22 February 2018 Photo Sonia Small
Histories of whites beyond whiteness the focus of inaugural lecture
Prof Hendri Kroukamp, Acting Vice-Rector, Academic, Prof Neil Roos, Professor in the Centre for Africa Studies, and Prof Heidi Hudson, Acting Dean: Faculty of The Humanities.

Growing up in a small milling village on the Natal South Coast sugar belt from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, Prof Neil Roos was exposed to poverty, privilege, liberalism, and racism. He carved out a promising academic career at the University of Natal, initially on white communists and the anomaly they represented in South African society - researching their histories in the Springbok Legion, a radical wartime kind of ‘trade union’ for soldiers.

During his doctoral work with the University of the North-West, he shifted his attention from the small number of whites who defied segregation and apartheid, to the large numbers who did not, and he began to engage with historical and comparative approaches to race. He was also interested in the sense of comradeship shown by white war veterans in the village where he lived, which included his own father, and used this interest to investigate the kinds of networks white veterans developed, as well as their role in movements like the war veterans’ Torch Commando and the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH). He used this history to show how white people were able simultaneously to ’oppose’ apartheid, yet accept its core premise of racial supremacy.

Possibility, dismay, and challenge

During his inaugural lecture on 14 February 2018 at the University of the Free State (UFS), Prof Roos addressed issues that delivered new insights under his fresh and rigorous research approach. “I intended to plot how histories of whites in South Africa have been written during several big historiographic moves, with sub-titles ‘possibility’, ‘dismay’ and ‘challenge’.” In the first section, ‘possibility’, he dealt with the vibrant 1980s-vintage South African social history, arguing that social histories of whites were at looked in a rather simplistic way. In ‘dismay’ he looked at the rise of cultural studies of whites in the new millennium which, he argued, tend to be self-absorbed, ahistorical and outside of any rigorous critique of society as a whole. In ‘challenge’ he proposed that contemporary political concerns, notably demands of the decolonisation movement, should inspire a new, activist, anti-racist history of race which draws on some of the strengths of the earlier social history movement as well as some of the techniques developed during the 1990s and the millennium to understand power, ideology and representation.

A new approach

Prof Roos proposes that histories of whites must more properly be histories of race. “This history must show the production of racial categories, reflect on the moral historiographies of being white, and the kinds of dehumanisation this demanded. It must also identify how and where whites transgressed, defied, opposed, or were simply docile. It must be emphatically anti-racist, and must absolutely avoid the possibility of apologia, of trying to gloss over or present with a human face histories of whites under colonialism, segregation and apartheid.” He also argued for an historical approach to present-day iterations of racial identity occurrences of racism, racial supremacy and racial violence.

“I intended to plot how histories of whites
in South Africa have been written during
several big historiographic moves.”

In arguing for the democratisation of studies about whites, Prof Roos argued that it is inconceivable that only whites write about histories of whites. He pointed out that black scholars bring fresh insights to the study of race, and of whites, and appealed for funding to be made available to black scholars pursuing these angles.  

Prof Roos, who is the author of Ordinary Springboks: White Servicemen and Social Justice in South Africa, 1939-1961, has held fellowships at the University of Chicago, the University of Technology Sydney, Harvard and Notre Dame. He is a professor in the International Studies Group and co-directs the Prestige Scholars’ Programme. He is the author of Whites in Apartheid Society, due for publication by Indiana University Press in 2018.