A diary: tracing change, 1960

A diary: tracing change, 1960

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2016) ‘A diary: tracing change, 1960’ http://www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/Traces/ADiary1960/ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. The traces of the past that now remain come in all shapes and sizes. This Trace is concerned with what, when considering some 50 years of diary-writing by someone, is the trace for discussion, and so relatedly it considers whether a trace can be mammoth (50 years of a diary) or whether it needs to be focused and specific (an entry for one day at a time). This Trace is concerned with what produces ‘social change’ and whether this lies in epiphanous occurrences that act as turning points at which life and the zeitgeist judder and halt and then resume in a changed way, and how this claim might be proven. This Trace is concerned with the relationship between the small events of the fabric of everyday life and the major events of the public realm. These three interwoven things are the topic for discussion.

2. Mark Elliott Pringle (1880-1962) was a scion of the Pringle family of Baviaans River in the Eastern Cape. He was married to his cousin Harriet Scott then Pringle (?-1954). She was a niece by marriage of Harriet Hockly later Townsend later still Pringle, written about elsewhere on the WWW pages, while he was said woman’s nephew by marriage. Their son died in childhood, while their three daughters reached adulthood and old-age. Like most others in his family, he was a farmer with a large farm. More unusually, he was the lead person involved in producing a fairly well-known book about the family, Pringles of the Valleys. More unusually still, he wrote a diary over many years, starting in 1911 and ending in 1960.

3. The diary started out as more of an appointments book, written by a man who had fairly few actual appointments though a busy working and family life. It then developed as a ‘farm diary’, a recognisable sub-genre in South African diary-writing, providing great detail on the small events of working life on the farm and the activities carried out by various people employed thereon, or coming in to do specific jobs, and whatever payments of money or goods were made to them. Later, it came to add to this some more conventional, or rather stereotypical, diary features in recording more discursively the events in Mark Elliott Pringle’s family and also things occurring outside of the farm, eg. regarding a local hospital he was involved in fund-raising for and so on. Later still, over the last year or two of his diary-writing, it was used among other things to record external events which come under the broad heading of ‘gloom, doom and disaster’, usually involving deaths, sometimes many deaths.

img_57704. The Trace is all of the ME Pringle year diaries, those many volumes stretching from 1911 to the end of 1960. That is, it was produced as an entirety, ‘the diary of ME Pringle’. This is not to say that it could not have stopped at any point in time, merely that once it existed, it has to be treated now as a whole, ‘his diary’. But, at the same time it is also important to recognise that the entry for any particular date in any specific year is also ‘the trace’, the remaining trace that is the inscription of a particular view of a particular day. And then there is also the fact that what composed (in a literal sense composed) ‘his diary’ changed quite markedly over time, as sketched above.

5. This begs the question of how to understand the relationship between daily entries appearing across the 50 years of the diary. Each one is in a sense the same, for it is the entry for a day in the life of, as recorded in the diary of, Mr Pringle; but each one is also different in content and also in some structural respects from other entries. How then to select an entry or a number of them as representative or typical? Or is this perhaps best avoided in favour of an approach that retains and presents the differences? And if so, how to do this without simply replicating all of the diary entries?

6. The handwriting in the diary in the 1950s is sometimes as it was when writing it earlier; but it becomes increasingly although spasmodically more irregular and occasionally wild, particularly in 1959 and 1960. Increasingly as the years go on, some external events including those of politics and elections and civil disobedience campaigns are also briefly noted. And it is over this period that there are also increases in the mentions of disasters. To be clear, the content is overwhelmingly small, specific, routine and rather dull; it’s certainly not ‘storm and strang’, more like watching plants grow or paint dry but with interspersions such as a visit is made, a special job is done, and a disaster is listed.

7. The ‘gloom, doom and death’ aspect appears towards the end of the diary, in the last 18 months or so that it was written, and involves Pringle recording or more precisely sparely listing disasters and miseries occurring in different parts of the world but, not surprisingly, particularly in South Africa. There are few comments made about them, mainly these things are just listed, and the effect on the reader is of a kind of onslaught of one such thing after another after another appearing on the pages.

8. Occasional such mentions are barely noticeable until 1958, become apparent in 1959, while many appear in the entries for 1960. They record black people and white in terrible or in extremis and often terminal situations – miners trapped underground, shipwrecks, fatalities on the roads over holiday periods, rapes, ghastly murders with machetes or poison, and the list goes on. Pringle uses conventional insensitive (but not intentionally negative) language to refer to black people and those who in South African terms were coloured, but his extreme sensitivity to their pain and suffering is no less than that he accords to those who were white.

9. And amidst the lists are those terrible occurrences which were the result of political events in South Africa, and particularly around the rise of a more militant black population and the apartheid state’s reprisals against its campaigns, indeed against its existence. These are there in the diary-entries of calamities and deaths. Enter 1960, the year of Sharpeville. A large crowd demonstrating against pass laws had assembled outside of a police station in this township, and some 69 people were massacred and many more were injured by the armed state police with tanks and stem guns assembled there.

