Although William Beinart says modestly that his book is not intended as a general history of his subject, merely an introductory essay, it will no doubt be greeted by students with some enthusiasm, for it handily presents an updated summary of much recent research and carries the story through to the eve of the 1994 election. It is, indeed, a likely entrant for the lucrative new prescribed school book market: most of the old prescribed texts will deservedly be junked.
Beinart's works derive from what used to be termed the radical school of South African historiography which saw itself in opposition to liberal as well as pro-apartheid interpretations, and many of the book's strengths derive from that school: a general bias in favour of social and economic history, a keen attention to the continuous currents of African resistance to white rule, and a strong awareness of the fact that, until relatively recently, the bulk of the black population continued to live in rural settings, marginalised not only by the workings of apartheid but by a historiography which concentrated on the doings of white politicians and black township-dwellers. Yet in the end, as Beinart points out, one of the great ironies of apartheid was that the enforced ruralisation of the African masses may well have been responsible for the demographic explosion which finally broke down all attempts at urban influx control; indeed, the higher African birthrate may have been a perfectly rational response to the increased poverty occasioned by rural densification.
But the radical school of historiography had its weaknesses too. It was stronger in its analysis of earlier periods of history when the main part of the story was the encroachment of mining and industrial capital on African life; far weaker as it approached the more modern period where most radical historians effectively accepted the discipline of "the struggle". Thus, for example, we have histories of the rise of black trade unionism which make no mention of the fact that such unions were for long bitterly opposed by an exiled radical movement which believed only collaborationist unions were possible under the apartheid they mistakenly equated with fascism. Worse still, the central tenet of the radical school was that far from it being the case that capitalism would undermine apartheid (as liberals argued) capitalism was not only compatible with apartheid but identified with it. This fitted in well with the ANC's strong socialist rhetoric in the 1970s and 1980s, but looks utterly forlorn now: apartheid is gone but capitalism thrives.
This sort of unnecessary defeat occurred because the historians allowed themselves to be politically hijacked - they wanted to argue in favour of economic sanctions against apartheid and were therefore embarrassed by the argument that if capitalism truly undermined apartheid then sanctions would slow up rather than speed that undermining process. The truth was more complex: that capitalism, though it might take occasional advantage of odd niches created by apartheid (such as the hyper-profits on offer to those who located industries on bantustan borders), was indeed deeply inimical to apartheid (which is one reason why it has so easily outlived it); that sanctions were largely evaded and did little direct economic damage; and that the real case for them was in the moral and political pressure they brought to bear.
Quite a lot of tough questions now need to be answered by historians about how exactly apartheid was brought down and to what extent the key process behind the anti-apartheid struggle was the rise of a new black bourgeoisie. As yet, such questions are not being asked, let alone answered. There is a blanket tendency to treat the "liberation movement" not only on its own terms but in a largely ahistorical manner. Beinart's book was written at probably the last moment when this was possible. Even since he wrote this, for example, the ANC has changed from being a quasi-revolutionary socialist party into being a party of government, of a vast new class of well-paid appointees, and a party which advocates privatisation.
But what is happening now will also throw a sharp new light on the past. Beinart writes with considerable shrewdness about the bantustan experiment, for example, and while the ancien regime's policies of enforced ruralisation and bogus independence will doubtless stand condemned forever, the new government will have its work cut out to do clearly better in the rural areas. The bantustan policy did mean large urban subsidies poured into those areas, the fostering of new salariats in the new towns it developed, and priority for homeland education services, for example. The ANC tends to represent far more urban African interests and it is by no means clear that it will find itself able to maintain those priorities.
But we must also look for other kinds of continuity. Beinart writes charmingly, for example, about such figures as the 1920s evangelist, Wellington Buthelezi, who warned non-believers that their homes would be bombed by American blacks, come in aeroplanes to liberate South Africa, and Enoch Mgijima, whose Israelite group staged land invasions and refused to pay taxes until the police murdered 200 of them in one terrible massacre.
Doubtless the liberation of African energies represented by the 1994 election will quickly transform our cultural map of South Africa and with it our historical sense of what we once saw.
All of which should make South African historical studies an exciting place in a quite different way. For years now South African history has either been written as polemic against the apartheid era or it has neutered itself by suspending judgement on just about everything. No doubt, movement hagiography and polemical history of the old kind will continue a while, but it is already a matter of flogging a dead horse. It surely cannot be long before a new history begins.
One great gain from the period now closed was the growth of a richly talented and innovative group of South African historians - Beinart prominent among them and one suspects that it is from this group that the charting of that new direction will begin.
R. W. Johnson is a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.
Twentieth Century South Africa
Author - William Beinart
ISBN - 0 19 289239 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £8.99
Pages - 293pp