JOHANNESBURG — RECENT political changes have revived interest in American studies at universities in South Africa and have led to the first initiative to coordinate programs nationwide.
"With the changes that are taking place here, many American issues are finding a resonance in South Africa," says Greg Cuthbertson, senior lecturer in history at the University of South Africa (Unisa) and director of one of the few postgraduate courses in US history in the country.
The United States Constitution and concepts like affirmative action and free enterprise have acquired a new significance since South Africa entered a political transition two years ago, Dr. Cuthbertson says.
Interest in African-American history has also surged because black South Africans wanted to discover the experience of their counterparts in the US under segregation and through the civil-rights struggle.
"Renewed interest in African-American studies is the spark for the resurgence of interest in American studies in this country," he says.
From the mid-1970s until the end of the '80s, interest in American studies waned in South Africa. During the '70s, white South Africans began to react to what they regarded as a hostile US position, while many black South Africans turned against the US because they regarded it as an ally of the white establishment.
This trend intensified during the Reagan administration because the US Congress initiated sanctions against South Africa, while Reagan's policy of constructive engagement with Pretoria further alienated black South Africans.
During the Bush administration, white attitudes toward the US began to soften because of the lifting of sanctions. Black opinion has also softened because of Bush's support for the black cause and his even-handed approach in bringing the two sides to the negotiating table.
Peter Vale, professor of international studies at the University of the Western Cape, says that in the '70s most political science departments at South African universities included comparative studies in American government, but no attempt was made to coordinate different academic disciplines with American components.
"In the 1960s and '70s it was taught as a separate module," he says. Although history and literature courses now focus most keenly on American studies, "The whole subject of American studies is approached in a very ad hoc way at present," says Ernest Messina, a history lecturer at Western Cape University, who runs a postgraduate course in African-American studies (see story on Page 12).
"American Studies: Can they contribute to the new South Africa?" was the title of the first conference in South Africa on American studies held at Rhodes University in Grahamstown the end of last year. Some academics say it marked a turning point for American studies here.
"For the first time in December we had an interdisciplinary conference looking at American Studies in a holistic way," says Cuthbertson, a leading player at the conference.
Funded by the US Information Service, the conference drew 45 lecturers in American literature, history, governance, economics, law, and geography from universities throughout South Africa as well as from the neighboring states of Zambia, Botswana, and Malawi.
"It was wonderful to see academics from these countries mingling with their South African counterparts," says George Carter, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is directing the Rhodes University's Academic Skills Programme while on a year's sabbatical leave.
Cuthbertson says the interaction of professors from different academic disciplines on a topic that transcended them was in itself a breakthrough in South Africa. "This was a rare opportunity to have such interaction," he says.
The conference was so successful that it will be followed by a second conference in Pietermaritzburg, Natal, in July. Columbus's 500th anniversary will be the central theme. It is also expected to mark the launch of the first Association of American Studies in southern Africa.
This would make South Africa the eighth nation - along with those neighboring states that joined - to have such a national association. The others are Britain, Japan, Germany, India, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tanzania.
The conference also symbolized the ending of the cultural and academic boycotts, Cuthbertson says. "Interaction between academic institutions and staff in the [US and South Africa] is likely to increase dramatically.
"The conference was also a breakthrough in terms of its African representation, which assured that the association will be inclusive of southern African countries," he says.