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Working History | History Working

It is 40 years since the History Workshop was founded, by a handful of intellectuals committed to contributing to the breaking down of apartheid in the wake of a powerful resurgence of student and worker militancy in the 1970s.  

Africanist and Marxist influences mixed with strains of Social and People’s History to produce new ways of understanding Southern African history and for suggesting the most likely path to democracy. Academics sought to reach out to the ‘ordinary’ people whom they understood to be the makers of history.

The early years of the History Workshop are remembered for their spectacular Open Days and attempts to ‘teach’ people how to write their own histories. But it has been argued that much of the real business of the History Workshop was, nonetheless, conducted behind the closed doors of the seminar room.

After the Workshop went through an existential crisis in the early 1990s, the meaning of what came to be known as public history changed profoundly. Communities outside the university came to be regarded as partners rather than as occasional visitors. The Workshop – born in a dark and despairing moment of late apartheid – necessarily had to reorientate itself to engage with the new conditions that followed the installation of formal democracy in 1994.

Over the past 23 years the Workshop has been actively involved in various public history projects with communities, civil society organisations, heritage associations and educators.  At the same time the History Workshop played an important role in bringing an historical lens to bear on key questions confronting South African society. In recent years, a core component of its research has cohered around the South African Research Chair in Local Histories, Present Realities.



Join us at an Exhibition celebrating 40 years of the History Workshop 

Curated by Sally Gaule, the exhibition draws attention to some of the key turning points in the life of the History Workshop and to its prodigious and very varied productions from path breaking academic works to engagement in public history. 

The exhibition is part of the Southern African Historical Society
26th Biennial Conference being held at Wits University, 21-23 June 2017.

Date and Time: 18h00 on 20 June 2017
Opening address: Prof. Zeblon Vilakazi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor,
Research and Postgraduate Affairs
Venue: Fassler Gallery, John Moffat Building,
Braamfontein Campus East, Wits University
RSVP by 15 June 2017 to

Curator: Sally Gaule. Team: Noor Nieftagodien, Anne Heffernan, Thembani Dube, Gabriele Mohale, Cynthia Kros. Artist: Andrea Rolfes 


 Select Publications

The land belongs to us book cover

The Land Belongs to Us

Gold and workers book cover

Gold and Workers

Hidden struggles in rural SA book cover

Hidden Struggles in Rural South Africa

Cast in a racial mould book cover

Cast in a Racial Mould

Women of Phokeng book cover

Women of Phokeng

Apartheid and education book cover

Apartheid and Education

Bo Tsotsi book cover


Alexandra book cover


Ekurhuleni book cover


100 years of the ANC

100 years of the ANC

Place of thorns book cover

Place of Thorns

Students must rise book cover

Students must Rise

Soweto Uprising

The Soweto Uprising