Disclaimer: The ideas presented in each post reflect the opinions of the writer alone, not those of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, nor of the European Research Council.

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Passages: On the Genesis of “Apartheid—The Global Itinerary: South African Cultural Formations in Transnational Circulation, 1948-1990” European Research Council Project

December 17, 2016

In 1996, Leon de Kock and Ian Tromp published an anthology entitled The Heart in Exile: South African Poetry in English, 1990-1995. The volume included a poem by Denis Hirson, “The Long-Distance South African,” recounting Hirson’s experience of viewing the televised broadcast of Nelson Mandela’s triumphant release from prison at a long geographical remove from South Africa. Hirson, a poet and writer, is the son of the anti-apartheid activist, physicist and later historian, Baruch Hirson, who was a key figure in the Armed Resistance Movement (ARM) in South Africa in the early 1960s. The family left South Africa following Baruch Hirson’s release from prison in 1973. I had gone to primary school in Johannesburg with Denis’s younger sister, Zoë. But by the time I encountered the poem, I had been living in Israel for over a decade. Unlike the Hirsons, my displacement was self-imposed. I had no official genealogy of political exile to claim. But Denis Hirson’s phrase—the long-distance South African—gripped me then, and continues to do so today.



Reflecting at intervals on the phrase and on the predicament that it names, I have come to see how my sense of being a long-distance South African formulates the terms of an ongoing attachment: a visceral as well as an intellectual attachment to the country of my birth that is simultaneously a repudiation of the possibility of wholly belonging elsewhere. In my more skeptical moods, I am not unaware of the freight of nostalgia, melancholy, and alienation that I habitually use it to channel. My melancholic belonging elsewhere—a belonging in melancholy, perhaps—has tended over the course of my residence in Israel to interrupt any formal Zionist aspirations of enfolding the diasporic South African Jew, this diasporic South African Jew, seamlessly within the Israeli nation-state. In this sense, I am an inconvenient migrant. But other sources of disturbance have also emerged. As an intellectual who has taught South African literature at Israeli universities for many years, I gradually came to realize that my attachment to an identity predicated upon opposition to apartheid was itself unsettling. Yet it also became clear to me that the history of this predicament was not merely personal, not merely the stuff of my stubborn or willful attachment to my own past. After all, public debate in Israel concerning the term “apartheid” predates my migration; predates even my birth. What is more, it predates all forms of critique I might possible enunciate with respect to apartheid’s shifting referents in the Hebrew lexicon—here, there.


This being so, I reasoned, perhaps the analogies and attachments, denunciations and disavowals that eddied around me were capable of revealing something that pertained not only to South Africa, not only to the apartheid regime, but also to the society in which I currently found myself? If my deliberately reflexive South Africanness constitutes something of a provocation in Israel, to what extent might this disturbance also be productive? More broadly speaking, I found myself asking, what might be learned about Israeli society and about the Occupation which it perpetuates, if we direct our questions through the prism of academic research on apartheid in its South African setting? Or if we track the reception in Israel of political actors, public intellectuals, artists, writers, musicians, literary texts or films emerging from—or more pointedly, emerging in opposition to—apartheid South Africa? If these dynamics prove illuminating, might they also be generalized as a broader vector of cultural reception and cultural historical interpretation?


In 2013, I was awarded a European Research Council grant for the project “Apartheid—The Global Itinerary: South African Cultural Formations in Transnational Circulation, 1948-1990.” Its intellectual evolution owes much to the routes that I have just outlined. One of the project’s fundamental insights is contained in the understanding that apartheid moves things. Against familiar accounts of the isolationism of the South African apartheid regime, manifested in its notorious banning of television until the mid-1970s for instance, current academic research emphasizes South Africa’s entanglement in the world beyond its borders against the unfolding dynamics of the Cold War.  However, much of this research in such disciplines as history and international relations misses the crucial insight that the global contest over the meaning of apartheid and of resistance to it occurs on the terrain of culture. Drawing on methodologies anchored in cultural studies and literary history, my research team and I are pursuing the understanding that apartheid functioned in many respects as a catalyst of transnational cultural production.


As the South African government consolidated its rule in ever more repressive forms, it exiled political activists, intellectuals, writers, photographers and musicians. Texts depicting racial oppression circulated within transnational discursive networks, whether as poetry, fiction, drama, autobiography or journalism. Sounds traveled as exiled performers—jazz musicians in particular, like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim—achieved international renown, disseminating their music on the air or on vinyl. Powerful photographic images documenting popular resistance to the brutality of the South African regime riveted the gaze. The scrutiny directed at South Africa was so powerful at times—when the shadow of mourning and outrage fell across the globe after the Sharpeville Massacre of March 1960, or after the Soweto Uprising of June 1976, for instance; or when a mood of defiant celebration prevailed, as it did at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute Concert relayed from Wembley Stadium in London to an audience of 600 million international viewers— that the country seemed to possess a singular power to make the world hold its breath.


The exile of political activists, intellectuals, writers, artists, photographer and musicians, together with the world-wide circulation of genres of expressive culture helped to propel the political signifier “apartheid” into the global public sphere where it allowed dissidents and intellectuals to  formulate and maintain a global discourse around social injustice and racial inequality under apartheid. But these forms of cultural mediation also framed struggles over racism and social inequality for constituencies beyond South Africa’s borders. This is where the particular innovation of my research hypothesis comes in. Anti-apartheid activism was a prominent thread in debates over civil rights in the United States. It affected black nationalist and internationalist movements and ideologies in Africa and the diaspora. It was bound up with pan-Africanism, decolonization, communism and cosmopolitanism. At their multiple points of diffusion, struggle-era South African cultural formations were enfolded within situated local narratives and political conflicts. The forms and practices of anti-apartheid expressive culture responded to, influenced and were influenced by, the contexts prevailing in the numerous individual sites of their international reception. Through charting pivotal vectors within these networks of global circulation, my team and I seek to use apartheid-era culture as a kind of lens to train the gaze on societies other than South Africa, thus turning the received historical narrative inside out.


Over the course of our research so far, we have been by turns elated and despairing in the face of our discoveries. We have revisited familiar narratives and unearthed less familiar ones. We have walked in the footsteps of men and women of undisputed courage and political vision. We have, at times, been privileged to meet and interview them. We have also been made newly aware of the costs of our entitlement. The cost to others, surely. But also to ourselves. In this blog, we seek to share the fruit of our research as well as to tell the story of its unfolding from our individual perspectives. We hope to generate a conversation that is publically accessible and whose resonance is not restricted to a small audience of specialists. Crucially also, we are interested in the bigger picture. What, we ask, is the role of racial injustice in shaping political imaginaries? How is social change created and promoted through culture? What implications do the victories and defeats of the global anti-apartheid movement carry for our own times? As we reflect on these questions in historical as well as contemporary settings, we recognize that the lives blighted by apartheid cannot be recuperated through academic study. But lessons can be learnt. The bleak resurgence of racism in the present political moment serves as an ongoing reminder of the necessity of using the historical record to imagine and to forge new alliances in the face of the threat that racism poses to our shared humanity, our constitutive interdependence on one another.


Louise Bethlehem


Principal Investigator,

“Apartheid—The Global Itinerary: South African Cultural Formations in Transnational Circulation, 1948-1990.”



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