:

Some of my own commitment, come from an interest in an overall historical understanding of the politico-economic functionality and the complexity of the fundamental constituents/determinants of the apartheid society. Approaching this field of interest from a historiographical angle makes it possible to maintain this wide-ranging perspective within a thorough, detailed study, where competing discourses and texts dealing with apartheid history can be compared.
Correct me if I am wrong, but it is my impression that that this is also what you are doing.

One of my aims in that context has been to investigate, which of the main historical-ideological schools that came closest to the historical truth in its analyses. Unsurprisingly, it has not been possible to give a definite answer to that. However, that does not mean that the search for such an answer has been entirely futile or waste of time. For me, it has provided an important impetus to the search for meaning in history.
I would like to ask you, if you think it is possible – or desirable - to revitalise the dialectical dynamism from the great ideological debate of the 1980s? As  I see it, the professionals at the South African universities -  and elsewhere - have once again allowed areas like workers history and activist history to be placed in the background. Unconventional angles need to be appreciated more than has been the case recently.
As I hear you, you are trying to do something about that – however in your efforts, it seems to me that you downplay the differences between Marxist-inspired and liberal social scientist.  

Even if it could seem logical at this moment in time to bring social-democratic reformism forward as expressions of the liberals in South Africa – It seems to me that historically this was a rather weak tendency outside the white English-speaking cultural elite.
Somewhere you states that the liberals (Michael O’Dowd is mentioned) showed to be right in the long run. Why? Because economic rationality made apartheid disappear?  I am still not convinced that that was what happened. What if it is still there? We all agree that a genuine democratic and equal rights revolution has taken place, but at the social-structural level, all what has happened is that the middle class has been extended with a black elite.
Being a researcher, it can sometimes feel difficult to take the consequences of one's own insights, I guess. On one hand, you see apartheid as “a highly exploitative system of racial domination”, but on the other, you say that “capitalism did not create racism”. How does that fit together?

Fortunately, you also say “The extent to which South African racism and capitalism were mutually dependent remains subject to contestation”.  If you are saying here that research still remains in this field, I would be very satisfied, since every time I present my own project, I am told by well-informed colleagues that this field of research has already been studied to exhaustion and I should stop flogging a dead horse. To me of course that sounds as when you tell somebody that he cannot study Shakespeare or the Bible, because that has been done by others.

The final thing on my mind as your discussant would be that the contributions that skilled amateurs made to the history debate during apartheid, as I see it, helped provoke ruptures and create movements towards paradigm shifts. The connection between that kind of contributions, popular political activity, and historical research is still a rather poorly researched field within historiography. Is that something you would give your attention also in the future? Then I am looking forward to a lot of productive future discussions.

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