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It is often suggested that the work of E. P. Thomson played a pivotal role in shaping South African historical writing and provided the foundations for a new school of social history. Thompson's writings – often refracted through many other texts – were one influence amongst many. This article, drawing on my own experiences of key moments of individuals and institutions, argues that the decisive and central role that is ascribed to his work does not accord with much more complex and localised realities. The article touches on numerous other influences that shaped the research and writing of succeeding cohorts of historians. It also suggests that while The Poverty of Theory was an influential publication, it did not initiate new forms of research and writing, but rather contributed to debates that were already well underway. In conclusion, the usefulness of the category of social history is disputed, as in the South African context it lends to a lazy lumping together of a very diverse selection of historians and needs to be rethought or replaced.

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Patrick Harries provided me with valuable insights while I was drafting this article, but his tragic death in 2016 means that I am not able to thank him for his help in person. He will be sorely missed. He was a fine, innovative historian who showed great intellectual and personal generosity to both his peers and his students. Author's email:

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1 Hyslop, J., ‘E. P. Thompson in South Africa: the practice and politics of social history in an era of revolt and transition, 1976–2012’, International Review of Social History, 61:1 (2016), 95116 .

2 Hofmeyr, I., ‘South African remains: E. P. Thompson, Biko and the limits of the making of the English working class’, Historical Reflections, 41:1 (2015), 100 .

3 See, for example, K. Breckenridge, ‘Hopeless entanglement: a short history of the humanities in South Africa’, American Historical Review, October (2015).

4 S. Sparks and K. Breckenridge, call for papers for ‘History after E. P. Thompson’ workshop at the University of Michigan, Nov. 2015, submitted on Wits website, (, 16. Mar 2015.

5 Keith Breckenridge and Stephen Sparks, who suggested I sketch my own intellectual history as a paper for the ‘History after E. P. Thompson’ workshop, must take most of the blame for this autobiographical turn.

6 Bozzoli, B. and Delius, P., ‘Editors’ Introduction’, Radical History Review, 46/47 (1990); for other accounts focused on the period covered by this article and written at this time, see Marks, S.The historiography of South Africa’, in Jewsiewicki, B. and Newbury, D. (eds.), African Historiography (Beverly Hills, 1986); and Saunders, C., The Making of the South African Past (Cape Town, 1988). The unwary reader should be warned that the Radical History special issue, especially our Introduction and Bozzoli's chapter, ‘Intellectuals, audiences and histories’ received a very critical reception indeed. See, for example, the South African Historical Journal (1991).

7 Oliver, R. and Fage, J., A Short History of Africa (London, 1988 [orig. pub. 1962]) was a pioneering work that sold in considerable numbers through multiple editions, while Fage, J. and Oliver, R. (eds.), Cambridge History of Africa, in Volume XIII (Cambridge, 1976–1988) represented a more comprehensive summation of the burgeoning historical work.

8 Ajayi, J. F. Ade, ‘The continuity of African institutions under colonialism’, in Ranger, T. O. (ed.), Emerging Themes of African History (London, 1968).

9 Ranger (ed.), ‘Introduction’, Emerging Themes of African History, xxi.

10 Ranger, T. O., Revolt of Southern Rhodesia 1896–1897 (London, 1967); Iliffe, J., Tanganyika under Colonial Rule (Cambridge, 1969).

11 Ibid .

12 Thompson, L. and Wilson, M., Oxford History of South Africa, Volume II (Oxford, 1971 [orig. pub. 1969]).

13 Marks, S., Reluctant Rebellion (Oxford, 1970).

14 For some of the published fruit of this work, see, for example, Trapido, S., ‘South Africa in a comparative study of industrialisation’, Journal of Development Studies, 7 (1971); Wolpe, H., ‘Capitalism and cheap labour power: from segregation to apartheid’, Economy and Society, 1 (1972); Leggasick, M., ‘The frontier tradition in South African historiography’, in Marks, S. and Atmore, A. (eds.), Economy and Society in Pre-Industrial South Africa (London, 1980). Leggasick wrote many important papers and articles in this period. Some, like this one, took a long time to be published, sadly others were never published; Johnstone, R., Class Race and Gold (London, 1976); Bundy, C., ‘The emergence and decline of a South African peasantry’, African Affairs, 71 (1972); van Onslen, C., Chibaro (London, 1976). For overviews of the development of revisionist history, see Saunders, The Making of the South African Past; Bozzoli and Delius, ‘Introduction’, Radical History Review, and Marks, ‘Historiography’.

15 See Cohen, A., Custom and Politics in Urban Africa (Routledge, London, 1969); Parkin, D., Palms, Wines and Witnesses (London, 1972).

16 Atmore, A. and Marks, S., ‘The imperial factor in South Africa: towards a reassessment’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 3 (1974) was very influential for my generation of historians.

17 P. Delius, ‘Introduction: the Pedi Polity under Sekwati and Sekhukhune, 1820–1880’ (unpublished PhD thesis, London University, 1980).

18 Ibid .

19 Hallet, R., A History of Africa to 1875 (Michigan, 1970).

20 See, for example, Meillassoux, C., ‘From reproduction to production: a Marxist approach to economic anthropology’, Economy and Society, 1 (1972); see also Bloch, M. (ed.), Marxist Analysis and Social Anthropology (London, 1975).

21 Hindess, B. and Hirst, P., Precapitalist Modes of Production (London, 1975).

22 See, for example, Beinart, W., ‘Chieftainship and the concept of articulation in South Africa’, Canadian Journal of African Studies, 19 (1985); and Harries, P., ‘Modes of production and modes of analyses: the South African case’, Canadian Journal of African Studies, 19 (1985).

