Archive for November, 2012

Is South Africa ripe for another revolution?

Arrival in Johannesburg or Cape Town airports gives one the impression of being in a major American or European city. It is a far cry from the often gloomy airports in places like Lagos and many other African cities. Most South African cities are not your typical African urban areas. I have been amazed by the high level of infrastructure and the sophistication of South Africa’s population of all races and colors. But one quickly realizes though that urban South Africa was built to recreate Europe and for its white population. The architecture, especially in Cape Town, reminds one of the more than 400 years of Dutch and British influence on the country.

While South African has come a long way from its racist past, the tag of racism is still here and there. That is the not so-inspiring part of South Africa today. A visit to Robben Island on the first few days of my arrival in South Africa was perhaps the most important reminder of South Africa’s not so proud past. I was visiting with a group of 17 Marquette University students who were participants in the Marquette Service Learning Program in Cape Town. As we departed Cape Town’s waterfront on that beautiful sunny day, and looked ahead to the open ocean, I reminded myself of the significance of Robben Island in the history of South Africa and the lives of people like Mandela, Mbeki, Sobukwe and many others who had been incarcerated on the island for many years. It was an emotional journey. You cannot help but be moved by the sordid past of this beautiful but infamous place. Here, on this beautiful island with a clear view of Cape Town and its ever present Table Mountain, is an important part of South Africa’s recent past. This island provided the base for most of the black intellectuals and leadership during the struggle. Former president Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom was born here. The philosophical framework for South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution gained impetus here. Robben Island is South Africa’s living past and the reflection of some Marquette students after the visit to Robben Island drives this home:

Walking through the cold and deserted prison I felt as if I had taken leaps back into past, but in actuality I had only taken steps. What felt like hundreds of years ago, happened in my lifetime and still affects the people of South Africa today— MU student

It must have been a confusing tension for Mandela to live under, the beauty and natural freedom of Robben Island, the sea (with its many sea lions and whales), and the towering Table Mountain coupled with the suppression and lack of freedom in his prison experience. If the prison had been a completely cut-off and self-sufficient world, it would have been much easier to dehumanize and suppress Mandela and other prisoners. But Robben Island was no where near Siberia; it was located in one of the most beautiful places in the world. It may have been one of the factors that allowed Mandela to rise above the prison, allowed the prisoners and guards to be respectful of each other, and allow the prisoners to forgive and give tours to people on the island— MU student

It is hard to think about the fact that such horrible things happened on such a beautiful island, but they did.— MU student

So often people want to forget about the monstrosities of the past and look to a brighter future but in my opinion one of the most valuable moments of this trip is being able to almost go back in time and walk the shoes that Mandela walked in order to make the country what it is today— MU student

Nelson Mandela’s 3 x 3 meters prison cell on Robben Island


South Africa calls itself the rainbow nation and just like the rainbow, the colors have not overlapped. Segregation is officially ended but the reality is that South Africans still live in the old segregated structures of the apartheid era. But South Africa has yet to fully come to terms with its historical past. The country is still deeply segregated in class and residential arrangements. Indeed there are two South Africas. There is one that is a continuity of the vestiges of apartheid that segregated people along a dubious color line. The segregation of the apartheid era may be long gone but places like Cape Town are still deeply segregated along racial and color lines. There are still predominantly white suburban parts of the city—what one could call the White Reserves. Many of the small coastal and beach towns are still very white.

Granted, there are some black South Africans who have left the township and now live in the former white enclaves,

but this is not the case with many black South Africans. It is a matter of economics.

The Cape Town Northern Suburbs

In reality, white South Africa has not given out much of its past privileges. Economic inequality has made it impossible to break-down old residential boundaries. They cannot afford to move even if they wish to leave the poor communities they call home.  Any

movements that have taken place have also been in a single direction—a one way traffic. Only blacks are pushing to move into what may become mixed neighborhoods of the future. In fact, I do not see a white South African moving to live in Soweto or Guguletu as a matter of choice.

