My early university education at the then-very white University of Cape Town coincided with South Africa’s transition from Apartheid to democracy. Stuart Hall didn’t feature much, despite the fact, as I would later learn, I was indirectly influenced by his ideas about identity politics, language, culture, race, and social movements.
For example, I remember writing a seminar paper as a final year student at the University of Cape Town about “black Afrikaans”—a movement of coloured (STET) poets and educators in Cape Town and the Cape West Coast allied to teacher unions and the United Democratic Front who sought to counter white histories of Afrikaans by emphasizing its hybrid origins in a slave economy and encouraged use of spoken Afrikaans in classroom settings. Nevertheless, culture (or studying culture) was hardly a priority for my late-1980s/early-1990s cohort—South Africa then was in the midst of a violent transition; protest movements and their academic allies were tactically focused on electoral power and state institutions.
Strategic considerations, too, pushed us to eschew analyses of race in favor of class. Lynette Steenveld, a media scholar at Rhodes University in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, wrote to me that “… identity was a problem because of the Apartheid state’s racialization of identity and its essentialist stance on culture. So the one progressive move was to eschew identity and focus on class.”
That said, there is ample evidence that South African scholars, students and media activists were very familiar with Hall’s work in that period. In 1980s Apartheid South Africa, academics who studied culture, came at it from two diametrically opposed schools: on one side a more traditional behavioralist approach (the Afrikaans “communications studies”) and on the other, leftist /political economy approaches to culture (reflecting dominant positions in the liberation movement and old school Marxist influences).
But as Steenveld recently reminded me that when she was a graduate student in the mid-1980s, some scholars—most notably at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape and what is now the University of Kwazulu-Natal—were exposed to the work of Stuart Hall. Keyan Tomaselli, a media scholar at the now University of Kwazulu-Natal, who is most closely associated with the beginnings of cultural studies in South Africa, should take much of the credit for this. He modeled a center after Hall’s at Birmingham. Steenveld adds: “I personally came from a Marxist position which was critical of the ANC’s racial politics, so discovering through Hall a new way of thinking left politics was helpful to me.”
In 1995, I went to study for a political science graduate degree at Northwestern University in Chicago’s northern suburbs. It is probably there where I first became familiar with Hall’s work in classes on the interactions between media, globalization, and cultural politics. Not surprisingly, my current research and writing on popular culture (reality shows, public television, advertising, social media, and my foray into football studies), is heavily influenced by Hall’s work.
When Hall passed away, The New York Times tried to dismiss him as a scholar and activist of multiculturalism only and suggested his influence was limited to Britain; someone who was out of time. That was, however, contradicted by how a whole new generation on social media who honored and debated his legacy. It helped that Hall reinvented himself right up until the end, speaking directly to 21st century anxieties. For example, in 2013 writing about his and others’ “Kilburn Manifesto,” Hall wrote: “What is required is a renewed sense of being on the side of the future, not stuck in the dugouts of the past. We must admit that the old forms of the welfare state proved insufficient. But we must stubbornly defend the principles on which it was founded – redistribution, egalitarianism, collective provision, democratic accountability and participation, the right to education and healthcare – and find new ways in which they can be institutionalized and expressed.”
Specific to South Africa, Hall cared for and wrote about that country. His most explicit engagement with South Africa was in his 1980 essay, Race Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance, where he entered academic debates between white South African left and liberal intellectuals over the nature of domination and repression. I am surprised not more people in South Africa have read it or commented on it. Hall, of course, eventually did get to South Africa himself in 1996, accompanied by his wife, Catherine. He gave the keynote address at a conference at the now-University of Kwazulu-Natal (invited there by Tomaselli).
I have been trying to find a copy or a transcript of Hall’s address to the conference, but with no luck thus far. I keep wondering what Hall made of South Africa, still a very new country at the time of his visit. Perhaps he would have admired the South Africans for their tenacity, warned against complacency and, like Gramsci, reminded the South Africans that it is always a “war of position.” Or he may have said of South Africa, what he later said of Barack Obama. At the time Obama was elected, Hall celebrated the election of the first black president of the United States as a historic event, but cautioned that the value of Obama’s Presidency remained to be seen. Three years later, Hall felt comfortable to cast judgment: While Obama’s “heart was in the right place,” he “was never radical.” Hall also felt that Obama and his supporters had not reckoned with the inertia of the American political system and its tendency to settle for a tepid consensus and was disappointed by some of Obama’s policy decisions.
But perhaps as much as his ideas, Hall’s influence and prominence made a significant impression on whole generations of black intellectuals and scholars, myself included, who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s. The South African academy has always skewed white, and black intellectual role models were often rendered invisible, even where they did exist (either to exile: Archie Mafeje, Stan Nolutshungu, Bernard Magubane; or not properly acknowledged when at home, like Neville Alexander and Jakes Gerwel). What John Akomfrah and Ben Carrington wrote and said about Hall’s impact on young black intellectuals in Britain holds for places like South Africa: “There was no space for someone like me before Hall.” Wrote Carrington, on Africa is a Country (a site I started and that I like to think may be an indirect part of Hall’s legacy): “It’s taken for granted now that culture matters, that popular culture is a site of politics, that politics saturates everyday life, and that these things can and should be studied in a serious manner. But despite their claims, it was not Sociology, or History, or Economics, or even Anthropology that created this space. It was Cultural Studies.”
Finally, Hall’s transparent engagement with his family’s biography, his exploration of his relationship to blackness and creole identities, provided a way of thinking about my own family history. Despite the class differences (Hall grew up middle class; I’m the son of a domestic worker and a gardener) and the different historical specificities of the Caribbean versus the Western Cape of South Africa, there were striking commonalities: Shame, slavery, colonialism, colorism, and deference to whites (despite the violent history of white trusteeship and oppression), are also “natural” to the world in which I grew up. (For example, Hall’s parents discouraged him from playing with dark-skinned children, prevented his sister from marrying a black doctor and never really identified with Jamaica.) Those are parts of my biography that I still want to explore. Perhaps the most lasting impression I have of Hall’s life’s work is that he continued working at making sense of the past and the present until the very end.
Sean Jacobs, a native of Cape Town, founded Africa is a Country, is on the faculty of The New School in New York City.