Ordinary people and leaders

The role social history played during colonialism and apartheid, and its potential for providing a more nuanced view of life in South Africa was critical said Dr Luli Callinicos, a social historian, author, researcher and lecturer, at the South African Humanities Deans Association (SAHDA) colloquium.

Dr Callinicos’ talk, entitled,Biographies: ‘ordinary people’ and leaders” provided an overview of the view of social history as having the potential to disrupt grand narratives and present a more nuanced view of peoples lived experiences in South Africa.

Providing an overview of the grand narratives of colonialism, imperialism, liberalism, capitalism and nationalism, as well as context of the current socio-political landscape and debates in South Africa, Dr Callinicos explored a view of social history during the 1970s which was informed by history from below.  This approach, she said, has the ability to disturb conventional wisdom and the grand narrative.

Dr Callinicos was one of a number of academics, students and activists who participated in the SAHDA colloquium title: The Humanities and Popular Struggles in South Africa, held last week at Rhodes University.

According to Dr Callinicos, “Social history relied on exploring the experiences of people on the ground. By speaking to people on the ground you get detail that is rich in nuance. The details, the stories, the experiences have the possibility of disturbing the grand narrative.”

Additionally, through social history and storytelling, party politics can be transcended to make invaluable contributions to “deepening the schooling and training of young minds in the discipline of history, which deals with change and continuity, process, context, cause and effect, and reveal how these affect the human condition”.

In considering the relationship between history, biography and society she reflected on the ways in which biography and autobiography, through oral history, contributed to the historiography of struggle in South Africa.

She outlined how during the 1970s, social historians used the lives of men and women to explore the day-to-day world of “ordinary men and women” during the years of the racialised industrial revolution which involved a massive shift to migrant and permanent urbanisation. The notion of agency is also crucial in this view of social history, which acknowledges “the strategies for survival in a hostile world and the ingenious methods used”.

In considering the broad range of biographies that emerged from South Africa during colonialism, apartheid and recent years, and their remarkable range of genres, she highlighted works by Sol Plaatje, Dugmore Boetie, Mzweli Skota’s “The African Who’s Who”, novelists Peter Abrahams and Modikwe Dikobe, and the vibrant Drum writers of the 1950s, as having played a significant role in a time of severe political crisis and disenchantment in portraying the experiences of “blatant oppression and exploitation of the times and perhaps more importantly, gave testimony to extraordinary agency in a narrowing world of choices”. 

“Biography picks up on the experiential and the notion of agency. All bore vital witness to the experience of blatant oppression and exploitation during the years of colonialism and apartheid,” she said. The life stories of the leaders’ generations have something to teach contemporary society about the social context, political culture, values and commitment as well as the considered compromises they had to make in order to promote the struggle for liberation, she added.

Dr Callinicos is well known for her work on the formation of the South African working class, which includes a trilogy of books, Gold and Workers (1981), Working Life: Factories, Townships and Popular Culture (1987) and A Place in the City: the Rand on the Eve of Apartheid (1993). In 1992 she was commissioned to write Oliver Tambo’s biography, which has recently been published as Oliver Tambo: Beyond the Engeli Mountains.  She also wrote The World that made Mandela (2000).

By Sarah-Jane Bradfield

Picture by Adrian Frost


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