There are the black Townships like Guguletu (our pride), Langa (sun), and Nyanga (moon) which were established as a result of the migrant labor system. Townships like Nyanga and Guguletu are extremely poor, dangerous, crime ridden, and unemployment could be as high as 50%.

A visit to these Townships offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience the condition in which the majority of South Africans live. As part of the Leadership in Grassroots Organizations Course, Marquette students work in impoverished communities such as Lotus Park, an informal settlement

The Other South Africa: Lotus Park, Guguletu Township

that over 4,700 black South African call home. Located in Guguletu Township, just 15 kilometers from Cape Town, Lotus Park is emblematic of the failure of the transformations that was expected at the end of apartheid.

Marquette Provost with Marquette student volunteers at Lotus Park, Guguletu Township

The townships and informal settlements are desperately poor. The schools still lack many of the resources and well trained teachers that are essential to the South Africa of the future. The classrooms are overcrowded with many students struggling to meet the basic requirements for higher education.

But there is an even more urgent problem in South Africa today. South Africa is experiencing one of its worst crises since apartheid— the sort of economic conditions that forced the apartheid regime to relax its policies and eventually end the system. Economic growth in South Africa declined by about 7% due to a wave of violent strikes led by miners demanding huge wage increases. Service delivery strikes involving about 15,000 South African truckers which have disrupted economic activities in South Africa for most of the year highlight the country’s huge economic and social discrepancies. Farm workers have carried out their own strikes in recent days. Ironically, these strikes have been violent, with loss of lives and destruction of private and public property.

South African miner strike

Evidently the current economic woes in South Africa were inherited from the apartheid era.  It borrowed heavily and left little in the treasury when it relinquished power. South Africans came to the realization in 1995 that they were not as rich as they thought. So the ANC governments Continue reading ‘Is South Africa ripe for another revolution?’


A Fallen Comrade: Martin Charles Perkins, 1951-2012

Professor John Krugler’s eulogy to one of the great public historians of Wisconsin and the Midwest.

Marty Perkins was the Curator of Research at Old World Wisconsin. He died of a heart attack on November 3, 2012 at his home in Mukwonago, Wisconsin. He will be missed, not only for the void he leaves at OWW, but for his great ability to work with people. He saw the best in people and was amazingly patient with them. Marty was universally loved and respected by all who knew him.

Marty earned his undergraduate degree in history from Carroll College and his graduate degree in Urban Planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He started working at OWW, an open-air museum in the Kettle Moraine state forest at Eagle in October 1974. In the previous year, the State Historical Society began construction of its ambitious project designed to salvage some of the deteriorating ethnic structures by transporting them to OWW. Perkins took an entry-level position in 1974 and worked on the construction crews. Similar to many public historians of his generation, Marty made himself invaluable and moved up the ranks. This photo shows Marty driving the front-end loader during the re-erection of the Schottler house. After a few years, he transferred to the nascent research department, which he later directed. Historic research was his love and passion and over the next thirty-seven years he became the heart and soul of the museum’s research and interpretation programs.

Marty was a ubiquitous presence at OWW. Beyond his considerable research responsibilities, he spent time searching for suitable ethnic buildings, writing lengthy interpretive manuals for most of the sixty-seven historic buildings at OWW, publishing articles for scholarly journals and the Friends Magazine, supervising the interpretative program and its interns, giving untold numbers of talks to groups throughout southeastern Wisconsin, fundraising, and creating and managing a vintage baseball team, the Eagle Diamonds.

Marty was a consummate storyteller. He made the history of the buildings and their inhabitants come alive to visitors. He was as much at ease talking to community groups as he was to classes of college students. He served as the museum’s emissary to the community. When community leaders or museum or academic professionals visited OWW, Marty led them on fascinating tours. He never faltered, always bringing enthusiasm and knowledge to the tours.

