The world the Randlords made

George Rudé

  • Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand 1886-1914. Vol. I: New Babylon, Vol. II:New Nineveh by Charles van Onselen
    Longman, 213 pp, £4.95, December 1982, ISBN 0 582 64383 X

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 present-day social and political problems. He was born in 1944, the son of a police detective and an Afrikaner mother of working-class stock. He grew up in Johannesburg and its adjoining townships and, from a young age, lived face to face with the barrack-like buildings that once housed the black mineworkers. Miners came to dominate both his early life and his historical perspectives. One of the first jobs he took was in the Free State gold fields, where he worked as an ore-setter. He studied for his first degrees at Rhodes University, Grahamstown and the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and then went on to St Antony’s College, Oxford in 1974 to do a PhD on the theme of ‘African Mine Labour in Southern Rhodesia, 1900-1933’.

His university teaching career began soon after: first, as a junior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London; and, subsequently, as a research officer in the International Labour Office at Geneva and a Ford Foundation research fellow at the Centre for International and Area Studies at the University of London between 1976 and 1978. He went to Yale as a Visiting Fellow in the autumn of 1978; and it was at Yale that, following another short stay in London, he was invited to become Director of the African Studies Institute at Witwatersrand.

The Institute became the centre of his life and, from then on, helped to shape both his teaching and writing. Its members formed a remarkable team of European, Afrikaner and black African scholars, devoted not only to their teaching and writing but to political activity in support of social justice and equality between the races. Within the Institute their purpose has been a dual one: to teach and to promote their own scholarship and also to help to realise the Institute’s central research project by collecting large numbers of oral recordings from South Africans in every walk of life, but particularly trade-unionists, community leaders, share-croppers and teachers. It is a remarkable experiment in oral history. When I was there in the early winter of 1980, two hundred interviews (many of them illustrated) had already been collected.

Under van Onselen’s direction, the Institute has also become a centre for promoting a type of history – history ‘from below’ – which is new to South Africa, though it originated, in Europe, some thirty years ago. Curiously, this way of studying the past was already mooted, if not yet practised, in South Africa as long ago as 1919, when Professor W.H. Macmillan of Witwatersrand is reputed to have said: ‘The South African history which is really significant is that which tells about the everyday life of the people, how they lived, what they thought, and what they worked at ... what they produced and what and where they marketed, and the whole of their social organisation. Such a history of South Africa remains to be written.’ Now, 64 years later, such a history, focused not only on the sufferings but on the activities and protests of the black population, is beginning to take shape. What made it possible was the advent of a group of radical young historians, already roused by the Sharpeville crisis of 1960, who went abroad to sharpen their wits and came back to experience the militant actions of Coloureds and Indians in Cape Town and Natal and of the black workers at Soweto. Van Onselen, who is probably the most significant historian in this group, is called a Marxist by his South African contemporaries, both critics and colleagues, but he prefers to see himself as a historian whose work is ‘informed by historical materialist perspectives’.

Van Onselen’s main work to date is contained in these two volumes of essays. Several of the essays were originally given as lectures, read as scholarly papers or published as articles in historical journals, but they form a recognisable whole, and share the same theme: the reaction of the common people of South Africa to the political and economic changes that transformed their country in the period between the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand and the outbreak of the First World War.

The tone of the two volumes is struck by an epigraph from Pratt’s The Real South Africa (1913), which also helps to explain the two subtitles:

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