The burden of the present, liberal-radical controversy over Southern African history – Harrison M Wright



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    The burden of the present, liberal-radical controversy over Southern African history – Harrison M Wright

    Post by Nico10 on Sat 12 Nov 2011, 8:53 pm

    The burden of the present... is a historiographical work that explores questions pertaining to South Africa’s race policy. During the latter half of the 20th century, the so-called ‘liberal school’ of scholars concerned with South African history came ‘under attack’ by a more ‘radical’ group of scholars. The burden of the present... explores this issue and is also concerned with the general responsibility of historians.

    Is it possible to write objective history? Wright argues what most people already know: no. It’s not possible to write 100% objective history. However, some historians are more corrupted than others, corrupted by their point of view, but also by mankind’s natural tendency to ‘defend’ itself, to look for excuses. The ‘radical’ school that emerged during the 20th century in South Africa is, according to the author, one of these more ‘corrupted’ schools of scholars.

    I could not help but to read COLD WAR everywhere as I turned the pages of The burden of the present... One of the main points of controversy in the work asks the question, was South Africa’s policy of apartheid the result of the surge of Afrikaner Nationalism during the 20th century, or was it the result of capitalistic greed? This is indeed a difficult question to answer. According to Wright, liberals tend to support the former, while radicals prefer the latter as explanation for South Africa’s race policy in the past.

    There is one big reason why historians will forever fail to be able to write history that is 100% objective, and that reason is that it is expected of historians to be scientists. Probably the most difficult part of writing about the past is the process of making generalisations. This is what scientists do all the time. They observe things and then come to a conclusion, and their conclusion is always applicable to all similar occurrences. When a scientist for example draws a conclusion about the nature of specific specie, that conclusion will be applicable to all the individuals of the same species. But when we start to make generalisations about words like ‘Jews’ or ‘Germans’ or ‘Africans’ or ‘Boers’, well then it becomes a gamble.

    And yet, history is so important to study. There are many advantages to the study of history. Chief among these is the fact that when perception changes, reaction changes. People who are ignorant about the past can be easily misled into believing all sorts of lies about themselves. Studying history is also important because it can make us aware of individuals who misuse the subject of history for their own selfish needs.

    There are sufficient grounds to argue that South Africa’s race policy in the 20th century was the result of economic considerations on the part of capitalistic forces. But there is also evidence that supports the opposite. The problem with writing history, it seems, is that writing history is an active process of forgetting. But a lot of it is also forgery.

    The burden of the present... presents these and other complex issues in an interesting way. History, and the writing thereof, is everybody’s business, and in The burden of the present... one can clearly see how complicated the process of writing history can become. For those interested in history, particularly South African history and the writing thereof, The burden of the present... will be useful.

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