Monday, 21 January 2013

CFP: Re-figuring the South African Empire: International Conference in Basel

Re-figuring the South African Empire: International Conference in Basel

9-11 September 2013

Department of History and Centre for African Studies, University of Basel (Switzerland), in collaboration with the Swiss Society for African Studies (SGAS) and the Swiss Society for History (SGG)

This conference investigates histories of imperialism, colonialism and nation-building in the Southern African region, in the context of a critical reassessment of South Africa as a state and nation. The overall aim is to understand the region's history from its margins and to shift perspectives away from the teleological narrative of the emergence and consolidation of a modern South African nation-state throughout the 20th century. The necessity and relevance of this attempt to bring into question some of the core assumptions of South African historiography is reflected in the debate about the second volume of the new Cambridge History of South Africa on the 20th century, published in 2011. This prestigious volume presents the history of South African society and its state without contextualising its regional legacies of colonialism and hegemony. It makes hardly any mention of South Africa's de facto seventy-five year-long colonial rule over Namibia. Namibia experienced colonialism for a much more extended period than many other African colonies, while South Africa acted as a colonial power much longer than, for example, Germany or Italy. Yet South Africa is rarely theorised as having been a colonial state attempting to build an empire.

The conference deepens the debate about these crucial issues and situates it in the new scholarship on empires, cultural histories of colonialism and post-colonial critique. These arguments have unsettled the simplistic notion of a centre-periphery dichotomy in relations between Europe and the wider world, and have moved the debate into transnational, entangled or shared histories of all sorts. Yet attention paid to the building of empires in the shadows of European imperialism remains scant. The Southern African example is a striking reminder of the complexities throughout the 20th century of South African regional domination amidst multiple colonialisms as well as nationalisms.

As much as our interests are directed towards a revision of some of the parameters of South African historiography, the conference will likewise explore the production of history, memory and memorialization. South African colonialism, expansion and hegemony resonate in South Africa's post-apartheid society and in the wider memory landscapes and practices of post-colonial Southern Africa. Here again the conference seeks to engage with a regional perspective, and to explore the ways in which the legacies of South Africa's imperial history continue to generate a condition of coloniality which affects the socio-political order as much as it engenders the production of knowledge in South Africa itself and throughout the entire region.

Conceptual outline

The conference does not view the South African empire as an empirical entity, let alone as a historical fact. Rather it engages with empire as a theoretical concept which unsettles some of the certainties in South African historiography and opens up productive spaces for the re-figuration of Southern African histories. We thus seek papers and presentations from and on the Southern African region and have therefore identified a number of themes, concepts and lines of inquiry with which the conference aims to engage.

Nation and Empire

New histories of empire have emerged from a critique of historiographies dominated by the category of the nation and narratives of teleological progression from empire to colony and nation-state. South African historiography has uncritically replicated the paradigm of the nation around the subjects of late 19th century British-Boer antagonism, early 20th century unification and nation-building and internal colonialism articulated through segregation and apartheid. In contrast to such self-referential historical narration, this conference seeks out papers which explore the entanglement of the emergence of a distinct idea of the South African nation with its imperialist, developmental and increasingly military outreach into its neighbouring countries such as Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

On the other hand we invite reflections on various articulations of the nation and nationalism in Southern Africa, which in one way or the other speak to the recurrence of imperialism in its metropolitan as much as regional forms.

Marxist historiographies of the 1960s and 1970s articulated strong positions on South Africa's imperialism in the region, yet their concerns seem to have fallen into oblivion. While the conference panels will link up with these discussions, their arguments will need to be tuned to more recent concerns within Southern African historiography and recent discussions in methodology and theory.

Imperial Economies

The main domain in which South African imperialism has been acknowledged in historical scholarship has been labour migration, which forced hundreds of thousands of men, and to a lesser extent, women from within South Africa itself, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Malawi into South Africa's urban centres, farming sectors and mining economies, most prominently on the Rand. These histories remain important and powerful in terms of their transnational perspective, yet the conference proposes to expand the discussion, not only to urban areas, mines and other centres of migration outside South Africa, but also beyond the dominant axes of urbanisation and mining and to consider further economies based on the trade of slaves, stock and goods, small industry, specialised skills and diverse commodities. Itinerant traders, commercial hunters, caterers or refined manufacturers as much as printers, publishers, and artisans surface here, disclosing transnational and trans-regional circuits of cloth, furniture, tools and technologies, high-priced merchandise or daily consumer goods. On another level, the large-scale operations of multinational (not only mining) companies, often based in South African metropoles, need to be conceptualised, together with issues of (economic) plunder and capital formation outside their respective areas of operation. The workings of the South African developmental state in the region, for example with regard to large-scale construction projects of dams and hydro-electric power stations, can be added here. The exploration of the complexity of such an imperial economy will enable a qualification of South Africa's hegemonic position as the centre of economic growth, industry and urbanisation, and yet complicate the directions and vectors of economic activity and practice. In particular, for this section, the conference seeks papers which address the multiple avenues and agencies of economic modernisation and transformation in the empire's hinterlands, in which migrant labourers and their return investments seem to have acted as crucial agents and brokers.

