A life in history

| Shula Marks
Shula Marks

This is a talk given by historian Shula Marks at the University of Johannesburg in May on the occasion of her receiving an honorary PhD. Marks is emeritus professor of history at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London.

I have been asked to say a few words to you this evening and I am both daunted and pleased as well as greatly honoured by having been given this opportunity. It is truly inspirational to see so many recently graduated young people about to go out into the world.

I have chosen to talk about A life in history for a variety of reasons. My own life of course has been one in which history —thinking about, reading, writing and teaching history has been crucially important. And in writing that history, I have always been aware of lives in history, how we need to understand individual biographies —our own and our subjects— as being shaped by and shaping history. Your and my presence in this hall in this university this day seems to me to be a very lively and pertinent reminder of precisely this: just think of what the graduation ceremony in this space and place was like less than twenty years ago and you will, I am sure, understand how even our mere presence here is one of the major surprises —and triumphs— of our recent history.

What does the phrase A life in history conjure up? For me it stresses the importance of the problematic yet crucial concept of our own agency in history —its possibilities and its limitations. Possibilities because it is only through human agency —through empowering ourselves and others— that we can change our world; its limitations because we are all also shaped by the world we live in, even as we seek to change it. Karl Marx captured this very succinctly when he wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” 1 And we can certainly see how that ominous sentence is part of the South African reality as we try to shake off the legacies of apartheid, while remaining entrapped in them.

How did I come to live a life in history —as an historian? The answer is almost by accident. I studied history and English as majors as a young student at UCT— both choices as a result of having as a role model my first cousin Phyllis Lewsen, whom some in the audience might remember as a remarkably fine lecturer in both the English and the History Departments at Wits. I was ill in bed for the best part of a year when I was eleven —and Phyllis used to send me history books. Looking back on it, most of them were pretty grim although I do remember greatly enjoying Hendrik van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, and its account of how Louis XVI landed up on the guillotine because he conceded too little, too late to the revolutionaries. Role models are extremely important when we plan our lives.

When I left South Africa in 1959 I landed up in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) simply because their letter accepting my application arrived before the one from UCL where I wanted to read English. For years afterwards I thought — “If only I had chosen English, I could have read novels all day and have gone to theatre every night – and called it work.”

So I ended up in SOAS almost accidentally, but my life in history has been remarkably rewarding, not least because of the opportunities I had of teaching —and learning from— a long list of outstanding students, some of whom are in this audience. I say “learning from” because I have never stopped learning from my students: when I got my first job as a lecturer at SOAS, I had to fill in a tax form which asked me “When did your full-time education end?”—and I was quite taken aback because it had not ended– and has still not done so. Teaching and researching South African history has been both a privilege and an obligation over many years, not least because of the way over my working life, it has opened up new ways of thinking about South Africa and its past.

I arrived at SOAS at a particularly exciting time. Many of the former British and French colonies had achieved or were about to achieve their independence, and clearly the old history which largely consisted of the doings of “Great White men in Africa” (and they were virtually all white and male if not all so great!) would no longer suffice. As one of South Africa’s most eminent social historians, WM MacMillan recalled:

… what passed for South African history when I was starting my teaching career [in the 1910s] was the tale of the conquest of a new country by lonely and scattered white men, with no regard whatever for the interests or the fate of Bushmen, Hottentots, the mixed races or the African tribes. History was the triumph of white power in crushing all these peoples. 2

It is not surprising then that Macmillan’s contemporary, Professor ZK Matthews, one of South Africa’s first African academics, recalls in his autobiography,

[o]ur history as we had absorbed it bore no resemblance to South African history as it had been written by European scholars, or as it is taught in South African schools, and as it was taught to us at Fort Hare. The European insisted that we accept his version of the past and what is more, if we wanted to get ahead educationally, even to pass examinations in the subject as he presents it”. 3

Most of you are perhaps too young to remember it, but certainly many of your parents will recall how alienated they felt from their history at school.

Clearly, liberated states needed liberated histories. So the 1960s was a time when the history of Africa was being rethought in Africa, the USA and the UK. Professors Oliver and Fage at SOAS were writing their classic Short History of Africa 4, and there were students at SOAS from all over the continent. In the absence of written documents, historians turned to archaeology, oral evidence, anthropology, even linguistics to get beyond the relatively brief colonial era. For many of us, this interdisciplinarity was a crucial and attractive part of understanding Africa’s past, and made a seminal contribution to the study of world history. When I started a series of seminars at the Institute on the Societies of Southern Africa, which I ran for some thirty years, this interdisciplinarity was extended also to our understanding of Southern Africa’s more recent past and its present.

