Landmark historical society meeting held in Botswana

At the height of winter in Southern Africa, a major historical society meeting was held in Botswana following the theme “All for One, One for All? Leveraging national interests with regional visions in Southern Africa”. It was the first time in 48 years that the Southern African Historical Society, or SAHS, had met outside South Africa.

The gathering, from 27-29 June 2013, was deemed a resounding success. Hosted by the history department at the University of Botswana, participants came from all over Southern Africa and also from Europe, North America and Asia.

Most aspects of the conference organisation were enhanced by the support of The Botswana Society, or TBS, one of the oldest non-governmental organisations in the country.

TBS is dedicated to the study and promotion of all aspects of Botswana, including geology, environment, culture and history, communicated partly through Botswana Noted and Records, an annual journal now in its 45th year.

Registered participants received in their kits a flashcard detailing all the conference materials. The main item was the more-than-100 papers available in a searchable pdf file that totalled some 1,027 pages. There was also an addendum of seven late papers and both a digital version and a hard copy of the 26-page conference programme.

Everything clicked

SAHS 2013 was one of those rare academic gatherings where everything clicks, from the opening sessions that were challenging, to the papers – presented over three days in up to five parallel sessions – that were for the most part near-publishable material.

The discussions following each session were intense, friendly and supportive, seeking both to be helpful and to carry the debate forward.

There were evening socials, book launches and cultural activities. Throughout the conference there were a number of book presentations for interested participants – with many of the books being recent publications by the academics presenting papers.

Dr Margaret Nasha, the first female speaker of parliament in Botswana and former minister of local government, opened the conference. She has a long history as a politician, and began her career at the University of Botswana as part of the first group of students, in 1982. Studying history, she was one of a small group of 14 students. She went on to become a successful diplomat, where she found history handy, and later became a radio journalist.

Many in that first class have gone on to become leaders in Southern Africa. Nasha said that history “opens our eyes so we can see the world, not through rose-coloured glasses, but to see the world as it is”.

The first keynote speaker was Professor Neil Parsons, formerly of the University of Botswana and TBS. He was followed by Professor Jane Carruthers of the University of South Africa, or UNISA.

Parsons – who has also taught in Zambia, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and South Africa – spoke to the topic, “Towards a Broader Southern African History: Backwards, sideways, and upside-down”.

He noted that there had been two prior Southern African history gatherings in Botswana, one in 1973 and the other in 1990 – both attended by security agents from a South Africa still under apartheid.

He went on to define Southern Africa as an evolving concept. He pointed to highlights in pre-history, biography as history and history as biography, the role of the media in teaching history, and other dimensions. He concluded:

“History is essentially a discipline of interpreting evidence of cause and effect, and confronting the unexpected. This is also a good argument for history as a stand-alone subject in assisting the maturation of teens into twenties and beyond. It is complex. So is life.”

He ended with a quote from TS Eliot, that history is “like a dream that has often been told, and often been changed in the telling”.

Carruthers' theme was “To Rescue the Past from the Nation”. She began by mentioning the history of SAHS, and that it had been founded in 1965 “at the height of apartheid", by a group of mainly English-speaking historians at liberal universities who were reluctant to ally themselves to the older Historiese Genootskap van Suid-Afrika, or Historical Association of South Africa.

To her, SAHS “aimed to rescue the nation from its past, at least as then broadly constructed”. She noted that the society had a troubled history and that its members reflected a troubled society. It took 40 years for SAHS to change its name, in 2005, from ‘South’ to ‘Southern’ and a further eight years to be able to meet outside South Africa.

“Adding three letters to the world ‘South’…heralded an explicitly new relationship among all historians of the region, diluted its alliance with the nation state and…recognised that the time was ripe for the inclusion and exploration of a fresh conceptual disciplinary framework.

“Altering the name, then, had the potential to change the fundamental basis of the scholarship by realigning the tectonic plates of the region’s historiography.” She concluded by calling for more work on transnational history.

The main drawback, as happens with all international conferences, was the loss of a few participants who had abstracts and papers in the conference book in advance but failed to show up to present them.

Another was that the key organiser, the University of Botswana’s Professor Fred Morton, devoted so much time to keeping everything running smoothly that he could not attend many sessions.