Insightful history of the struggle

2010-09-01 00:00

THE past 60 years in South Africa have been dramatic, painful and challenging­. It isn’t surprising that they have produced a rich crop of memoirs. What is unusual about Bernard­ Magubane’s autobiography is that it offers us both a personal and an intellectual history.

Born in 1930, he began life on a farm in the Colenso district, but his parents moved to Durban and he went to school and, in spite of the odds, did well, got a degree at the University of Natal, and then in 1961 went to the United States to do a PhD in sociology and anthropology. He taught for a few years at the University of Zambia, but then went back and for over 20 years worked as a professor at the University of Connecticut. He was, however, no mere detached academic­. He was passionately committed to the cause of the ANC, worked closely with it while he was in Zambia (Oliver Tambo often stayed with his family), and became a central figure in the Anti-apartheid Movement in the U.S.

The 40 or so years of the apartheid period generated, of course, great political­ battles. But side by side with these there were intellectual battles among the historians and the social scientists. It wasn’t a contest between those in favour of apartheid and those against it, no intelligent academic supported apartheid. The disagreement was between those who took a radical line, like Magubane, and believed that apartheid simply had to be swept away, and those — liberals and even neo-Marxists — who, rather anxiously, thought Afrikaner nationalism was invincible and thus favoured­ some form of “accommodation” or power-sharing among ethnic groups. Magubane describes fully the debates­ that raged at conferences­ and in journals.

He is often scathing about his opponents, but they had more power than he had and his contributions were often sidelined and even scorned. In the end, however, his view was vindicated by the march of events.

He does admit, though, that the collapse of the regime took everyone by surprise. He is now back in South Africa­ and has supervised the writing of three volumes on the history of the anti-apartheid struggle.

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