10. What is it that produces ‘social change’? Does this lie, as William Sewell’s (2005) interesting discussion has it, in epiphanous occurrences that act as turning points, with not only the zeitgeist but many aspects of life as we know it juddering, halting, then resuming but in a changed way. Following Sewell, Peter Alexander et al (2012, 2013) has identified the massacre of striking miners by ANC state armed police at Marikana in 2012 as a turning point of this kind, and also pointed to the massacres at Soweto in 1976 and Sharpeville in 1960 in the same terms.

11. These are plausible arguments, and certainly for many people and institutions within South Africa and also in many other countries, Sharpeville and perhaps particularly Soweto made a profound difference. For Alexander, the events at Marikana and the Inquiry following have had a similar effect in the here and now, including in changing the face of political protest in the country. But, it is worth considering that something so fundamental as social change on the large scale perhaps might better be seen with hindsight, retrospectively, rather than being an evaluation made in the moment of the unfolding flow of events in social life.

12. This is one of the key arguments developed by Fernand Braudel (1980, which provides an overview of his thinking about time, transformation and change), in distinguishing between everyday occurrences and those more profound changes occurring in a mainly imperceptible way over the longue duree. In this connection, it might also be plausibly argued that the events and more particularly the meanings assigned to the events occurring when so many school students were massacred at Soweto have greater impact now than they did at the time because their import is much better understood. But how to tell either way, how to gauge ‘impact’, how to think of the relationship between then and now and understand the meanings assigned to the past vis a vis those they held at the time? And, the million dollar question here is, precisely what are the measures or indicators of ‘change’?

13. Most of the accounts of these terrible events exist in the shape of newspaper and other media reports, including Inquiry reports, or else as retrospective reflections or commentaries or investigations. This retrospective character includes the large majority of the first-hand accounts in books and other sources and also in oral history collections such as the Apartheid Archives Project (http://www.historicalpapers.wits.ac.za/?inventory/U/collections&c=AG3275/R/9023 ) and its compelling narratives. There is, surprisingly or not, little in the way of accessible first-hand accounts written in the moment itself. Enter here the diary of ME Pringle for the year 1960, the year of Sharpeville, with this recording not only the moment of March 1960 but also the many other moments in everyday life and its activities which he recorded before and after this.

14. If social change occurs in the moment of epiphanous events happening, as Alexander has it, then signs portending change should be detectable in those moments. The Pringle diary is written about the fabric of everyday life as this was experienced, observed and recorded by a rather obscure if fairly well off white farmer of literary inclination living in a remote Eastern Cape valley. As noted earlier, the diary includes not only the routine everyday of life on the farm but also mentions people and small events pertaining to the local town and to some wider matters. And as also noted earlier, ‘the diary’ is composed rather differently over the 50 years it was written, and it is not possible to say with any certainty what Pringle’s increased mentions of disasters and other terrible things were the result of.

15. Certainly these mentions in the diary-entries start appearing considerably before Sharpeville took place; and they are by no means all concerned with political or related matters, for most involve accidents and natural events such as floods and violence towards others in the form of murders and rapes. So there is no discernible upsurge or anything that indicates an increased attention to specifically political matters. It seems rather calamity of any kind that caught Mr Pringle’s attention enough for it to be recorded.

16. The overall effect of reading all the diary-entries over a long run of years is to consider that Mr Pringle was a man experiencing some kind of emotional meltdown in the late 1950s and 1960, of which his attention to pain and suffering was a powerful indication, and with rather dramatic changes in his handwriting being another. This is not to say that this could not have been induced by a generalised perception of the changed political and social context and the increase of misery and suffering experienced by the black majority, perhaps coupled by his loneliness after the death of his wife, his rather infrequent contact with his daughters, and his experience of growing infirmities in old age. However, it is also not to say that it was. The jury has to remain out on this.

17. What the trace, the trace of ‘the diary’, tells about the everyday coupled with the calamities is variously fascinating, boring, interesting, annoying, upsetting, perplexing and sad concerning what it records of these now largely obscure matters in the past. It tells also of a small increased awareness of political and other public matters even on the part of those white people who lived in removed country areas without many of the means of rapid communication that people had access to in, say, Johannesburg or Cape Town. It tells too that some epiphanous events registered as events – but not that these were epiphanous. It tells in addition of a trajectory of changes occurring over time, over the 50 years of these diary-entries being written, but with these being changes in the how and the what of writing and the representational order, rather than providing easy access onto a public stage and its big events and the impact these may (or may not) have had locally and privately.

18. However, so far this is to treat ‘the trace’ as the Pringle diary as a whole, as an entirety. But as noted at the start of this discussion, each specific individual diary-entry can also be seen as ‘the trace’, the trace in the form of the inscription or representation of a day as construed by the writer. So perhaps homing in on particular entries might help forward thinking about the relationship between the processes of change and the intricacies of the moment and representation of the fabric of the everyday. A number of entries around the September 1948 election in which the National Party gained political control appear below, and these are then followed by a number of entries around the massacre at Sharpeville in March 1960.

