History in Public Life MA Programme

17 Dec 2019 - 11:00
A selfie showing - from left to right: Sebastian Moronell, Juan Esteban Dulce and Zandi Ntuli below the statue of Nelson Mandela on the balcony of the Cape Town City Hall. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kros and her students.

In 2019 a new course called History in Public Life was offered at MA level through the Department of Historical Studies at UCT. Historians Carolyn Hamilton, Cynthia Kros, Adam Mendelsohn, Camalita Naicker and Nompilo Ndlovu developed and taught the course, and fortuitously, despite intellectual differences and distinctive individual approaches came to form a kind of team. There was no strict consensus about what history in public life meant and, in addition we probably all shifted our ideas about its meaning over the duration of the semester with moments of productive dissonance that we made no effort to conceal from the students. For Hamilton, history in public life is not the same thing as public history, since much history in political and legal discourse, for example, is not framed as public history, but it is actively mobilized and drawn on. Public History, in turn, is not heritage – or, perhaps we should say, on the reflection that the course offered, it is not only heritage. The latter performs a variety of important discursive and other kinds of functions in public life, as well as being passionately espoused by individuals and groups who often use the words ‘heritage’ and ‘history’ interchangeably so as to stake their claim to a particular past. But there is a myriad of ways in which history that does not fall under the rubric of heritage is also mobilised by publics and counterpublics - Michael Warner’s influential essay published in 2002 was one of our core references.

The students took up Warner’s concept of publics, especially in relation to what he characterised as their mutually constitutive relationship with texts in circulation. In doing this the students demonstrated an exceptional degree of sophistication and creative flair. Unfortunately, there is not sufficient space to deal with all the long essays that were submitted at the end of the course. Hopefully, the selection below will give readers some sense of the diversity of approaches, and the way students worked with concepts associated with notions of history in public life.

Sebastian Moronell was able to translate the ‘yearning’ he instinctively felt on hearing a track from a Zamrock album recently into a complex kind of nostalgia, both for his childhood in Zambia and for an earlier, more glorious post-independent Zambia that had come into being temporarily, but which was crushed not very long after its inception. Kenneth Kaunda’s Zambian Humanism of the early 1960s, intended to nurture African values and local cultural content, allowed for a brief flowering of the homegrown Zamrock – a mixture of ‘traditional’ African music with sounds of funk and rock inspired by American musicians, including Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, the Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival. However, despite the bold declaration of the most prominent of the local bands – WITCH, standing for, We Intend to Cause Havoc - the Zamrock bands, much like the country itself were unable to withstand the repercussions of global economic decline in the late 1970s, political restrictions, regional conflict and then the devastation of AIDS. For several decades, WITCH and the others disappeared into obscurity. By the time Moronell heard the Zamrock track this year, however the music had already been enjoying something of a revival for the last while, thanks to vinyl collectors, cultural entrepreneurs and digital streaming. The irony of this music being brought back to its old public as well as to new ones through digital streaming services that are owned and tightly controlled by mega corporations based in the Northern hemisphere, was not lost on Moronell.

Nontsizi Mgqwetho, an extraordinary female poet who wrote and performed her poetry in isiXhosa, and whose work was published in the Johannesburg newspaper Umteteli wa Bantu in the 1920s, might seem to have suffered a fate like that of WITCH and its peers. Unaccountably, many of the issues of the newspaper that carried her poems are missing from the archive, and Precious Bikitsha, the student who is making a study of her, has thus far been able to catch only fleeting glimpses of the poet in the social columns that mention the ‘parties’ she hosted with her sister – they were probably more of the order of ‘salons’ in the Mme de Staël genre, as one of the participants in the October/November APC workshop suggested. Even when Bikitsha was able to track down Mgqwetho’s home village in the Eastern Cape, the trail seemed to turn cold. Mgqwetho’s relatives were dismissive and disinclined to talk about her for reasons Bikitsha has yet to fathom. On the other hand, thanks to Jeff Opland’s anthology, The Nation’s Bounty: The Xhosa poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho (2007), and a recent local resurgence of interest in her work that Bikitsha encountered on social media, arguably Mgqwetho is in a position to make a bigger come back than the Zamrock bands dependent on advert revenue and data hungry digital streaming services.

Mgqwetho assumed the mantle of imbongi, usually exclusively reserved for males to launch searing criticisms of contemporary African politics and patriarchy, as well as of white racism and the dispossession and suffering endured by Africans in the 19th century. It seems likely that commentators on social media are turning to her because something in her poetry and her usurpation of male authority strikes them as relevant to the present circumstances in South Africa.

