Battling for History: The Impact of War upon Modern South Africa

Bill Nasson


I should like to start this talk with two disclaimers. The first is that I am acutely aware of standing in the shadow of last year's highly distinguished Turner lecturer, Professor Jeffrey Grey. Professor Grey's presence with us on this gracious occasion is a telling reminder of his professional stature as a military historian, and of my own lesser scholarly pedigree in the field. That is, being by background and inclination more of a Heinz Foods kind of historian, guilty of 57 varieties from oral history to cultural history, with a dash of war thrown in as light seasoning.

The second disclaimer is the alleged topic for this brief lecture. If ever there was a case for chewing off more than one can bite, 'the impact of war upon modern South Africa' must be it. Ideally, one would need to be an A.J.P. Taylor or a John Keegan to really be able to pull this off. It must be said that I had initially considered addressing the question of the impact of the Anglo-Boer or South African War upon South African history. That would have made for some easily acceptable, straightforward verdicts. Just as A.J.P. Taylor thought memorably that the Second World War was wonderful, so we can all agree on simplicity of understanding. Boiled down to its essence, what is there to be said about the Anglo-Boer clash? In the long run, South Africa's Great War of 1899- 1902 was as crucial to the historical formation of modern South Africa as were the decisive Civil Wars of England, the United States of America, and Spain to the construction of those societies. And again, in the long run, cultivated memories of that war have fed successive nationalist illusions: firstly, the partisan fires of a resentful Afrikaner nationalism, more recently a post-apartheid South African narrative of shared white and black suffering under the heel of British imperialism. Going beyond this case study to the sweeping question of war and South Africa may risk substituting presumption for expertise. Nevertheless, if war is a hazardous enterprise; why should views of it not also fall into the area of educated guesswork or conjecture?


'the impact of war upon modern South Africa'; Anglo-Boer; South Africa's Great War of 1899- 1902; Afrikaner nationalism; Second World War; Civil Wars

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ISSN 2224-0020 (online); ISSN 1022-8136 (print)

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