Do you have to like them?

Do you have to like them?

In one of those diverse conversations that now often take place in encounters with colleagues and friends in Teams or on Zoom, the other day I was asked whether I found it horrible or depressing to investigate the letters and lives of white South Africans. The assumption seemed to be that they were all equally horrible in race and racism terms, and that the ‘proper‘ stance of a researcher is to investigate the lives of people they favour and who were/are in some sense victims or at least have less power and authority than others. I’ve been asked a similar question on other earlier occasions, and my thoughts on this have remained fairly constant.

Firstly, it has never occurred to me that I might like or dislike people in the past whose lives, or rather events in whose lives, I have been interested in. The point is to understand why they were as they were and did what they did with what other people they did, not to take up a moral stance which guides a research design and who it focuses on. They are dead! Remaining evidence is partial! We can never actually know them! All that is left is the trace! What it boils down to is, I don’t have such responses to the pieces of paper that compose the traces of the past with which I deal. Or rather on the vast majority of occasions I don’t, because there have been some exceptional circumstances in which I have.

Relatedly, I don’t favour victim-based research. ‘Victims’ are too often over researched and treated as precisely victims, and I don’t  like this kind of approach because people are, in shorthand, the heroes of their own lives, do the best they can in prevailing circumstances, and have agentic presence. What I favour is going where the power is; and in social science parlance this is to ‘research up’. Want to unpick power hierarchies and oppression, then best focus on how the mechanisms of power operate at all levels in society.

Secondly, not all white South Africans were racist or racist to the same extent at any point in the history of the white presence in southern Africa. Of those who were, there were/are degrees and variations, from the appalling, violent and genocidal through to everyday carelessness – or even, let us not forget, human kindness and egalitarianism. Neither Africa, nor southern Africa, nor what is now South Africa, are/were homogenous. The white presence varied/varies enormously in its impacts and conduct over the period from the 1760s and 70s through to now, a nearly 300 year period. It all depended/depends on local circumstances, occasions, events, people.

Relatedly, the term ‘racism‘ covers a multitude of sins, of commission and omission; and while these all may be sins, they are many and varied and not all of them are venial let alone mortal. There is a difference, a hugely important difference, between the German genocide carried out in what is now Namibia and, to pick one example of the thousands that could be chosen, David Forbes jnr recruiting willing young black workers for a coal mine in what is now Eswatini.
As may be imagined, most of what is related in the above paragraphs was not said in the conversation with my casually-interested colleague. I just muttered something to the effect that, ‘it’s complicated’ and ‘it changed over time’. Perhaps I should have been more detailed, but these flat-pack exchanges in Teams or Zoom do not lend themselves to deeper conversation. This is not least because the colleague was simply making conversation, rather than wanting a formal statement of position from me!

Earlier I commented that there have been occasions where I have gone into moral or ethical mode. One of these was when I first encountered the name of Goring on a document with regard to the genocidal deaths in now Namibia. The impact of reading it, of seeing it, was visceral and I nearly threw up such was the anger and horror I felt. Another was when I opened an archive box and inside was the cloth-cover that had wrapped the manuscript of Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm when she sent it to Britain, and it still smelled of woodsmoke. That was the only occasion on which I have ever thought, ‘I want this’ I was filled with illicit unethical desire for the object itself, something I have never otherwise felt in my many research encounters. I smelt it deeply, put it back and closed the lid!

Last updated:  24 June 2021