23 See P. Delius, ‘Abel Erasmus: Power and profit in the eastern Transvaal’, and Trapido, S., ‘A history of tenant production on the Vereeniging estates 1896–1920’, in Beinart, W., Delius, P., and Trapido, S. (eds.), Putting a Plough to the Ground (Johannesburg, 1986).

24 Bonner, P., Kings Commoners and Concessionaires (Cambridge, 1983).

25 Peires, J., The House of Phalo (Ravan, 1981).

26 Beinart, W., The Political Economy of Pondoland (Cambridge, 1982).

27 Delius, P., The Land Belongs to Us (Johannesburg, London and Berkeley, 1983/1984); Delius, Lion amongst the Cattle, 229–36.

28 See Bozzoli and Delius, ‘Introduction’, Radical History Review, for a brief description of, and bibliography for this group.

29 For a fuller discussion of these issues, see Delius, P. and Schirmer, S., ‘Historical research and policy making in South Africa’, African Studies, 59:1 (2000), 57 .

30 For the results of this immersion see Delius, P., The Land Belongs to Us (Johannesburg, London and Berkeley (1983/1984).

31 Beinart, The Political Economy of Pondoland; Ranger, T. O., ‘Growing from the roots, reflections on peasant research in Central and Southern Africa’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 5 (1978); Cooper, F., ‘Peasants, capitalists and historians’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 7 (1981).

32 Beinart, Delius, and Trapido (eds.), Putting a Plough to the Ground.

33 Bonner, P., Delius, P., and Posel, D., Apartheid's Genesis (Johannesburg, 1990); Beinart, W., Twentieth Century South Africa (Oxford, 1994).

34 Bozzoli and Delius, ‘Introduction’, Radical History Review.

35 Bozzoli, B., Labour Townships and Protest (Johannesburg, 1979); Bozzoli, B., Town and Countryside in the Transvaal (Johannesburg, 1983); Bozzoli, B., Class Community and Conflict (Johannesburg, 1987).

36 Posel, D., ‘Social history and the Wits history workshop’, African Studies, 69 (2010); see also Bonner, P., ‘Keynote address to the life after thirty colloquium’, African Studies, 69 (2010).

37 Philip Bonner was unusual in that he worked on both precolonial and more modern urban history. His involvement in the independent trade union movement strongly influenced his work and interests at this time.

38 Webster, E., Cast in a Racial Mould: Trade unionism and the Foundries (Johannesburg, 1985) gives some sense of his interests at the time.

39 Lodge, T., Black Politics in South Africa since 1945 (Johannesburg, 1983).

40 Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963), 12 .

41 Posel, D., The Making of Apartheid (Oxford, 1991); Hofmeyr, I., We Spend our Years as a Tale that is told: Oral Historical Narrative in a South African Chiefdom (London, 1994).

42 Hyslop, J., The Classroom Struggle: Policy and Resistance in South Africa, 1940–1990 (Pietermaritzburg, 1990). The above list of people and publications is far from complete. It is simply intended to give some sense of the interests of a range of people who were involved in the workshop in the 1980s and early 1990s.

43 It would also be a mistake to imagine that Belinda and Charles were always in full intellectual agreement!

44 For an especially egregious example of this approach, see Minkley, G. and Rassol., C.Orality, memory and social history in South Africa’, in Nuttall, S. and Coetzee, C. (eds.), Negotiating the Past: The Making of Memory in South Africa (Cape Townn, 1988).

45 Quoted in Bonner, ‘Keynote address’, 16.

46 See, for example, Callinicos, Luli, Gold and Workers (Johannesburg, 1981) and the numerous publications by her that followed.

47 Delius, P., A Lion amongst the Cattle (Johannesburg, 1996).

48 Beinart, W. and Bundy, C., Hidden Struggles in Rural South (London, Berkeley, and Johannesburg, 1987) 23 .

49 Murray, C., Families Divided: The Impact of Migrant Labour in Lesotho (Cambridge, 1981).

50 Mayer, P. (ed.), Black Villagers in an Industrial Society (Cape Town, 1980).

51 James, D., Songs of Women Migrants: Performance and Identity in South Africa (London, 1999).

52 Bozzoli, B., ‘Marxism, Feminism and South African Studies’, Journal of South African Studies, 9 (1983) and Women of Phokeng (Johannesburg, 1991).

53 Harries, P., Work, Culture and Identity (London, 1994).

54 Bozzoli and Delius, ‘Introduction’, Radical History Review.

55 Thompson, E. P., The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (London, 1978).

56 Cooper, F., ‘Work, class and empire: an African historian's retrospective on E. P. Thompson’, Social History, 20:2 (1995), 237 .

57 van Onselen, C., Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersand 1886–1914: New Babylon (Johannesburg, 1982), 196 .

58 Atkins, K. E., The Moon Is Dead! Give Us Our Money! The Cultural Origins of an African Work Ethic, Natal, South Africa, 1843–1900 (London, 1993); Cooper, ‘Work, class and empire’, 236.

59 Moodie, T. Dunbar, ‘The moral economy of the black miners’ strike of 1946’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 13 (1986); personal communication with Patrick Harries, Sept. 2015 and Harries, Work, Culture, and Identity.

60 Thompson, E. P., Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act (New York, 1975); personal communication with W. Beinart, Oct. 2015; S. Trapido, ‘Poachers, proletarians and gentry in the early twentieth-century Transvaal’, unpublished paper given at the African Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, 1984.

* Patrick Harries provided me with valuable insights while I was drafting this article, but his tragic death in 2016 means that I am not able to thank him for his help in person. He will be sorely missed. He was a fine, innovative historian who showed great intellectual and personal generosity to both his peers and his students. Author's email:

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