chapter  5
16 Pages

Anti-apartheid people’s histories and post-apartheid nationalist biographies

ByDavid Johnson

This chapter revisits radical traditions of South African historiography and life-writing, contrasting the people’s histories and auto/biographies of the apartheid era with the nationalist biographies of the post-apartheid period. Noting the rich tradition of people’s histories (Dora Taylor 1986 [1952]; Hosea Jaffe 1952; Lionel Forman 1992 [1959]; Luli Callinicos 1981, 1987b and 1993; the National Education Crisis Committee 1987; and Lesley Witz 1988), as well as the many volumes of working-class life-writing (Coka 1936; Kadalie 1970; Mokgatle 1971; Mashanini 1989; and Qabula 1989), the discussion focuses principally upon Callinicos’s exemplary three-volume people’s histories of the Witwatersrand. In common with all such people’s histories and working-class life-writing, Callinicos’s late apartheid popular histories disclose a conception of collective political struggle that challenges post-apartheid re-writings of South African history that install heroic individuals – pre-eminently but not exclusively the leaders of the African National Congress – as the agents of liberation. The second half of the chapter surveys the proliferation of post-apartheid nationalist autobiographies and biographies (Mandela 1994; Pogrund 2003 on Sobukwe; Callinicos 2015 [2004] on Tambo; Gevisser 2007 on Mbeki; Elinor Sisulu 2002 on Walter and Albertina Sisulu; Mangcu 2013 on Biko; and Wieder 2013 on Ruth First and Joe Slove) before focusing in close detail on all of Callinicos’s biographical writings on Oliver Tambo (Van Wyk and Callinicos 1994; Callinicos 2004; Callinicos 2012), and concluding with an analysis of the 2016 Market Theatre play about Callinicos, If We Dig by Megan Willson with Fiona Ramsay. The chapter argues that the popular histories of the pre-1990 period serve as a powerful corrective to the dominant conception of contemporary politics as a drama played out by elite actors.