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On NAI conference August 2002.

By Hans Erik Stolten


NAI Conference on South African History.

In late August, The Nordic Africa Institute convened an extended research workshop for historians, Africanists and development researchers at the Centre of African Studies, University of Copenhagen. This Danish institute, situated in the old inner city of Copenhagen, functioned as an efficient co-organizer of the event. The heading of the conference was: Collective Memory and Present day Politics in South Africa and the Nordic Countries.


History helps to shape qualities of imagination, sensitivity, balance, accuracy and discriminating judgement and provides multiple perspectives on how various elements have come together to create a society or to build a nation, as stated recently by the South African minister of education.

Since 1994 South Africa has gone through different phases in the attempt to create a new historical dynamic driven by the aspiration of equal rights and better living conditions. Therefore, one might expect to find a vivacious interest in the historiography of that country, but the study of history in South Africa is in contrast experiencing serious decline.

The apartheid education system discredited history, and even if history was used by both liberal and radical academics in the struggle for democracy, many people came to se history as a world which is lost. The once passionate discussion on the use of history in the struggle for freedom and democracy was partly inspired by international solidarity and exiled academics.

The NAI/CAS workshop provided for an exchange of views between veterans from the international history debate and the anti-apartheid movement, historians from the new South Africa, and concerned Nordic researchers and research students, also involving aid personalities and NGOs.


More than fifty researchers and research students attended the workshop. Professor Holger Bernt Hansen, Head of the Centre of African Studies and Lennart Wohlgemuth, Director of the Nordic Africa Institute gave welcoming addresses.

Among the keynote speakers were Professor Bernhard Makhosezwe Magubane, Director of the South African Democracy Education Trust, Professor Yonah Seleti, Director of the Killie Campbell Collections at the University of Natal and Chairman for the South African Ministerial History Committee, and Professor Colin Bundy, Director and Principal of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Other key speakers were Professor Christopher Saunders from the History department at the University of Cape Town, Merle Lipton, Senior Research Fellow from the  School of African & Asian Studies, Sussex University, Dr. Catherine Burns, Senior Lecturer at the Department of History, University of Natal, Professor Saul Dubow, Chair of History at the School of African and Asian Studies, Sussex University, Professor Albert Grundlingh, Head for the Department of History at the University of Stellenbosch and Professor Martin J. Murray from the Department of Sociology, State University of New York.


All in all, twenty substantial papers were presented and criticised by other participants. The semi-open arrangement, where researchers, students and South Africa enthusiasts from the Nordic countries were gathered as discussants around a core workshop of veterans from the South African history debate, functioned very harmoniously.

The leading thought behind the workshop was to make a contribution to the renewal of the debate between main concepts of history in the hope that this will help revitalise the once lively exchange of ideas between progressive academics and the surrounding society in South Africa.

The question was brought up, if the time has come to make an account of the present state of historical research in South Africa and of the possibilities for a renaissance for the once vigorous debate between different notions of history.


The topics of the workshop were perhaps a little more widespread than intended, but all selected papers were relevant in relation to the debate over South African historiography.

Areas under discussion were among others:

  • Whose memory - Whose history? Illusions of liberal and radical historical debates.
  • New Nation, New History? Constructing the past in post-apartheid South Africa.
  • Revisiting the debate about the role of business under apartheid.
  • South Africa and South Africans. Ideas about South Africans and South African societies.
  • Healing History. The place of history in the TRC.
  • Knowledgepower, ideology and solidarity in South African historiography: Prospects and challenges for the New School History Curriculum.
  • The use of history education in nationbuilding in post-apartheid South Africa.
  • Reframing Remembrance: Politics of Commemoration.
  • Land restitution and local citizenship: Place, memory and democratisation.
  • From apartheid to democracy in South Africa: A reading of dominant discourses of democratic transition.

Also topics enlightening the history of solidarity of the Nordic countries with Southern Africa were brought up:

  • The Danish debate on support to the African liberation movements and the general Danish political debate in this respect.
  • The meaning of solidarity: Note on Anti-Apartheid and the globalisation of politics 1960-1994.


The conference dinner at the new Royal Library in Copenhagen, also known as The Black Diamond, were attended by nineteenth researchers. Present over the whole conference were the South African ambassador to Denmark, Stephen P. Gawe and a representative from the Danish Foreign Ministry.

Abstracts and the full conference programme and can be viewed at the website: http://www.nai.uu.se/sem/conf/south_africa/invitationsve.html

Selected papers will be published later in an edited publication from NAI.


The conference also functioned as the conclusion of one of NAI’s Nordic research projects. The Danish research fellow at NAI, Hans Erik Stolten, has been working for the last three years with the project: Historical Research and Higher Education in Southern Africa. A forthcoming book from this project can be expected in near future.


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