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Course Overview

For a complete syllabus with readings, click on Syllabus (PDF) on the left panel.

The inauguration of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela as President on 10 May 1994 marked the end of era, indeed the end of a way of life, for South Africa. Or did it? Most South Africans finally became citizens in their own country. Their new constitution guaranteed equality and promised not only equity but redress for the discrimination and injustice of the past. The imagination, persistence, and resilience that characterized opposition to minority rule could now be turned to reconstruction and development. New leaders, new rules, and a new agenda. Yet much remained the same. Even as the new leaders moved into their offices, laws, administrative rules, common practices, interpersonal expectations, and more all reflected the legacy of discrimination and racism.

Many commentators describe South Africa as in transition from apartheid to development. In practice, reconstructing South Africa requires confronting multiple, overlapping, and sharply contested transitions. How, for example, should government be organized? Will local authorities facilitate genuine popular participation or function to entrench elite privilege or to re-create the dependent status of women? Will education fulfill the promise of protesting students and become fundamentally liberating, or will schools remain conservative barriers to change? Can socialist and communist ideas guide national development or will they be discarded as obstacles to economic growth and entry into the global capitalist system? Will vibrant community organizations retain their militancy and autonomy, or will they be constrained and disempowered as they become part of the bureaucracy? Now, as South Africa has marked more than 20 years of majority rule and as we have mourned Nelson Mandela?s passing and celebrated his life, these questions persist. Indeed, protesting students insist they be addressed.

The seminar?s major task will be explorations in comparative social history. What are the roots of the current situation, and in what ways do they shape and constrain future possibilities? How do people in contemporary South Africa confront the ideas that have shaped their understanding of their own country as they reconstruct their history? How do official stories interact with popular tales? Who are the story tellers and their audiences?

Participants in this seminar will explore efforts to create a non-racist, non-sexist, democratic South Africa by analyzing these and related contested transitions. Within that common framework students will identify particular arenas of special interest to pursue in more detail.

This seminar has no prerequisites and will not assume particular prior knowledge or experiences. In the expectation that students will have diverse backgrounds and different level of familiarity with Africa, the seminar will enable participants to develop their own interests and their expertise.

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This course develops the breadth of a survey though the interactive style of a seminar. We will meet weekly. I shall take responsibility for introducing the topics, reviewing relevant literature, and suggesting appropriate readings. Class participants will share responsibility for the content and conduct of the seminar, including summarizing and criticizing their readings, contributing to the collective online discussion, and suggesting avenues for developing further the topics we discuss.

Each seminar participant will select, early in the Quarter, a particular organization or individual in contemporary South Africa for continuing attention throughout the course. As the Quarter progresses, seminar participants will focus part of their effort on that organization or individual, including noting current events, developing a relevant bibliography, doing supplementary reading, and sharing their puzzles, observations, and insights with other class members.

Weekly videos (Mondays, 12:30?1:20 pm) will provide additional perspectives on contemporary South Africa. Occasional longer films or other special presentations may be scheduled during the Quarter.

Students whose documented disability may require an academic accommodation should contact the Student Disability Resource Center (Office of Accessible Education): 563 Salvatierra Walk (723-1066, 723-1067 TTY).

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A seminar is the product of its participants. Hence, each participant will share in the responsibility for the direction and conduct of the seminar, as well as completing her/his own individual work.

This seminar will require both broad and focused reading by its participants. That reading must be critical and analytical. The assigned readings are of course entry points to the topics considered. Accordingly, seminar participants will be expected to develop their own supplementary reading lists throughout the Quarter.

Students will be expected to do the necessary reading for the course, both from the works suggested in the syllabus and from sources they locate themselves. Students will be expected as well to participate in the seminar's collective effort, including reporting on particular readings, presenting their own ideas and insights, providing feedback to their colleagues, and contributing to the collective online discussion.

To facilitate regular and prompt feedback on students? work, the assignments for this seminar will be relatively brief and distributed throughout the Quarter. Students will prepare two Analytic Reviews of selected readings and a Critical Essay on the organization or individual on which they focus. Developing the Critical Essay will require maintaining an online journal over the quarter, with regular entries. To reinforce the collaborative nature of our work, students will comment online on each week?s topic, regularly add to their online scrapbook on their primary focus, comment on other class members? journal entries, and share responsibility for two mini-debates on contested transitions in South Africa. Students will report periodically on assigned readings and present their Critical Essay observations to the seminar.

Clearly, this seminar will require initiative, self-direction, and collective responsibility on the part of each participant. Each individual's own work is intended to contribute to a collective product. For that to be possible, each individual's own work must be thorough, creative, and timely.

Except by special arrangement, written work will be expected when due and will not be accepted after the last class meeting.


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A Write 2 Course

South Africa: Contested Transitions fulfills the PWR 2 part of Stanford University's Writing and Rhetoric General Education requirement. As we work on understanding contemporary South Africa and its social history, students develop research, writing, and oral presentation skills. Designed to facilitate that, the class assignments listed above require research and involve both written and oral presentation.

