Thiven Reddy. Hegemony and Resistance: Contesting identities in South Africa. Aldershot, England and Burlington, USA: Ashgate, 2000. 256 pp. Â£39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7546-1205-6.
Reviewed by Myriam Houssay-Holzschuch (Department of Geography, Ecole Normale Superieure Lettres et Sciences Humaines (Lyon, France))
Published on H-SAfrica (February, 2001)
Reassessing the past(s)
Reassessing the past(s)
Reddy's ambition in this book is to provide an alternative framework for the reading of South African history by using some key concepts of prominent theoricians, such as the notions of "hegemony" by Gramsci, of "discourse" by Foucault and "the Other" by Foucault and Said. He wants to use post-colonial, Marxist and post-structuralist theories to uncover how the dominant white discourse has constructed a figure of the Other as a "savage," tribally or ethnically divided, and as a laborer. Therefore he offers a recollection of the South African past before trying to reread it according to his theoretical standpoint. Also, he returns to the existing literature to see if authors properly explain the racial hierarchy of the South African society or if his own reading allows a deeper understanding of what has happened.
The Gramscian concept of hegemony, as used by Reddy, allows to think power differently by examining it "more broadly, to include the institutions of civil society, its rules and practices that the dominated take for granted as "commonsense" and part of everyday life" (p. 2). In South Africa a part of the hegemonic white discourse has long been internalized, or at least unquestioned by the oppressed, as, for example, schools, churches and universities were organized on the basis of "race" and ethnicity. Discourses in the Foucaldian sense are "a system of ideas, practices, techniques, institutions, rules and technologies", in short the mechanism of disciplinary power (p. 3). They function as relays of power that constitute subjects as "Other". It is obvious that such concepts are very useful to understand South African history and the organization and operation of white domination. This idea is not brand new: among others, Bettina Schmidt traced in her Ph.D. the processes of "creating order" in twentieth-century South Africa and constructing the European and the "Native" ; and Jennifer Robinson examined the complexities of the notion of power in Port Elisabeth. One could still agree with Reddy and recognize that such research areas still need further elaboration.
Reddy's arguments are structured in four chapters and a conclusion. He recognizes three different themes in the construction of the African, subaltern Other, and attributes them to different historical periods. In chapter one, he shows that the "savage Other" is a construction of the colonial period (1652-1910): the first anecdotal notes of travelers and sailors and gradually transformed into a systematic conception of the world (and of the Other) in philosophical writings. He also underlines the fundamental importance of slavery in constructing the subaltern subject as it indirectly associated Otherness with color. He ends the chapter by examining the historiography of the "frontier," viewed as a central event in the making of history and he confronts the liberal and Marxist traditions on this subject, their achievements and shortcomings.
The segregation period (1910-1948) is given a central role in the shaping of the white domination through the definition of a subaltern Other (chapter 2). Reddy sees the concept of "non-White Otherness,: inherited from the previous period, as determinant to understand the progressive construction of segregation and apartheid: for example, he shows that the idea of the "cheap labor power" is not a cause of apartheid, but a consequence of the colonial dominant discourse on race. He then traces the different "inventors" of a segregationist tradition: Howard Pim, Maurice Evans, Gobineau, as well as the work of the South African Native Affairs Commission (Sanac). The notion of tribalism is also introduced in the dominant discourse at this stage, the subaltern Other becoming the "ethnically divided" Other. In short, a coherent body of power/knowledge -- with scientific pretentions --is developed during the segregation era, in startling continuity with the colonial and conquest practices and discourses.
The third chapter is devoted to the apartheid period and is, in my opinion, the least successful. Reddy intends to "interpret "Apartheid" from an analysis of the discourse on "the Other" (p. 106), notably by identifying the "threats" produced by the white discourse (the influx of unwanted Others and the emergence of a poor white problem) and by focusing on apartheid's strategic elements (the "freezing" of identities and the re-organization of space). He acknowledges the influence of Derrida, his approach of "apartheid as text" to answer the question "what is apartheid?". Here, the three tasks undertaken in the book (to provide a general historical background, to criticize the existing literature and to offer a "hegemony and discourse" reading of the past) do not blend and the reader may have an impression of deja vu.
Reddy then moves on to an account of the different discourses produced by the resistance organizations of the subaltern and oppressed. He interestingly shows how they proposed alternative signifiers, in partial breaks with the dominant discourses or in negation of them: "the people" vs. "the savage," "the Africans" vs. "the ethnically divided Other", "the working class" vs. "the laboring Other". The themes also varied between the different organizations: the ANC preferred a "rights discourse", the PAC an anticolonial or psychological discourse, the SACP a class one. A tradition of resistance is invented by the various leaders and Reddy retraces its history. His analysis is largely based on texts: excerpts of Sol Plaatje's Native life, of Clemens Kadalie's (leader of the ICU) autobiography or articles by Biko. The most fascinating part may be when he applies his problematic to the Black Consciousness movement, his analysis here based on interviews with activists. He adds that "the "mixing" of these discourses in addition to the dominant discourses on "the Other" thus produced contradictory and fragmented subaltern subjectivities adding to the complexities of subaltern 'collective' identity in South Africa." (p. 220) He ends with some theoretical reflections on the efficiency of Gramsci and Foucault's concepts, especially if, following Scott and his notion of the "hidden transcript", one takes the everyday resistance techniques of the poor into account.
In brief, the purpose of the book is maybe a bit too ambitious, as Reddy's main problem is to balance his three different tasks in his text. Sometimes it works and the ideas are brilliant. Sometimes it doesn't. And when it doesn't, the ideal public for the book is hard to find: specialists will not find any new historical fact in his recollection of South Africa's history and they may regret that his theoretical analysis lacks space. Graduate students might still find the book useful to find their way in the existing literature and attribute the different works to their respective historiographical traditions while the general, chronological background would help them as a reminder. Non-specialists may find his assessments of specialist literature too far-fetched. Anyway, the format of a general serie devoted to "race and representation" did certainly not help to solve this quandary, and a reflection on the construction and influence of hegemonic and resistance discourses in South Africa is always welcomed.
. Bettina Schmidt. "Creating order. Culture as Politics in 19th and 20th Century South Africa". Ph.D. thesis. Nijmegen: University of Nijmegen, 1996.
. Jennifer Robinson. The Power of Apartheid: State, Power and Space in South African Cities. Policy, planning and Critical Theory series. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1996.
. As opposed in Reddy's mind to another historiographical school, favoring a diachronic view and trying to explain "why apartheid?", represented by Posel and O'Meara among others.
. James C. Scott. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985. Scott (says Reddy p. 231) distinguishes two levels of peasant behavior: a public transcript, where peasants assume the role expected from them by the rich and a hidden transcript where peasants talk about the injustices perpetrated by the village rich.
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Myriam Houssay-Holzschuch. Review of Reddy, Thiven, Hegemony and Resistance: Contesting identities in South Africa.
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