Dissertation, "Claiming the past to shape the future: the writing of Nelson Mandela, 1975-2013"

Committee: Emmanuel Kreike, Simon Gikandi, Jacob Dlamini, Isabel Hofmeyr

With the guidance of an inspiring committee comprised of Professors Emmanuel Kreike, Simon Gikandi, Jacob Dlamini, and Isabel Hofmeyr, I study the history of Africa from a transnational and global perspective. My dissertation, Claiming the past to shape the future: the writing of Nelson Mandela, 1975-2013, is the history of a secret manuscript produced in Robben Island prison by Nelson Mandela, and its various iterations over the years until an ultimate reworking in his 1994 autobiography. Through tracing the micro history of versions of the manuscript within the greater global Cold War and post Cold War context, I show how visions for post-1990 democracy were developed, and the stakes for individuals, organizations, and different nation States in crafting a particular narrative of and for South African history. I examine historical claims, contestation, and memory in the production of Nelson Mandela's autobiographies. I assess the ways that Mandela was ‘written’ into history and himself scripted the opening narrative of democratic South Africa and its twentieth century background.

The writing of Mandela’s memoir began in the political section of Robben Island prison in 1976. The discovery of the manuscript by the warders was significant, and its implications are not reflected in the current historiography, a lacuna that my research seeks to address. A transcribed and secreted copy of the manuscript was smuggled out of prison in December that year, and on to London and Lusaka. I trace its global journey and incarnations en route to a freed Mandela in 1990. I explore its remaking into the international best-seller Long Walk to Freedom. The autobiography’s reworking by Mandela and various collaborators in the intense period between Mandela’s release and election as President of South Africa in 1994 sheds light on the concretization of Mandela as the international icon of the struggle and architect of the transformation of South Africa. The standpoints of Mandela’s fellow activists, prisoners, political, and business associates on the memoir project further interrogates what Mandela has come to mean.

Research projects

Authoritarianism and the techniques of torture: a transnational history

I am  interested in the history of collaboration between authoritarian states, notably those in Latin America (the Operation Condor partners) and apartheid South Africa. This collaboration was ideological as well as practical: for instance, in the 1970s government departments in Buenos Aires and Pretoria corresponded about how to develop enthusiasm for shopping malls over traditional market spaces.

I plan to further explore global aspects of right-wing collusion in supporting covert and extrajudicial practices of the southern African security State, an as yet largely unexamined topic. The military juntas of Argentina and Chile fostered relationships with the South African government, particularly in the period 1977-82. Following the Information Scandal and the rise of the new dispensation headed by Pieter Botha, the structure and strategies of the security agencies changed, and there was a marked increase in the use of terror tactics. From about 1979 on, the South African National Party State deployed techniques developed by the 1976 junta in Argentina, including throwing prisoners into the ocean from airplanes, the use of car- and letter bombs, the establishment of death farms, and the proliferation of covert intelligence and security units. Tellingly, Alfredo Ignacio Astiz, El Ángel Rubio de la Muerte, of the infamous site of detention and torture, the Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada, and others were posted to the Argentine Embassy in Pretoria in 1979. Astiz specialized in infiltrating human rights- and victim support groups.

Intriguingly the direction of unfolding events in Argentina, and in South Africa, can be traced back to Africa and the French war in Algeria. Separately journalist Marie-Monique Robin and historian Daniel Mazzei have pointed to the impact that the French military mission (comprised of personnel schooled in the Algerian War) in the office of the Chief of Staff of the Argentine Military Forces had on 1970s Argentina: increasing reliance on the intelligence sector, conceptualizing an ‘internal’ enemy and systematizing the use of torture, viewing an urban civilian population as combatants, and others, echoes of the Algerian war that reverberated in South Africa too. Stretching back to the 1950s with Magnus Malan's time in North Africa under Beaufre and, shortly thereafter, the training of some of Hendrik van den Bergh’s Bureau of State Security Branch members in torture methodology by the Organisation armée secrète in Algeria, the Algerian war’s global aftermath had pernicious, ongoing, and interconnected impacts. I would like to throw some light on these hidden networks and covert practices.

I will explore the instigating role of various actors in fomenting State-sanctioned violence in Africa and elsewhere, especially instances in which State security agencies violated sovereignty and international law. I have a broad interest in socially constructed notions of citizenship, nationality, race, and identity, and how these impact on the ways in which people interact with one another, the state, and the environment.

The continent of wealth: Mapping Africa across the centuries

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Research-related initiatives

Part of my dissertation research has included a series of interviews with key players in Mandela's ambit, both before and in prison and beyond. Working with Princeton University's Mudd Manuscript Library I have developed an archival collection of unique materials on Mandela's autobiographical efforts, and the ways in which he was 'written' into history. The collection will open to the public and be available online in June 2019.