A missed opportunity to explore contemporary memory of apartheid

Dr Jonny Steinberg presented his paper ‘High Modernist statecraft under Verwoerd’ in the Imperial and Colonial Seminar held at the University of Leeds on the 21st November 2012.  The inspiration for this paper came from a closed-door think tank meeting where a senior member of the ANC stated ‘the thing about whites is they got things done’.  This nostalgia from the heart of black trajectory, the ANC, seemed unusual to Steinberg and thus he decided to explore the issue of memory of the efficiencies of the apartheid era, under Verwoerd, in modern South Africa.  Whilst not mentioned by Steinberg, this nostalgia is an emerging theme across South African academic blogs[1], an interesting facet that demonstrates the relevance of this paper.

Black South African showing his passbook issued by the Government in 1985

Black South African showing his passbook issued by the Government in 1985 (UN photo)

There were two main themes in his presentation.  First, he discussed the history of apartheid in South Africa, specifically the 1950s and 1960s.  This account summarised existing literature on the rise of apartheid and its ultimate failure by the 1960s[2].

The second theme of his paper, the most interesting aspect, assessed the transparency of apartheid, the issue of current memories of apartheid and comparisons between the political past and the present.  First he posed an interesting question: whether the previously explained failure of apartheid was apparent to contemporaries. Steinberg then argued that Verwoerd certainly knew that it was failing and that he was essentially deploying a holding operation, which relied upon coercion, yet he created a well-structured façade that gave the impression that apartheid was working.  He then explained how evidence from a South African newspaper, De Berger showed that South African media saw through this façade.

In his contemporary analysis Steinberg had one source, his inspiration for the paper, and thus his focus was brief and his arguments were inconclusive and groundless.  He asserted that the ANC have an idealised view of apartheid in the 1960s: that it was terrible and morally reprehensible but Verwoerd’s bureaucratic emphasis, epitomised by the national identity card shown in the above picture, made it operate efficiently.  In a disjointed manner he then made an interesting, yet completely groundless, comparison between Verwoerd and the ANC; he argued that the suburb project of the ANC is as much of a hoax as Verwoerd’s apartheid programme and asserts that planning by both is a façade for directionless politics and wielding current power.  It was apparent that this paper was building up to his concluding remarks, which were interesting, yet they were based on one anonymous source and predominantly pure conjecture.

Even with Steinberg’s over-attention of conceptual aspects, he did not fully explore what I would deem the most interesting issues of his paper: the issue of the memory of apartheid, how this effected perceptions of the past and how it permeated contemporary politics, namely the ANC.  There is a wealth of broad literature on this topic that he neglected, such as Confino’s article on the problems of collective memory[3].  Additionally there are more specific fields such as the comprehensive literature on Jewish memory in post-Nazi Germany[4] and a small yet intellectually rich set of works on memory in post-apartheid South Africa, such as Coombes’s work on memory surrounding Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994 South Africa[5] and Dlamini’s nostalgic account of his childhood under apartheid[6].

Steinberg missed an obvious opportunity to extend this interesting theory on memory of apartheid into an academically sound thesis; he was restricted by his neglect of secondary sources and his over-reliance on a singular quote from a closed door meeting.  If he were explore the secondary literature, as sketched out above, and to carry out extensive empirical research into aspects of memory among ANC members, he could make significant strides in this field.  The introductory style of his presentation does leave room for the hope that this type of research is to follow.

Brendan Lawson


[1] Aubrey Masango, ‘Apartheid was not that bad: a case of peculiar nostalgia’ (Johannesburg, South Africa: Daily Maverick, 2012) <http://dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2012-04-12-apartheid-was-not-that-bad-a-case-of-peculiar-nostalgia> (12/04/2012) [accessed 29 November 2012]

[2] D. Posel, The Making of Apartheid, 1948-1961 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997); I. Evans, Bureaucracy and Race (London: University of California Press, 1997); N.L. Clark and W.H. Worger, South Africa: The Rise and Fall of Apartheid (London: Longman, 2011); N.M. Stultz, ‘The Politics of Security: south Africa under Verwoerd, 1961-6’, The Journal of Modern African Studies, 7 (1969), 3-20

[3] A. Confino, ‘Collective memory and cultural history: problems of method’, The American Historical Review, 102 (1997), 1386-1403

[4] D.L. Capra, History And Memory After Auschwitz (New York: Cornell University, 1998); L.L. Langer, Holocaust Testimonies: the ruins of memory (Yale: Yale University, 1991)

[5] A.E. Coombes, History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic (Durham, California: Duke University Press, 2004)

[6] J. Dlamini, Native Nostalgia (Johannesburg: Jacana Media, 2009)

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2 Responses to A missed opportunity to explore contemporary memory of apartheid

  1. Simone Pelizza says:

    I partially agree with the analysis of the post, although I have a different perspective on Steinberg’s paper. Certainly it was disappointing, expressing only a superficial view of modern South African history, but the comparison between the National Party and the ANC was not entirely groundless as claimed here. In a certain sense, both political organizations developed useful public myths of efficiency and modernization to cover the failure of their governing policies, showing a certain continuity between the pre- and post-1994 era. And both parties failed in power for the same reason, namely their inability to control local and international economic developments (see for example the attempts by both regimes to regulate migratory movements and the labour market, with dramatic consequences). Thus the parallel drawn by Steinberg was quite interesting and thought-provoking, although his handling of the subject was far from satisfactory, especially on the complex issues of apartheid memory, South African-Israeli relationships, and theories of modernity. But I think he will give more details on these subjects in his next book.

    • Brendan Lawson says:

      In light of this response I would like to further clarify my review of the seminar. Steinberg’s paper was too broad and thus he did not explain certain aspects satisfactorily. In my view he should have used the evidence you have presented above, and other research, to support this interesting argument, especially as it seemed to be a main aspect of his presentation.

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