Historian

Historian

Hermann Giliomee is one of South Africa’s best known historians and has published a number of books on topics concerned with the history of the Afrikaner people, notably The Afrikaners: Biography of a People. In South African terms, his work is seen as liberal, although from the outside it appears a kind of new nationalism, more measured than in earlier decades but nonetheless disavowing many of the sharper things said about the impact of Afrikaner nationalism on society and politics. An interesting man, then, and a book that would detail his ideas and activities as a historian would be much welcomed.

His autobiography is titled Historian, which sets up the expectation that he would do this in it. It throws light on his changes of departments in a number of universities and the development of his political ideas, with an emphasis on his political journalism and academic writings. This is interesting with regard to politics contemporaneously and in the recent past, in particular in relation to language issues. But what it is not is a book that looks in detail at his activities as a historian. So it was with considerable disappointment mixed with interest that I spent the Sunday just gone reading it. Two things to raise in addition to this relegation of history and its practice. One is that Giliomee does not really understand why people reject Afrikaans being used as a teaching language and criticise Afrikaners, or rather Africana nationalism and its politics, for extreme forms of racism. The other is how he sees the white presence, such that he describes people as Afrikaners and English, rather than as language groups, and does not really grasp that white people’s preoccupations are now largely an irrelevance at a systemic level in present-day South Africa. It must be hoped that at some point Giliomee will write the kind of thing than the title of Historian invokes, a detailed exploration of his developing historical ideas and the research practices he engaged in in pursuing them.

Last updated: 13 January 2022


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