19. The 1948 diary-entries [nb. All readings are doubtful due to handwriting issues].

img_5781Wednesday 26 May 1848
^1 days ?money for 1 Boy wood^
Polling Day Polling was heavy
United Party Hols
Packd stdly at Dip Tark
Mother & I went to town to Vote
Posted parcel for Isobel

Thursday 27 May 1948
Polling returns coming in & up to 7pm, following results:
UP 65 Nats 68 Labour 5 Af Pty 9
Ploughing mudie land below Huts
I am closing River fence below ?Cloother’s land


20. The 1960 diary-entries [nb. All readings are doubtful due to handwriting issues].

Tuesday 22 March 1960
^46 People died in the Native Riots^
The Devotional preludes
The Rev Sudbury Durban “our God”
The Rev Sudbury “I say wait upon the Lord, who giveth you strength”
Again I say! Wait upon the Lord
The Weather is overcast
Native Riots in Rhodesia and other Native Areas gradually subsiding; any casualties have not been reported as yet. I will be writing to the girls in Rhodesia

Wednesday 23 March 1960
The weather Overcast, with the possibility of Light Drizzle.


Saturday 26 March 1960
“Rev Dr Porter” Johannesburg, Durban
Wait ^”I say”^ upon the Lord who reneweth our strength. The Lord looks looks “doubtless” upon Colin ?Douglas. Natives given fines at the Police ?Stat unreadable

Sunday 27 March 1960
Spent the day at Unreadable
Also mielies

Monday 28 March 1960
4lbk Sowed

Tuesday 29 March 1960
Two Natives were killed in the Native Riots in Johannesburg
Floods are in full force
Worcester has had severe Floods
Rain is indicated & and in the N.W. areas


21. These are spare records of things taken note of insofar as they permeated the everyday, including Mr Pringle’s everyday religious reflections and comments, rather than being responded to as events with reverberations on the everyday. Interesting in their own right, these short diary-entries suggest something of a dislocation or break between the everyday and the world of public events that is only tenuously joined. And it was joined by the small almost imperceptible effects that these public matters had within and were part of the everyday, not on it, by prompting people to cast their votes, by them recording news items, by making them worried about their absent children. What remains unamendable to easy pronouncement is how Mr Pringle perceived the relationship between the comments about God’s teachings, riots, fines and casualties among ‘Native’ people, and the calamities of floods et cetera.

22. Is it always like this, that public events have meaning within and as part of the everyday? Clearly not, as it certainly was not for the people who were present demonstrating outside the police station in Sharpeville at 1pm on 21 March 1960. For them, the effects were imposed on them, with these effects involving a massive eruption of force and violence that overrode and destroyed the everyday things going on, of people talking and planning and laughing and shouting. For those who were there and those who were connected with them, this was certainly epiphanous and in the most dreadful sense. The wider effects can perhaps be understood as like a large stone being thrown into a pond, with first a shock-wave and then with greater and greater reverberations of ripples spreading outwards. But an issue exists here because of, and resides within, claims made about the processes by which social change occur. The idea of a ‘turning point’ residing in some kinds of events is the crux of the matter.

23. An analytically defensible account can be made using the ME Pringle diary-entries regarding both the 1948 election and the 1960 Sharpeville massacre. These record the small events of everyday life as perceived and inscribed from one particular point of view, that of the diary-writer. They are very small pieces of a very large picture of 1948 and 1960 respectively, and they show the absorption of events happening elsewhere into the everyday fabric. There may have been a ripple effect over time, but this is imperceptible, unless and until the longue duree of the diary-writing becomes the focus, although then it may be a matter of things other than public events producing the changes that can be seen in the words on the many pages.

24. The analytical problems come when ‘big’ public events are accorded a very different status, that of fundamentally changing life in the ‘small’ aspects of how it was lived by everyone. However, the only way to demonstrate this is by recourse to a longitudinal array of many small everyday things, or else by fiat by a researcher or theorist stating that it is so and using the bigness of the event as though this provides proof in and of itself. But in fact it does not. This is not to say that such a turning point might not have occurred, but it is to propose that demonstrating and proving this is not an easy matter and requires something more convincing than assertion and that brings together the big events and many small events and teases out their interconnections.

25. What might an interface between these ‘big’ and ‘small’ ways of looking and understanding be like, and does such a thing exist, or if it doesn’t then can it be made, in an analytical sense, to exist? Addressing this needs to go back to how the everyday and (in Sewell’s terms) the ‘eventful’ are represented in those many successive diary-entries written by Mark Elliott Pringle, but also to do this regarding, not just one local context and someone’s particular view on it, but by standing many such alongside each other. But there’s the rub, for finding detailed, longitudinal and ‘written in the moment’ accounts is rare indeed.

Alexander, Peter. 2013. ‘Marikana, turning point in South African history’. Review of African Political Economy 40, 138, 605-19

Alexander, Peter et al. 2012. Marikana, A view from the Mountain and a Case to Answer London: Bookmarks.

Apartheid Archives Project, Historical Papers, University of Witwatersrand http://www.historicalpapers.wits.ac.za/?inventory/U/collections&c=AG3275/R/9023

Braudel, Fernand. 1980. On History. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Sewell, William H. 2005. Logistics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation Chicago: Chicago University Press.


Last updated: 26 September 2016


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