African Studies Quarterly
Volume 8, Issue 1
Fall 2004

Historical Dictionary of South Africa, Second Edition. Christopher Saunders, Nicholas Southey, and Mary-Lynn Suttie. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2000. 375 pp.


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A professor once asked his students, "If we had to put dictionaries in a part of the library other than the reference section, where would we put them? How should they be categorized? In the literature section? With books on mass communication?"

His answer-that dictionaries should be placed among historical texts, and that they reveal a people's history through the words employed-underscored the fluidity of language, its use, and its history. With this in mind, the phrase "Historical Dictionary" is somewhat redundant. All dictionaries are historical documents. While Christopher Saunders, Nicholas Southey, and Mary-Lynn Suttie's monograph, Historical Dictionary of South Africa, Second Edition, approaches history from the other end (i.e., compacting a nation's history into a collection of persons, organizations, movements, and so on, rather than extracting history out of the words themselves), the same result is achieved. By reading the second edition of Saunders, et al's Dictionary, and by comparing it to the first edition, one can trace South African historical and historiographical developments over the past twenty years.

This should come as no surprise to those readers familiar with Saunders' research interests in South African history and historiography. The author of many articles and monographs, including South Africa: A Modern History (Fifth Edition, 2000, with Rodney Davenport) and The Making of the South African Past: Major Historians on Race and Class (1988), among others, Saunders wrote the first edition of the Dictionary in 1983 and later collaborated with Southey and Suttie for the second edition (2000). The end result is an indispensable tool for students of South African history.

Within 375 pages, the authors present a chronology of major events from 1488 to 1998; maps; a compendium of encyclopedic entries detailing historical figures, languages, ethnicities, political movements, geographic regions, organizations, religions, art, economics, and events; and a bibliography of supplementary reading that spans more than eighty pages. It is a succinct, efficient, expensive, and information-packed work.

When one compares the second edition with the first, one difference presents itself immediately: the Dictionary has been expanded in most every way. The chronology of major events grew from 14 to 21 pages, the bibliography from 37 to 82, and the entire text from 241 to 375.

Secondly, criticisms of the first edition have been addressed and changes implemented, improving the work as a whole. In a generally positive review of the 1983 edition, one reviewer noted: "Too often, entries have to be scanned to find.information rather than, as should be the case, revealing it in the first sentence"; "Some of the entries, such as 'economic change' and 'business cycles', are so broad that they defy definition and could well have been excluded"; that historians are overrepresented in entries; and that some entries can only be seen as "oddities."[1]

The authors addressed each of these criticisms. To use but one alteration in the text as an example, compare the two versions' first line from the entry on Cecil Rhodes: "He followed his brother Herbert from England to Natal in 1870, where he grew cotton, and then to the [diamond] fields, where he began working his brother's claims in November 1871" (First Edition, p. 148); and "Imperialist, mining magnate and politician."  (Second Edition, p. 219). Succinct introductory clauses follow suit and accompany most entries in the second edition.

The most significant-at least the more historically interesting-changes made between the first and second editions reflect the turbulent national developments between their publishing. Indeed, the two editions can be seen as bookends to the most dramatic transformations in South African society, serving as written records of the nation's shifting historiographical trends.

As examples, in the first edition, neither HIV/AIDS nor Frederik Willem de Klerk have entries, naturally.[2] Shaka is discussed together with Zulu, and Winnie Mandela is only briefly referenced as "a woman of great force of character" within the entry on Nelson Mandela. Interestingly enough, in the first edition there is no entry for Jan van Riebeeck (although it should be noted that Saunders intentionally "curtail[ed] biographical entries drastically" as a result of the recent publishing of the Dictionary of South African Biography).[3] The second edition, then, does account for both HIV/AIDS and De Klerk. Shaka merits his own entry apart from "Zulu Kingdom." Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has her own space apart from her ex-husband's. Other biographical segments -- such as Jan van Riebeeck's -- have been added, too, giving the Dictionary better balance than before. These are but a few examples, and one could fill pages -- about 375 of them -- with more.

The one major flaw of Scarecrow Press' second edition of the Historical Dictionary is that the encyclopedic entries and the bibliography -- each superb offerings -- are completely separated and not cross-referenced. Leaving these out seriously handicapped the authors' expertise: to offer suggested readings for further information on each entry. Readers who are looking for such information should consult the South African first edition published by David Philip in 1998. In that edition, Saunders and Southey were given more freedom to enhance their entries with recommended citations, something that was impossible in the Scarecrow Press editions due to the editorial conformity of the entire Historical Dictionary series.

Still, the latest edition stands on its own and is an extremely valuable addition to any collection of South African historical texts, be they on student desks or library shelves. The Dictionary serves its purpose of informing quickly and thoroughly on historical themes, participants, and trends in South African history. Saunders, Southey, and Suttie have provided an indispensable resource to supplement the study of South African history, and furthermore, scholars of South African historiography might wish to compare the first and second editions -- a valuable exercise -- should both be available.

Andrew Offenburger
Scottsdale, Arizona


[1] Rob Turrell. "Review of Historical Dictionary of South Africa, First Edition." Journal of African History 27, no. 2 (1986), 408-09.

[2] "Naturally" is used to signify that the omissions of entries on HIV/AIDS and Willem de Klerk are highlighted only to demonstrate the chronological and historical lapse between the first and second editions, and are not shortcomings of the text by any means.

[3] Christopher Saunders, Historical Dictionary of South Africa, First Edition (Metuchen, NJ, and London: Scarecrow Press, 1983), ix.