Malcolm's Reviews > The Foundations of Anti-Apartheid: Liberal Humanitarians and Transnational Activists in Britain and the United States, c.1919-64

The Foundations of Anti-Apartheid by Rob Skinner
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Jul 23, 2011

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bookshelves: apartheid, british-history

There is little doubt that the global movement against apartheid was one of the major mobilising forces in late 20th century activist politics and more widely, with its profile in public consciousness driven (in much of the Anglo part of the Anglo-American world) by issues to do with sports contact. Opposition to apartheid was, however, much older than that which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, with clear evidence of concern about South Africa’s racial order from the 1920s. There were two principal strands – one based in left-wing politics, especially socialist politics, and the other in liberal humanitarianism, often centred on the church. This book focuses on the latter, and despite the claim to deal with ‘transnational activists in Britain and the US’ focuses overwhelmingly on Britain, which not surprising given that most of the formal church relations were British-based. In doing so, it explores an important but poorly covered issue in global movement politics – the genesis of the networks that become the anti-apartheid movement, and the importance of transnational networks in that and related campaign areas.

These archaeologies of activist politics are tricky to write – there are seldom big dramatic events to discuss, there are seldom well developed movements or networks, and there are often difficult-to-deal-with and hard-to-like obsessive individuals working alone or in small and poorly formed diverse oppositional networks. This was certainly the case in liberal humanitarian activists in anti-apartheid issues from the 1920s to the 1950s (the organised left and South Africa’s nascent liberation movements are a different story, and Skinner barely refers to them beyond some individual in the British Labour Party and its affiliated groups): Skinner has taken on a difficult assignment in writing this history.

Unfortunately, he often gets lost (as did as a reader) in the detail of the fairly small scale incidents and minutiae of person relationships he is discussing: the overall argument is, at times, hard to follow, and the plethora of organisation that make up the network difficult to keep a grasp of – this latter point is not helped by Skinner’s intermittent failure to refer to the group by its full title, just its acronym, when first introduced or to only do so once and then seem to assume that 45 ages later we remember what the acronym stands for. What is more, these organisations are often introduced with no (however brief) outline of what they did and how they fitted into the big picture. This question of significance is the major problem – global anti-apartheid politics is an issue that underpins a significant strand of my research work on sporting contact with South Africa and at times I had real trouble trying to make sense of how the detail being explored fitted into the big picture; why it mattered. The book reads as if it is PhD thesis transposed into a monograph – and as is often the case with these monographs, the PhD’s focus on detail overshadows the need of a wider readership for more contextual understanding: the book is a very expensive hardback – I doubt that it will make it to another print run – which is a shame, because the broader point about the deep transnational roots of global anti-colonial and human rights campaigns is an important one, and the anti-apartheid movement a great case study.

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