Empire Spaces

South Africa's spatial order has conventionally been explained in terms of segregation, legislation, a so-called "security complex", and changing attitudes towards nature. Indeed, the ways in which urban and rural spaces have been conceptualised, enforced and administered according to the requirements of the mining industries and the system of migrant labour, the demands of a commercial agricultural sector which maintained a privileged community of 'white' settlers, and the differences and divisions determined by segregation and apartheid throughout the 20th century, are remarkable and remain visible in the present. Papers assembled here will address a wide range of spaces, among them mining compounds, the architecture of apartheid cities, 'native townships', rural African reserves and military zones, borders and boundaries of many sorts. In contrast to conventional scholarship, these issues are to be addressed in a transnational perspective, exploring the proliferation of urban and rural design and planning, the demarcation of nature reserves and the declaration of military buffer zones from the perspective of the constitution of a South African imperial space in the sub-region.

Imperial Knowledge

One of the arenas in which South African nation-building articulated itself prominently was the realm of knowledge production. The South-Africanisation of science and of institutions associated with the production of scientific knowledge, such as universities, archives, libraries, scientific societies and museums, has long been acknowledged. In an almost emancipatory tone, the emergence of South African science has been narrated as a process through which the centres of knowledge production and expertise shifted from their metropolitan locations in Europe to the former South African colony and nation in the making. Less attention has been paid to the political economies and geopolitics of knowledge production within Southern Africa or to the significance of South Africa's hinterlands and peripheries, among them most importantly the Namibian colony, as resources and laboratories of imperial knowledge production. The conference hence invites contributions which investigate the ways in which the imperial space was constructed by economies of collecting, the operations of field sciences, the development of scientific taxonomies, the birth of scientific institutions, including museums and archives, and the development of professional scientific careers within the framework of a regional history.

Bio-politics of Empire

By the late 19th century, state institutions, metropolitan as much as colonial ones, showed growing interest in the documentation, identification and classification of their subjects. Therein the body of the citizen and/or subject emerged as the matrix around which forms and institutions of governance were enacted and specific kinds of knowledge modelled. Documentation, identification and classification of individuals and social groups in colonial Southern Africa throughout most of the 20th century was firmly grounded in essentialist notions of race and racial segregation, which hierarchically juxtaposed constructions of purified, superior forms of whiteness to the alleged degeneration of blackness and the iconic figure of the native. In as much as the organisation of society along racial lines was the raison d'être of segregation and apartheid in South Africa - and for that matter moved to the core of South African nation-building per se - racism and its underlying archives offered the idiom through which the South African state articulated and legitimised its imperialist project, pushing its frontier of white supremacy far beyond its national borders. The papers assembled here will explore how South Africa's imperial expansion complicated the problem of racial classification and difference, as much as the inconsistencies, contradictions and interstices within the expanding system of racial classification itself. Ultimately, the dynamics generated by imperial expansion and epistemological instability precisely offered the very few spaces for alternative, at times subaltern subjectivities.

Imperial Materialities, Imaginaries and Aesthetics of Empire

New histories of empire have shifted attention away from politics and economics towards 'softer' factors that made up the world of experience, the everyday, and the senses. Empires materialised, and the study of specific artefacts and objects provides a more textured sense of people's worlds and livelihoods. The conference aims at addressing experience, the everyday and the sensual through the lens of materiality and asks whether, and to what extent, specific objects and designs conveyed a sense of a social and cultural space of empire.

Papers concerned with the circulation of 'small objects', such as consumer goods, official documents, street signs, uniforms or mass produced print matters, and 'large objects', such as cars, buildings and monuments, infrastructure and public transport are invited to investigate the composition of an imperial lexicon that linked people in a shared, cultural and symbolic South African imperial space. Also important in this respect was the enactment and staging of 'the empire' through public rituals, celebrations and festivals, as such bridging the realms of the political and popular. The papers assembled here will explore these imperial imaginaries through e.g. various forms of visuality, such as photography, cartography, landscape painting, calendars, or cartoons, and they will likewise investigate diverse forms of popular culture, music, literature and art in order to elaborate on the question of the aesthetics of empire.

Abstract submission

The thematic foci presented above lay the ground for the organisation of the conference. Panels and papers will be organised accordingly. We invite participants to submit abstracts (max 1 page) and short information on authors by 4 February 2013 to  Acceptance of abstract submissions will be notified by email by the end of March 2013. Papers need to be submitted to the conference organisers by the end of August 2013. - For all information concerning the conference see our website:

Funding and Formalities:

Participants can apply for a limited amount of funding covering travel and accommodation costs. The application needs to be submitted together with the abstract submission. We privilege applicants from African countries and colleagues without permanent positions. To qualify for funding a paper has to be submitted by the given date. - Switzerland is part of the EU Schengen Visa agreement. It is the responsibility of the participants to clarify visa arrangements. Kindly approach the conference organisers for the necessary documentation required.


The organisers plan to publish the conference proceedings, and different options are being considered. A selection of the papers will be included in a special issue on the South African empire of the Journal of Southern African Studies in 2015.


For further information please contact the organisers: Lorena Rizzo:  Giorgio Miescher:; Dag Henrichsen:

This conference is organised on behalf of the South African Empire Research Group. Members of the group are Martha Akawa (University of Namibia), Dag Henrichsen (Basler Afrika Bibliographien & University of Basel), Luregn Lenggenhager (University of Zürich), Giorgio Miescher (University of Basel & University of the Western Cape), Ciraj Rassool (University of the Western Cape), Lorena Rizzo (University of Basel & University of the Western Cape), Jeremy Silvester (Museums Association of Namibia), Anna Vögeli (Basler Afrika Bibliographien & University of Basel), Marion Wallace (British Library).

The Research Group was supported by the Swiss South African Joint Research Project (SSJRP, University of Basel).

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