History is important because it has shaped our world, provides ways of understanding the present, and helps us grapple with the future, because the present is embedded in the past, just as the histories we write are embedded in the present. We do it by using evidence critically, combing sources and seeking new ideas in order to challenge the old. And this is why, especially in societies undergoing rapid social change, historical knowledge, like all knowledge, is constantly revised. In South Africa, our understanding of the past has been revolutionised since 1960. As new questions generates new research, so in turn new research generates new questions. This is why history can provide the training for a variety of professions that demand critical intelligence.

But how, you may well ask, is it possible to write a history for a ‘rainbow nation’ – for people who have only fragments of a shared past and for whom that shared past is only too frequently one of conflict, exploitation and misunderstanding? If, in 1952 during the celebration of the tercentenary of the white settlement at the Cape, the unhappy episode of the Anglo-Boer war was regarded as too divisive to be included in the celebratory historical tableau, how much more difficult is it to write a history that attempts to bring together in a single narrative the history not only of Anglophone and Afrikaans-speaking whites, or of black, white and brown South Africans but also of people speaking no fewer than eleven different languages, divided by very different ethnic, class, gender and religious experiences.

It seems to me that one way of doing this at least for the more recent past is to write about the lives of people in their social, economic, political, and cultural contexts – and - critically - in relation to one another. Thinking about ‘A life in history’, then, opens up a way of going forward to recapture our pasts as they impinge on one another in this complex part of the world . I tried to do this in my book, ‘Not either an experimental doll’, an edition of the letters between ‘Lily Moyo’ who wrote of herself as ‘a helpless orphan, yearning for education’, Mabel Palmer, who taught segregated classes of black and white students in Durban, and who herself knew what it meant to struggle for an education in segregated classes – segregated in her class by gender in Scotland in the late 19th century – and Sibusisiwe Makanya, the first Zulu woman to study in the United States of America in the 1920s 5. It was also what I tried to do in four essays on Solomon kaDinuzulu, John Dube, George Champion and Gatsha Buthelezi in a book I called The Ambiguities of Dependence. 6

This of course is not the only way to write history but it is one way of writing about our troubled separate but interconnected pasts. Thinking about A life in history —and our lives in history— then opens up a way of going forward to recapture our pasts as they impinge on one another in this complex part of the world, but also to join with one another in the present to combat the scourges of poverty and inequality, racism and xenophobia.

Above all, however, a life in history demands imagination. Many of us learn this in our families, as I discovered when I found letters between my parents when they were courting in South Africa in the early 1930s. When my father came to South Africa in 1920 as a refugee from war-torn Eastern Europe, he knew neither English nor Afrikaans, and his formal education had stopped at the age of twelve when World War I broke out. He spent the war years separated from his family, running from place to place on his own in search of safety. His life could not have been more different to mine, growing up as a privileged and sheltered white child in South Africa —or even of my mother who had also come here from the pogroms of eastern Europe in the early twentieth century, but was educated here and spent her early life in a Potchefstroom convent. To relate even the lives of our families then, we need imagination to enter worlds not our own.

Many of you probably have similar family stories to tell. Certainly when I was researching my book on nursing in South Africa, Divided Sisterhood, I interviewed many nurses and it was clear that empathising with their patients was of the essence in their work. 7

By way of ending, I want to share with you the words of the author, JK Rowling who, in a magnificent address to graduating Harvard students in 2008, said:

Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. … it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared. … Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s places. 8

In many ways, this is perhaps the most important lesson of a life in history. In a South Africa still so divided, with so searing a past, with life chances so ferociously unequal from birth to death —but also with such remarkable people in the past and in the present, we need to be able to ‘think ourselves into other people’s places’. As you leave university to face your new lives, use of evidence, considered thought, investigation and argument, but above all imagination will stand you in good stead. Go well, hamba kahle.


  1. Karl Marx, 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte 

  2. WM Macmillan, 1975. My South African Years: An Autobiography. (Cape Town), p.162. 

  3. ZK Matthews (1901-1968), Freedom for My People (London & Cape Town), p.58. 

  4. Roland Oliver and J.D. Fage, A Short History of Africa (Harmondsworth), 1962. 

  5. ‘Not Either an Experimental Doll. The Separate Lives of Three South African Women (Pietermaritzburg et al, 1987) 

  6. Baltimore, 1987) 

  7. Divided Sisterhood. Class, Race and Gender in the South African Nursing Profession (Braamfontein, 1994) 

  8. ‘The fringe benefits of failure and the power of imagination’, reproduced in the Harvard, cited at http://harvardmagazine.com/2008/06/the-fringe-benefits-failure-the-impor…

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