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Masterpiece on the history of South Africa

The history book we needed about South Africa has finally arrived – and it probably couldn't have been carried by anyone else. The story is dramatic, diverse and appalling, but also leaves behind optimism and hope.


Tore Linné Eriksen: History of South Africa. Pre-colonial societies, apartheid and liberation. Portal publisher, 2016

book safrikaBefore I dig into Tore Linné Eriksen's excellent book on South Africa's history, it may be appropriate to remind some of Norway and Norwegian actors in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

Over the past 60 years, Norway and Norwegian solidarity organizations have had an active relationship with several African countries. It has been support for the liberation struggle against the colonial powers, aid, development and much more.

In this cluster of countries one stands out: South Africa. It is due to the apartheid system with its oppressive and inhumane racial divide. For many decades, Norwegian solidarity organizations were among the foremost international in the fight against racial segregation policy. Already from the late 1950s Norwegian youth organizations called for political struggle. The National Committee for International Youth Work (NIU) was in the early stages. When a clear majority decision was taken in the NIU in the 1960s with demands for a Norwegian boycott of South Africa, Unge Høyre voted as the only organization against. Already in 1963, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave the first grants to Norwegian organizations that fought against the apartheid regime. In 1967, the Joint Council of Southern Africa became a unifying organization in the fight against apartheid. In 1973, the Storting decided to grant money for humanitarian aid to exile organizations from southern Africa in exile. From the early 1980s, LO became the channel for Norwegian official support for the large black trade union organization COSATU. Interfaith councils were given responsibility for the financial support of churches and Christian institutions that were in opposition to the regime, SAIH provided funds to the student movement, and Norwegian People's Aid was the channel for the humanitarian support of the ANC in exile. The World Campaign against the Military and Nuclear Armament of South Africa was led by South African exile politician Abdul Minty – based in Oslo. This campaign received financial support from Sweden and Norway, among others, but in 1983 the Norwegian government with Svenn Stray as Foreign Minister cut the support drastically. As a consequence of this cut, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme ensured the day after Swedish support was doubled.

In 1987, the Brundtland II government passed a South African Economic Boycott Act.

Norway contributed nearly NOK 1960 billion in the fight against apartheid from the early 1994s until XNUMX. Support from Sweden was even greater, and overall the Nordic governments as well as the Netherlands and civil society, churches and trade unions in Western Europe contributed at least NOK XNUMX billion in the fight against apartheid.

Norwegian shipping companies and business interests, on the other hand, played with the regime, and contributed to the racial divide continuing. Between 1979 and 1987, 40 per cent of the oil in South Africa was needed, among other things, for warfare in neighboring states, transported with great profits on Norwegian ships with the shipping company Sigvald Bergersen as the leader.

After the Sharpville massacres in 1960, the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to the leader of the ANC, the African National Congress, Albert Lutuli and in 1984 to Archbishop Desmond Tutu for his and the churches' struggle against apartheid, and for reconciliation between the peoples.

Towards the end of the 1980s, the apartheid system collapsed. The Nobel Committee gave the Peace Prize to the two who led negotiations on the transition to democracy – the regime's last President Fredrik Willem de Klerk and ANC leader Nelson Mandela.

The history book has come. In Norway, much has been communicated about South Africa and the relationship between Norway and South Africa, but we have never had a history book about South Africa written by a Norwegian author. Not until now, with the book The history of South Africa. Pre-colonial societies, apartheid and liberation by Tore Linné Eriksen.

It had to be Linné Eriksen who did it in the end. He is a professor of development studies, a soloist in Norway and one of the foremost in Europe on African history. At the same time, he is widely known for his political involvement both in the fight against apartheid and for international solidarity.

The book is characterized by the author's vast knowledge and rare storytelling ability. It has a tasteful layout and a language guide that makes it easy to read. The author draws on a sea of ​​sources and experiences, and the book has an impressive literature review and enlightening fact boxes.

The long story. Tore Linné Eriksen takes us on an exciting review of the country's long pre-colonial history, where the first humans migrated around about 100 years ago and created the cave art that is now made available to everyone. About 000 years ago, hunters and gatherers from eastern and central Africa migrated into the area, while the cattle people came as late as about 45 years ago.

In the book we learn about the first state formation in the area several hundred years before any white person had set foot in South Africa, and we can read about how ecological zones have affected people's everyday lives.

The first Europeans came in 1488 and were Portuguese. They conveyed imaginative stories back to Europe about the meetings at the southern tip of Africa. A century later, the Portuguese were challenged by other European powers – primarily the Dutch, who had a power political tool in the East India trading company.

The story that then unfolds in South Africa is dramatic, diverse and appalling. The Dutch, later called the Boers, were the first conquerors. They were imbued with a religious vocation that characterized their behavior throughout history. Later came the British – and when the news of the discovery of diamonds and gold came, all kinds of white adventurers went to South Africa with a common goal: to get rich as fast as possible, cost whatever it cost.

The period from the year 1600 to the dissolution of the apartheid state in the 1980s is appalling reading about the ravages of European conquerors. These include oppression, slaveholding, migrations, land occupation, exploitation, industrialization and profit-hunting, and all the time the white violation of human dignity with racism as the guiding element.

The two very violent wars between the white conquerors – the Boers and the British – about the political and economic power in the country are also part of the story. The first war spanned between 1877 and 1881, and the second between 1899 and 1902. The British's brutality against the civilian population in these wars is daunting reading.

Apartheid and liberation struggle. Although the introduction of the apartheid system can be formally confirmed in time after the Second World War, history after the year 1600 shows that the foundation was laid long before – through slaveholding, land occupation and racism. History also shows that the British were as active as anyone else. But the formalization of the racial state through legislation and systematic abuse of power accelerated in the post-1945 period. The system was lucrative and successful for those in power, and totally devastating for those who were oppressed.

The liberation struggle is a central part of the long story, and dates back hundreds of years. In South Africa, as elsewhere, systematic and brutal repression also produced increasing resistance. The African National Congress (ANC) was formed in 1912 and has long been a non-violent political organization. But that changed after the Sharpville massacres in 1960, when young leaders like Nelson Mandela advocated the use of weapons and violence in the liberation struggle. The resistance struggle grew ever stronger, and between 1985 and 1990 there were more strike days among black workers in South Africa than in the previous 75 years combined. The 1980s marked the decade when the inhuman apartheid system disintegrated. It was painted in pieces of internal resistance and external pressure. On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela came out of the prison gates as a free man after being jailed for 27 years. He mastered the challenges that waited better than anyone could dream of, and he became the key player in the play-offs for South Africa's liberation.

It can go well. Tore Linné Eriksen writes soberly about this man we all admire. In the final chapter, he writes with co-author Marianne Millstein about the problems and challenges that have faced – and meet – the new democracy in South Africa after 1994, and the authors' analysis of causal connections is exciting. What will happen to South Africa? Are they facing the challenges that lie ahead in a society with inequalities greater than anywhere else in the world, high unemployment and with black leaders who have become corrupt? The authors do not give a definite answer, but keep the possibility open that it can go well.

This book is nevertheless masterfully written, and a find for anyone interested in the history of South Africa and the challenges that await people and countries.


Halle Jørn Hanssen
Halle Jørn Hanssen
Former Secretary General of Norwegian People's Aid, TV correspondent, politician and author.

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