December 3, 2021

History of South Africa: From 1902 to the Present

Penguin Books publishes Thula Simpson’s History of South Africa: From 1902 to the Present.

Thula Simpson, an associate professor at the University of Pretoria, researched never-before-published evidence, including diaries, letters, eyewitness testimony and diplomatic reports to write this comprehensive account of twentieth-century South Africa. He also drew on documents and archives that have only become accessible after 1994 as he tracked the country’s path from the aftermath of the Second Anglo-Boer War to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, from colony to Union and from apartheid to democracy right up to the Free Zuma protests of July 2021.

The publisher states the following in a press release: “The book gives detailed accounts of definitive events such as the 1922 Rand Revolt, the Defiance Campaign, Sharpeville, the Soweto uprising and the Marikana Massacre … it explores the transition to democracy and traces the phases of ANC rule, from the Rainbow Nation to transformation, state capture to ‘New Dawn’. It examines the divisive and unifying role of sport, the ups and down of the economy, and the impact of pandemics from the Spanish flu to AIDS and COVID-19.”

Although I did find these still-fresh-in-the-mind accounts interesting to read, I valued the historical insight on the former years – especially the Historical Note chapter at the beginning of the book that sets the table for what was to come. “Van Riebeeck took a momentous step in February 1657, when he released nine employees from the Company’s payroll and allowed them to settle as farmers, in order to reduce administrative costs and make the station more self-sufficient. The shift to an agrarian economy led to the importation of slave labour from Asia and elsewhere in Africa, and to growing competition over land with Khoikhoi pastoralists and San hunter-gatherers, but the Company’s refusal to subsidise the settlement also meant that many farmers lacked the capital and labour necessary to cultivate crops profitably, and they increasingly shifted to raising livestock. Each animal required a large grazing area, and the adoption of extensive agriculture fuelled the frontier’s expansion beyond the Cape Peninsula.”

History of South Africa: From 1902 to the Present spans an impressive 622 pages and 31 chapters. The titles to some of these chapters are: “Imperial Impi”, “Springboks and the Swastika”, “States of Emergency”, “Ungovernable”, “Rubicon”, “Born Free”, “Rainbow Nation”, “Transformation”, “Captive State”, “False Dawn”, and “The Reckoning”. I found the chapters titled “Liberators” and “The World Turned Upside Down” of particular interest as these events (1984-1992) made headlines when I was in my teens. “The referendum results started filtering in on 18 March. Treurnicht conceded defeat just after 2 p.m., blaming the media, employer ‘intimidation’ and foreign meddling. About an hour later, De Klerk emerged from Tuynhuys and declared, ‘Today we have closed the book on apartheid.’ A further hour later, the final count was announced: 68.7 per cent of the nearly two million voters had endorsed the government’s approach to negotiation.”

The two photo galleries in the book take up several pages and highlight historical moments in South Africa’s history. One photo depicts Rahima Moosa, Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph and Sophia Williams as they carry stacks of petitions to present to J.G. Strydom during the Women’s March on 9 August 1956. Another shows protesting refugees in Cape Town in January 2020 demanding to be resettled away from the country that they had once looked to as a safe haven. There is also a photo of a SADF convoy entering Rundu, having withdrawn from Angola in August 1988. “The occupation of parts of southern Angola had been a key strategic element of South Africa’s ‘Border War’ against SWAPO’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia.”

History of South Africa: From 1902 to the Present is, in the words of Tom Lodge, “engaging and illuminating”. Saul Dubow writes, “In this pacy and compelling political history of South Africa, Simpson draws on fresh sources to extend the arc of apartheid and resistance into the current moment. By doing so he skilfully illuminates the country’s current predicaments.” I found it an interesting and very detailed read.

Get your copy here.

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