One of the most important consequences of the emergence of an autonomous public sphere for Jürgen Habermas (1962) who inspired much of the subsequent work that has been done on publics and publicity, was the creation of an environment conducive to the crafting of authoritative and credible arguments capable of checking the excesses of the state. In his essay, set in colonial Natal in the early 20th century, Daniel Dix, taking bold issue with the likes of scholars Mahmood Mamdani and Julian Cobbing for a tendency to homogenise social groups like white settlers, examines the crafting of one particular argument that, in the end, failed to make it.

With an acute eye for detail, as well as a sense of the momentous questions raised for the future of race relations by the recent transition from metropolitan to responsible government of the Colony, Dix takes the reader through the key points of a book by senior inspector of Native schools, Robert Plant with the ponderous title: The Zulu in Three Tenses, being a forecast of the Zulu’s future in the light of his past and his present (1905). As Dix points out, Plant did not believe that ‘the Zulu’ had their own history outside of Shaka, but he did draw attention to what he perceived as the mostly deleterious impact of colonialism on ‘the Zulu’, and endeavoured to shine the light of his title onto a better future that he did not so much ‘forecast’ as argue vigorously should be made available to them. Plant adduced the negative consequences of colonialism for the Zulu character in order to discourage what he saw as the vicious self-interest of the settlers focused only on generating cheap labour. He also attempted to persuade them to avoid the much-feared consequences of continuing to frustrate the aspirations of amakholwa through strategies other than outright suppression. However, despite, as Dix shows, Plant positioning himself to ‘claim legitimacy and (assuming) the power to speak knowledgably about the political issues of the day’ in just the kind of mode identified by Habermas as potentially effective for disrupting dominant discourses, Plant’s arguments largely fell on deaf ears. Dix, with considerable skill also draws on the biographies of individual kholwa, written by scholars over the last couple of decades, highlighting the attempts of amakholwa in the early 20th century to reconstruct the history of their ancestors as a way of helping them to discern which aspects of modernity to embrace, and how to reconcile these with perceived identities and histories that predated colonialism or coincided with its advent. 

Whereas Dix’s essay is about narratives and arguments that ultimately failed to be heard or that disappointed in some way, Zachary (Zac) Fleishman’s essay concerns the immensely powerful hegemonic narrative that has been built around the Holocaust, and which Fleishman discovers, is well-nigh impervious. Since 1988, there have been annual enactments of the so-called March of the Living, conceived by Avraham Hirschson and Shmuel Rosenman as a victorious inversion of one of the notorious ‘death marches’ concentration camp inmates (and POWs too, actually) were forced to undertake when the Nazis realised that the Allies were advancing towards them - this one being between the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. The March of the Living entrenches the idea that death lies at the heart of modern Jewish history, and that the state of Israel, which is often the endpoint for the March of the Living is just recompense and an indispensable haven for all Jews whether or not they reside there. Fleishman drew on his own experience as a leader of a Habonim Dror Southern African tour to Poland and Lithuania in 2019, which attempted to shift the obsession with death to an appreciation of the rich culture of Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Second World War. While naturally not trying to overlook the magnitude of the Holocaust, Fleishman explains how hard it is to break with the hegemonic narrative. Its success, he argues owes much to the performative nature of the March of the Living, as well as its irresistible teleology. He concedes, after reporting on what some of the Habonim participants had to say about their memories of the 2019 tour, that it is also rather hard to dislodge the prominence of the memory of having stood in front of a gas oven at Majdanek. Fleischman grapples with how one might construct what, following Roland Barthes (1970), would constitute a ‘writerly’ rather than a ‘readerly’ narrative, in which participants have space for co-construction, instead of being obliged merely to follow in the footsteps that have been mapped out for them. 


Barthes, Roland. 1970. S/Z: An Essay translated by Richard Miller (1975). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Habermas, Jürgen. 1962. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Translated by Thomas Burger assisted by Frederick Lawrence (1989). Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.
Opland, Jeff. 2007. The Nation’s Bounty: The Xhosa poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.
Plant, Robert. 1905. The Zulu in Three Tenses, being a forecast of the Zulu’s future in the light of his past and his present. Facsimile printed in 2010 at Whitefish MT: Kessinger Publishing.
Warner, Michael. 2002. Publics and Counterpublics. In Public Culture 14 (1), 49-90.