South African geographers, decolonisation and apartheid, 1970-1994

This paper explores the experiences of South African geographers in the 1970s and ‘80s, examining the ways in which geographers engaged with apartheid as a project of national development that geographical skills might support, a policy to be contested intellectually and politically, and an object of study. Whilst a variety of experiences are detailed, focus falls especially on anti-regime work – and on universities designated for ‘non-white’ students – institutions that have now become known in South Africa as Historically Black Universities (HBUs). Whilst these are not representative of country as a whole, the paper tells an important story of radical geographical work and of the experiences of black students and lecturers under apartheid. The paper draws on more than twenty interviews with South African geographers, as well as other correspondence, departmental and personal archives, and academic publications. These sources allow us to see the variety of ways that geographers worked to challenge the apartheid system (as well as being complicit with it), and how they attempted to transform the discipline in the 1980s and 1990s – work which was understood explicitly as an attempt to decolonise geography and the wider university sector. The experiences explored contribute to our understanding of decolonisation in two ways. First, they help to historicise current debates about decolonising geography and the university. Second, this intellectual, political, practical and administrative labour highlights the need to understand decolonisation not only through the lens of research and theory, but also in teaching, administration, institutional structures, activism, and the everyday academic practice of geographers.