Writing for this course includes: 2 Analytic Essays; 1 Critical Essay (composed of online journal entries, online journal feedback, and a final summary essay); and weekly comments and responses on the current topic in the course web site. Oral presentations include: reports on assigned readings (twice during the quarter); update on the Critical Essay; and collaborative participation in mini-debates on post apartheid policy decisions (twice during the quarter).

To enable students to present their work to an informed and spirited audience, we will organize a Contested Transitions mini-TedX toward the end of the quarter. After course enrollment has stabilized, we will set the date and time.

In addition to the instructor and the course assistant, Stanford provides strong support for the development of communication skills, including the Hume Center for Writing and Speaking and other resources, through the Introductory Seminars program.


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Several sorts of readings are necessary for this class: broad overviews of major events and actors, analyses of specific issues and interactions in South African history, politics, and society, and empirical studies of particular people, places, and events. Both to provide alternative perspectives and because historically most South Africans have had limited access to research libraries, scholarly journals, and academic publishers, we will also draw on the observations and analyses presented in novels, poetry, and drama.

We will use regularly:

  • Hein Marais, South Africa Pushed to the Limit: The Political Economy of Change (London: Zed Books, 2011) [Stanford Bookstore, paperbound]

Like the videos, novels are another entry point into understanding South Africa. Among South Africa's best known authors is Nadine Gordimer. An engaging and challenging novel is:

  • Nadine Gordimer, Burger's Daughter (Viking Penguin, 1981) [Stanford Bookstore: Recommended]

Among the other books that class members may find useful as basic resources is:

  • Nancy L. Clark and William H. Worger, South Africa: The Rise and Fall of Apartheid (New York: Longman, 2nd edition 2011) [Stanford Bookstore: Recommended]

All seminar participants will be expected to review a limited set of basic readings for each seminar topic. Some will be available as a Course Reader, while others will be available through Course Reserves in Green Library and electronically on the course web site: The History/AAAS 48Q Course Reader will be ordered online from University Readers in electronic or print format. Placing a print order provides immediate electronic access to the first 30% of the Course Reader in pdf format. To order, log on to and follow the instructions.

Readings for each topic are listed in the schedule of seminar sessions. Readings are located in several places, including Marais, the Course Reader, web reserve, and Green Library reserve. Since all students can access online sources, with the exception of a few especially important documents, sources available online will not be printed or added to library or course reserves. Since some important sources, especially those we identify during the Quarter, may not be on library reserve, seminar participants will need to locate them in the general library collections and share them with other class members.

Since an important goal of the seminar is to enable students to develop their skills in finding and using relevant research, seminar participants will be expected to supplement those suggested readings with other materials relevant to the topics considered and to their specific topical focus.

Studying contemporary Africa requires regular use of both electronic and print sources. Course assignments and discussions will therefore encourage students to develop their electronic searching and locating skills for sources available in both print and electronic form. Note that electronic sources will not in themselves provide a sufficient foundation for our seminar's work. Even as the volume of material available online increases, printed publications?books, scholarly articles not yet online, and government documents?will remain important.

The list of seminar sessions, topics, and dates, along with suggested readings, is attached. The materials included in Course Reader are marked r. The materials available electronically on the course web site are marked WS. The lists of readings for each theme are of course themselves introductions to broad topics and themes. Course participants will need, therefore, to develop the skills of addressing a list that contains more readings than can be accomplished within a single week and that must be supplemented by additional readings selected by each individual. Those skills include: identifying quickly the major thrust of the argument presented in an article or book; surveying the contents of a book through its preface, introduction, table of contents, and initial and concluding chapters; associating authors with particular schools of thought and/or methodologies; reading for a narrowly defined purpose; building on reading previously done; and sharing reading responsibilities with other class members. Each week, each class member will need to make judicious choices about what to read and how to read it.

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Evaluation and Grading

The primary criteria for grading will be both individual progress (in mastery of the course themes and relevant literature and in critical, analytic, and synthetic skills) throughout the Quarter and, since collaboration with others is essential to our approach, contribution to the collective effort of the class. Thus, no student will be disadvantaged by a relatively more limited background at the outset.

Written work will be evaluated as it is submitted. I am happy to meet with seminar participants to supplement the written evaluations.

This course will require a substantial independent and self-sustained effort, as well as a creative contribution to a collective enterprise. For those who accept that challenge, the course should prove demanding, involving, and rewarding.

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Video Schedule (Mondays, 12:30 -1:20 pm)

Jan 8 Where Do I Stand?
Jan 15 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
Jan 22 We Jive Like This
Jan 29 Generations of Resistance
Feb 5 Maids and Madams
Feb 12 In a Time of Violence, Part 1
Feb 19 Presidents' Day
Feb 26 In a Time of Violence, Part 2
Mar 5 In a Time of Violence, Part 3
Mar 12 Testing Hope: Grade 12 in the New South Africa

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last updated: 01/14/2018 11:25 AM
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