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While many of those who have written about South Africa have included reference to past events, it was only from the early 19th century that attempts were made to present a coherent picture of South Africa’s past. From the early 20th century professional historians, for long all white males, began to present their interpretations of the way in which the country known from 1910 as the Union of South Africa had evolved over time. In the Afrikaans-speaking universities there emerged an often nationalist historiography, while the major English-speaking historians presented a more inclusive but still often Eurocentric and mainly political view of the South African past. From the 1960s a conscious attempt was made to decolonize South African historiography by looking at the history of all the country’s peoples, but the historical profession remained almost exclusively white and the few black works of history were largely ignored. Many of those who were most influential in taking South African historical writing in new directions were South Africans who had left the country and settled abroad. In the 1970s and 1980s, a golden age of South African historical writing, shaped in part by the influence of neo-Marxist approaches from the United Kingdom and the United States, many new topics were explored, including the relationship between race and class and between capitalist development and apartheid. By emphasizing resistance to racial segregation in the past, South African historical writing assisted the process leading to the end of apartheid. By the time that happened, South African historical writing had become very nuanced and varied, but only to some extent integrated into the historiography of other parts of the African continent.

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The Black Consciousness movement of South Africa instigated a social, cultural, and political awakening in the country in the 1970s. By the mid-1960s, major anti-apartheid organizations in South Africa such as the African National Congress and Pan-Africanist Congress had been virtually silenced by government repression. In 1969, Steve Biko and other black students frustrated with white leadership in multi-racial student organizations formed an exclusively black association. Out of the South African Students’ Organization (SASO) came what was termed Black Consciousness. This philosophy redefined “black” as an inclusive, positive identity and taught that black South Africans could make meaningful change in their society if “conscientized” or awakened to their self-worth and the need for activism. The movement emboldened youth, contributed to the development of Black Theology and cultural movements, and led to the formation of new community and political organizations such as the Black Community Programs organization and the Black People’s Convention. Articulate and charismatic, Steve Biko was one of the movement’s foremost instigators and prolific writers. When the South African government understood the threat Black Consciousness posed to apartheid, it worked to silence the movement and its leaders. Biko was banished to his home district in the Eastern Cape, where he continued to build community development programs and have a strong political influence. His death at the hands of security police in September 1977 revealed the brutality of South African security forces and the extent to which the state would go to maintain white supremacy. After Biko’s death, the state declared Black Consciousness–related organizations illegal. Activists formed the Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO) in 1978 to carry on Black Consciousness ideals, though the movement in general waned after Biko’s death. Since then, Biko has loomed over the history of the Black Consciousness movement as a powerful icon and celebrated hero while others have looked to Black Consciousness in forging a new black future for South Africa.