African History

Professor Jan-Bart Gewald

How does my view of African History differ from what others have said before? Perhaps it is the belief that history is to be found in the material objects of everyday life. In history, we attempt to describe the never-ending struggle by and between people to determine what should happen in any given situation. The manner in which objects are deployed or used depends on people’s ideas and what they think is appropriate in any given situation. In this way, people make history within the constraints placed upon them.

Movement of people, goods and ideas
One way of describing this is by attempting to track and follow the movement of people, goods and ideas over time. However, if there is one thing that we have learnt from anthropology, it is that people and things mean different things to different people in different times and different places. Academics at Leiden University would have great difficulty in ascribing a life force to material objects; yet, the same cannot be said for the rest of humanity. For the bulk of humanity, all things can be imbued with a force that may or may not be visible. It is this that needs to be borne in mind when dealing with the history of Africa. Things, are never just things. Like people, they are what they are because they exist in a socio-cultural context that is dynamic and consistently changing over time.

Socio-cultural context
In my work, I seek to place the material objects of everyday life in a socio-cultural setting and study them through time. The acquisition of material goods, be they cooking pots, firearms or clothing, transformed the material cultures of the societies involved. Over time, there has been a convergence of desires, consumption and the use of material objects between and beyond Africa.

Southern Africa a single whole
In contemporary South Africa, it is not strange to meet petrol attendants, road workers, newspaper salesmen or waiters in Scarborough in the Cape Peninsula who have travelled overland from Malawi, Congo DRC, Angola or Tanzania in search of a better life. Talking to these people makes one realize that Southern Africa is a single whole, albeit with different accents. It is true that the Cape is not the Transvaal, Zimbabwe is not Botswana, and historical processes in Namibia are not necessarily the same as those in Zambia, but they are part of a single articulated whole. What ties Southern Africa together, besides a culturally informed deep structure, is labour, economic institutions and the consumptive practices of its population. The economic institutions established in the past two centuries, be they mining companies, labour recruiting agencies, retail chains or trade and border agreements, bind Southern Africa together. With slight regional variations and dependent on their class position, Southern Africans eat the same foods and aspire to the same material goods. In these terms, there is more that binds a Malawian peasant to a South African peasant than divides them.

Maintaining the human measure
Whilst steering clear of horror for horror’s sake when dealing with African history, I teach a history that does not forget or obfuscate the horror of colonial rule, let alone the economic institutions that enabled and maintain the continuing exploitation of people. In addition, I sincerely hope that I will continue to speak to petrol pump attendants and peasants for many years to come and that my students will do the same. For it is only in this manner that we can maintain the human measure that is so necessary, yet so often missing from history.

Read the full text of the research intentions of this Chair.