09 March 2018 Photo Eugene Seegers
Research group rethinks white societies in Southern Africa
Profs David Roediger and Jonathan Hyslop, international delegates who presented keynote addresses at the workshop.

Poor, Precarious, White? Rethinking white societies in Southern Africa, 1930s-1990s is a two-day workshop that was recently convened by the International Studies Group (ISG) with financial support from the office of the Vice-Rector: Academic, on the University of the Free State’s (UFS) Bloemfontein Campus. The event drew together a range of historical research on poor and working-class whites across Southern Africa during the twentieth century, with the goal of uncovering wider histories of race. 

In his welcoming speech, Prof Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the UFS, stated that race and its histories have taken on a new and renewed significance, not only in South Africa, but also globally. He said, “I am very proud to see the ISG organising and hosting such a wonderful workshop. It has attracted some of the leading intellectuals in the world on critical studies related to whiteness, and though its focus is on the histories of whites, I am pleased to see that a large number of presentations concern the wider questions of race.”

Mentioning several areas of concern on the world scene, such as policies issuing forth from the Trump government in the USA, violence against new migrants across Europe, as well as challenges of race as exhibited by specific events at the UFS, Prof Petersen said that it is particularly significant for this event to be hosted on one of our campuses. Quoting from Prof Neil Roos’ inaugural lecture held the previous evening, Prof Petersen added, “The histories of race offer the opportunity to rethink the approaches and methodologies of social history, and thus revitalise … the discipline.”

Participants in the workshop came from across Southern Africa, Europe, and the United States, and included leading scholars in the field. The first keynote was by the author of the acclaimed book The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (published in 1991), Prof David Roediger, who currently serves as Foundation Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Kansas. In his keynote entitled Settlers and Immigrants in Critical Whiteness Studies, Prof Roediger dealt with topics such as Southern Whiteness and Indigeneity in Australia and New Zealand, the relationship between migration and race, as well as how the current focus on the role of the white working class in the election of Donald Trump overlooks the complicity of the middle-class and elite whites who also supported him.

The second keynote address was delivered by Prof Jonathan Hyslop of the Colgate University, on the topic Workers called White and Classes called Poor: The ‘White Working Class’ and ‘Poor Whites’ in Southern Africa, 1910-1994. Prof Hyslop offered a sweeping overview of poor and working-class white experiences in Southern Africa, suggesting attention to comparisons and connections as a way of analysing and understanding the history of the region. 

The workshop was organised by Drs Danelle van Zyl-Hermann and Duncan Money, both Postdoctoral Research Fellows in the ISG, in conjunction with Prof Neil Roos, who is also based in the ISG. The research papers presented at the workshop covered topics as diverse as the experiences of white female civil-service employees in colonial Zimbabwe, French immigrants to the apartheid-era Vanderbijlpark steelworks, and white working-class resistance to state regulation. The papers are to be published in an edited collection which will be included in the Routledge African Studies series.

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