A History of South Africa

For his fifth donation in this series, Stephen Town travels to the beautiful plains of South Africa to discover the turbulent past of a developing nation.

Welsh, F., A History of South Africa, in the University Library at Q 68 WEL

Those of us who grew up in the late sixties and early seventies tended to be clear on our view of South Africa. As a child Cape Town was one of the places I always wanted to go to, based on pictures of that spectacular setting of mountain, city and sea in my father’s photography books. As a liberal minded campaigning student however, South Africa was not a place one could contemplate visiting under the apartheid regime.

Photo: Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa by Dietmar Temps
Reproduced under a Creative Commons licence 

It was therefore an immense pleasure and privilege to have been in South Africa again last week, to deliver a paper at the 75th Anniversary celebrations of the Library and Information School at Cape Town University, and to renew acquaintance with colleagues from Universities and libraries across that country.

The nation’s transformation has been one of the most affecting events in my lifetime, and opportunities to contribute in any way are welcomed. The conference was an excellent example of robust debate and exchange about the role of Universities, their libraries and the new landscape of scholarly communication, and how library schools can play their part in shaping a nation’s future through their education and research.

Freedom poster. Part of
the South African archives
held at the
Borthwick Institute for Archives
Owing to its turbulent past, broad, even-handed histories of the country are hard to write. And whilst the Library has many specialist academic treatises on aspects of its history and culture, and an interesting collection of archive material, it perhaps lacks a recent general history. So Frank Welsh’s A History of South Africa seemed a fitting selection for my fifth gift in this series. The book is a colonial history, covering the period between the first European contact with the Cape and the end of the twentieth century, culminating in the first fully democratic elections in 1994. Both scholarly and readable, Welsh’s account provides a good introduction to the complex history of this diverse nation, and is recommended for anyone taking the flight.


I did also have some time off, and whilst this blog is not really intended for holiday snaps, on this occasion I could not resist!

Photo: Lion in South Africa by Stephen Town

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