Modern South Africa

Modern South Africa

Rob Skinner 2014 Modern South Africa in World History: Beyond Imperialism London: Bloomsbury.

For someone wanting a good, solid account of the trajectory of South African history over the past 200 years that places it in the context of international and transnational contacts, then Rob Skinner‘s Modern South Africa in World History would be a helpful place to start.

This is a detailed book and at the same time a good read because very well written. At the same time, its transnational aspirations are at points rather overwhelmed by the volume of detail about specific developments in the South African past. There is of course a real tension that the author has had to deal with here, between exploring transnational connections, and doing justice to the detail of things that happened in South Africa. But as a result, in some ways this is a rather conventional political history account jazzed up by its subtitle and its opening discussion of transnational connections, for it is the detail that is more important and the transnational is a way of organising this. What its narrative is driven by are ‘big’ political events in South Africa, in which political parties, liberation groups, trade unions, leaders, are either explicitly or implicitly resolutely male. So while, for example, there is a useful discussion of the details of how things changed in South Africa following Soweto, states of emergency and the stirrings of political changes, and the ways and extent to which these were linked to international contacts, the important political involvements of women from the 1900s opposition to pass laws onwards have somehow vanished.

Relatedly, there is also an underplaying of the rise of radical ‘new social movements’ (NSMs) on a world-scale that encompassed many groups and collectivities that had been ‘othered’ from the political mainstreams and whose organised interventions helped remake the international  political arena. This impacted greatly on the context in which South Africa and apartheid were responded to internationally and the extent to which connections were or were not established. It also opens up aspects of how different the international context was from the circumstances prevailing within South Africa, with NSMs arriving relatively late on the scene because of the grimness of everyday circumstances and the draconian character of the repression that was being resisted.


Last updated:  13 July 2019