Laura Phillips

PARI staff
SA History - Bantustans
Intellectual Biography: 

I am trained as a social historian and have worked on various aspects of South Africa’s recent rural history. From researching domestic workers in the former Bophuthatswana, to land reform in Mpumalanga, to the functioning of the Development Corporations in the Eastern Cape, I have come to value the specificity of ‘local’ studies and the differences in these sites for understanding the trajectory of modern South African history.

At the same time, however, I have seen the benefit in connecting these case studies to broader historical processes and analytical lenses. This is something I have struggled to do though, particularly in my most recent research. This research focuses on the administration of education in the former Lebowa, the northern Sotho Bantustan. It is a social and bureaucratic history that tracks the development of local administration and the role of teachers, chiefs and local businessmen in shaping this. One of the key features of the story is the development of increasingly neo-patrimonial networks that shape the running and functioning of the Bantustan school. On the surface, this is a story of bureaucratic failure, a non-rational bureaucracy and one that is best – and, seemingly, most usefully - measured against a Weberian ideal.

However, depicting the failures and complexities of the school bureaucracy in these terms does not fully capture what was happening on the ground. Not only do these administrations evidence different and varied bureaucratic ideals, but they show that there is more than one way of subverting a rational bureaucracy. Multiple ‘bureaucracies’, in unexpected forms, regularly crash up against one another, with long term effects that remain striking and significant twenty years since the integration of the Bantustan administrations into the post-apartheid provinces.

In thinking locally and expanding outwards, my research aims to grasp the particular and understand it as the product of a range of forces. This is ongoing work and thus I cannot yet say whether my conclusions will speak to historical processes that are advocated for by theoreticians of the ‘south’. It may be the case that the bureaucratic structures in the Bantustan are an amalgamation of structures, responding to other contexts and other periods. It may also be the case that the local sites are so diverse, that even generalising across the Bantustans is a fruitless activity. However, it seems likely that, to at least some degree, there is something specific to these fragile institutions – infused as they are with custom, capital and Christianity. This mix, the global forces that it is subject to, and its enduring weight in the contemporary period may hold important lessons for understanding bureaucracies across the world.

Presentation Title: 
Principals, chiefs and school committees: The Development of local school administration in rural Lebowa, 1972 - 1990.
I have read very little on 'theorising from the South' (see below), but would find it helpful to have readings that provide examples of what 'theorising from the South' might look like - or where it falls short. Works that I have found useful in thinking about local historical processes in relation to broader forces include: Cooper, F. (2002) Africa Since 1940: The Past of the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
I know very little about 'Theory from the South.' I hope to use this workshop to become acquainted with the major texts on the topic and see where and how this can be applied to my own work.