Of all his many successes, perhaps the most singular was assuming responsibility for creating the village that the 1968 Master Plan envisioned. Building on the research of his colleagues, Perkins launched a massive effort to revive and revise the plan, collect the required data to form an image of a typical rural nineteenth-century crossroads village, find the appropriate buildings that represented various immigrant groups, research their occupants, and create the storylines for each building.

Continue reading ‘A Fallen Comrade: Martin Charles Perkins, 1951-2012’

Three Historians and a Furnace Guy

Jim Marten reminds us that the scholar’s profession isn’t just about teaching and publishing.  We are all part of a living historiography. 

I doubt that the following stories will help anyone achieve a deeper understanding of the process of doing history, but I think they represent the evocative web of connections that every historian will encounter in his or her own life.  The people making one set of those connections for me include my predecessor at MU, my mentor, my mentor’s mentor—and a furnace guy.

When I came to Marquette in 1986 I succeeded Frank L. Klement, the legendary professor who had taught here since the 1940s (there was actually someone else in the line for a few years, but he wasn’t a Civil War historian, so I feel like I followed Frank rather than the person I really did replace).  Frank had won the Award for Teaching Excellence, served as international president of Phi Alpha Theta, the history honor society, and published several well-received books on northern dissent during the Civil War. Alums remembered him fondly—many recalled Frank’s mantra that “C” really was the average grade in his classes (which would horrify students today!)—and when we sought donations for the Klement Lecture fund, they really came through, with over 200 of them contributing well over $50,000 in less than two years.  So it was humbling to have been hired, in effect, to succeed him.  (For a brief biography of Frank Klement and information about the lectures, go to

It turned out that we had a number of connections.  The first is the least interesting, at least for the purposes of this blog: while he studied dissent in the Civil War North, my dissertation and first book was on dissent in Civil War Texas.  More interesting to me is that it turned out that he had a personal connection not only to my advisor but to my advisor’s advisor.  When Frank and I first met, he asked who I’d studied with, and I told him Robert Abzug.  I doubted if he’d have heard of him, since Bob was a very young historian and his work in social history and psychohistory (his first book was a psychobiography—very big in the early 1980s—on the abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld) was way outside of Frank’s research his.  But Frank surprised me by arching an eyebrow and referring to that “unfortunate article.”  I found out later that Bob’s first published article (in the Indiana state history magazine) was on northern Copperheads (arch-opponents of Republican policies) and in it he had criticized Frank’s sympathetic portrayal of dissenters, especially his assertion that the secret societies they allegedly had organized were figments of Lincoln-era Republicans’ imagination.  Frank had a long memory; the article had come out sixteen years earlier.

But the connections ran deeper than that.  Bob Abzug had been a PhD student of Kenneth Stampp at Berkeley.  Stampp wrote books on everything from pre-war politics to Reconstruction to slavery; his most famous book, read by hundreds of thousands of students from the 1950s through the 1980s (and probably beyond) was a history of slave life in America called The Peculiar Institution. It was one of the first books I read in graduate school, although I have a dim memory of having read it as an undergraduate, too. I benefited from Abzug’s extraordinary admiration for Stampp, who had ten or twelve students at a time, yet managed to turn chapter drafts around quickly, with great splashes of red corrections, suggestions, and questions. I was Bob’s first and only student at the time (he’s had almost two dozen since), and he did the same for me (although he eased the shock by using less-alarming blue ink and calling me ahead of time to warn me of the looming set of revisions waiting in my department mailbox). He was a careful editor and a compassionate advisor who visited my wife Linda and I in the hospital after the birth of our daughter Lauren, bringing flowers and chocolates. Two days after I accepted my job at Marquette, he and his wife Penne took us out to a celebratory dinner (and paid for a babysitter for Lauren!). A year or two before, when Stampp had visited Texas to give a lecture, Bob introduced me to him. “Ah,” he said, “you must be my grand-student.” It was a nice moment.

Continue reading ‘Three Historians and a Furnace Guy’

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