Charles van Onselen

Charles van Onselen is a historian based in Johannesburg. The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper 1894-1985 won the Sunday Times Alan Paton Price for Non-Fiction.

In the winter of 1913, South Africa’s most famous black journalist, Solomon T. Plaatje, travelled through the southwestern Transvaal to observe and report on the plight of black families who had been thrown off white farms. These evictions were prompted by the passage of the notorious Natives’ Land Act, the legislation which, like the Enclosure Acts, formed the bedrock on which the economic edifice of segregationist, and later apartheid, South Africa was constructed. Thousands of fleeing African tenant farmers had nowhere to turn. Late one afternoon, on a road just south of the Vaal River, Plaatje (a founding member of the South African Natives National Congress, the forerunner of the ANC) found the Kgobadi family sheltering from a blizzard. Their child had died during the exodus. The Kgobadis, he wrote,

There was a moment – probably in the Thirties, as Smuts and Hertzog were embarking on political exercises aimed at ‘nation-building’ – when the term ‘English-speaking’ might have meant something in white South African society. In contemporary South Africa, however, ‘African’ and ‘Afrikaner’ dominate the debate. Both suggest a primordial attachment to the continent, fan rival nationalisms and render the phrase ‘English-speaking South African’ politically irrelevant. Noted largely for their economic success, English-speakers are destined to remain bit players in the unfolding political drama.’‘

Who was he? Joe the Ripper

Charles Nicholl, 7 February 2008

They found Mary Jane Kelly lying on her bed, in the dingy room she rented in Miller’s Court, off Dorset Street in Spitalfields. She was about 25 years old, a colleen from County Limerick,...

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The Ingenuity of Rural Life

R.W. Johnson, 12 December 1996

Kas Maine sharecropped on the marginal farmland of Willem Nieman, a staunch Afrikaner, chairman of the local National Party branch and hater of the English and the Jews. When Kas’s first...

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The world the Randlords made

George Rudé, 7 July 1983

Charles van Onselen is a South African historian teaching at the University of Witwatersrand who, from his earliest years, has been immersed in the realities of South Africa’s past and its...

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