If you do an internet search for “working class historian,” you will get a list of links to sites about the history of working class people and scholars researching in that field. The moniker “working class history” covers a wide variety of topics all related to events and practices involving the laboring class. In previous times, historians further broke their fields down more strictly by theme. Some covered working class people’s struggles with their employers. This was “labor history.” Then, there were social and cultural historians who were interested in the habits and mores of the working class who focused on their lives outside of work. ”Working class history” is an umbrella that allows historians to delve into both — recognizing that these issues tend to bleed together and human beings don’t compartmentalize the different aspects of their lives the way historians do (interestingly a strong division between personal and professional lives is generally a marker of the middle class — making it ironic and inappropriate then to approach working class subjects in that manner).
However, even this broader approach to the subject matter continues in professional historians’ tradition of defining their work and identity by the same. What they are is limned by what they study. Rarely do historians define their work in other ways. Occasionally, some will inject their politics into their titles. Thus, you get “feminist historians” and “Marxist scholars.” Funnily, it almost never works the other way. I’ve yet to find a professional who identifies him- or herself as a “reactionary historian,” although there most certainly are some. Generally, however, historians avoid putting too much of themselves in their labels. The idea behind that is that their work is born out of a largely objective standard leading to one truth that holds for all or that the person of the historian is irrelevant to the story. I know, it’s laughable, but it’s true.
The other funny is that American historians are practically obsessed with the notion of class (and race and gender). That’s why there’s such a thing as working class history. They dedicate a whole field to what these workers and their families undertook. Also, cultural and social historians love to write about “highbrow” society and its devotees and the rise of the middle class as well. You can’t avoid the subject of class in American histories. Of course, that’s other people. It’s important to talk about their class. Historians just don’t much talk about their own classes. These they ignore, and it’s the height of idiocy to do it. To quote John Lennon: ”And you think you’re so clever and classless and free.” As much as scholars love to delude themselves that their class is irrelevant and does not touch their work, they are monumentally wrong. Which is another reason I’ve chosen to reject bourgeois professional history. I really am not one of them, and after a brief foray into their domain, I don’t want to be. So, if you want to be a working class historian, well then just follow me.
The 2010 World Cup tournament is underway in South Africa. For the next month, the eyes of the globe will be on the southern cape to watch teams representing thirty-odd nations take on one another on the pitch (soccer field for us Americans). For eight decades (since 1930), the World Cup tournament has been held every four years as a supplement to the matches in the Olympics. This is the first time the tournament has been held in Africa.
It is significant and symbolic that South Africa play host this year and that it take front and center on the world’s stage. Firstly, this year marks a century since South Africa gained its independence from the United Kingdom. With the end of the Second Boer War, it became a sovereign nation (although remaining in the commonwealth, as did Australia, Canada, and others when gaining their independence). Eventually, the Union of South Africa would give way to the Republic of South Africa, and apartheid would yield to universal suffrage. Segregation practices had been introduced by white colonial landowners who came to the continent in the nineteenth century, and these lingered as common practice into the twentieth century. However, in the 1940′s, a legislative agenda was passed establishing a formal, legal, racialized system. Known as apartheid, the system codified segregation and introduced criminal penalties for violations ranging from leaving your state without approval to inter-racial marriage. Under the system, whites were given privileges and blacks were denied the right to vote. The system perpetuated the crushing poverty in which the black citizens — the majority of the population and the original inhabitants of the continent — were mired and from which they were prevented from breaking free.
Significantly, the segregation system in South Africa would have world-wide consequence. When segregation dominated in the nineteenth century (but before official apartheid), the poor treatment of Indian workers brought to Africa to work in mines and farms would prompt an unknown lawyer cutting his teeth to develop theories of non-violent resistance to white supremacy. The young attorney was, of course, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s work in South Africa was incomplete, as he returned to India to lead the independence movement there. Still, his work in South Africa inspired activists on the African continent — among them: Nelson Mandela, who was just a youngster when the Great Soul was assassinated in the 1940′s (ironically, at the same time that apartheid was legislated). Mandela became an activist, and in 1962 — the same year that the United Nations condemned apartheid — he was sentenced to life in jail for his political “crimes.” In 1963, the U.N. introduced a voluntary arms embargo against South Africa, which was made mandatory for all member nations in 1977. In the 1980′s, the United States legislated an economic boycott of the nation. It was one of more than two dozen nations to do so. South Africa was becoming marginalized by the community of nations as punishment for the lingering discrimination of the apartheid system.
By this time, Jim Crow in the United States had been dismantled. It was no longer legal to discriminate against people in the U.S. because of their race. Of course, we still struggle with perfecting equality in practice, but we have officially thrown off these policies and no longer promote them under the law. This is due in part to a number of activists who were inspired and led by Martin Luther King, Jr. The young reverend, in turn, was inspired, like Nelson Mandela, by the non-violent programs of Gandhi. This was but one of the similarities in our pasts. The U.S. had practiced segregation like South Africa, and it had also engaged in involuntary resettlement programs to force native peoples onto designated lands. The pass system in South Africa (requiring blacks to have written permission to travel) recalled the pass system in the U.S. (requiring blacks who travel off of their plantations to have written permission from their masters to do so). Despite the similarities, there was no love lost between the U.S. and South Africa — perhaps our likeness drove us apart. Ironically, American engineers and businessmen were heavily involved in the mining of diamonds and gold in South Africa. In order to feed that system, cheap labor was necessary. Thus, many of the segregation practices on the cape were begun as a means to control native labor. This was yet another similarity between mining in Africa and plantation farming in America. In any case, the American engineers who worked in South Africa certainly aided in the continuation of segregation and ultimately the implementation of apartheid there.
One of the most notable engineers was a youngster named Herbert Hoover. Hoover worked for a London-based mining organization (Bewick Moreing & Co.), starting out in Australia and moving next to China. Eventually, he came to own a fifth of the company, which also had holdings in South Africa. Hoover gained international renown for his engineering and administrative work and he oversaw work at all of the company’s mines (and even consulted for other mine owners). Ironically, later as president, Hoover signed Proclamation 1872 in March of 1929. This directive limited immigration to the U.S. on the basis of the national origin of the entering alien. Under the proclamation, only 100 individuals a year could enter the United States from the Union of South Africa. In contrast, 65,721 persons annually were permitted to enter the country from Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Obviously, the purpose of this regulation was to prevent blacks from entering the country and increase the white population. It was a product of the racism so rampant in our country then.
Yet, even though we gave off legal segregation before the South Africans and we went so far as to institute sanctions against South Africa for its apartheid system in the 1980′s, the Republic had its first black president years before us. In 1994, Mandela was elected president of the newly reorganized republic, in which legal racial equality was introduced. The U.S., of course, lagged well behind in electing a black chief executive. This suggests a bit of hypocrisy on the American’s part and posits the Republic of South Africa as a new model for the league of nations.
So, it is significant that South Africa host the World Cup this year. It signals the full return of the country to the community of nations, from which it was ostracized for so long. And it is notable that it happen on this anniversary. Twenty-five years ago this month, the South African government offered Mandela his freedom in order to neutralize his symbolism for anti-apartheid critics of the nation. Mandela declined the terms of the parole and remained a political prisoner, garnering international sympathies. Five years later — twenty years ago (in 1990) — Mandela was finally freed and apartheid crumbled. The symbolism of the World Cup this year, then, is inspiring and enlightening. Perhaps now, the Third World has become a New World.