Accepted Paper:

Biography and shifting historical context: Arrie Paulus and the currency of rumour  


Danelle van Zyl-Hermann (University of Basel)

Paper short abstract:

Arrie Paulus was apartheid South Africa’s most infamous white trade unionist, remembered as the personification of working-class racism. This paper focuses on rumours surrounding Paulus’ racial and ethnic origins to examine the political currency of biographical rumour in late and post-apartheid SA.

Paper long abstract:

Arrie Paulus grew up in working-class Pretoria during the 1930s and 1940s. As a young developer on the gold mines of South Africa's West Rand, he distinguished himself as one of the top-earning rock breakers. In 1967, Paulus became general secretary of the all-white Mineworkers' Union, a position he held for twenty years. Under his leadership, the union administration emerged from years of corruption into a 'golden decade'. Paulus' infamous brinkmanship saw him win financial benefits and improved working conditions for the semi-skilled workers he represented. He oversaw the MWU jealously guarding the race-based protection whites enjoyed under apartheid rule, and government and mining capital alike regarded him with wary reverence. In scholarship, he remains immortalized as the personification of white working-class racism.

Yet Paulus was haunted by a rumour: that he was not South African-born, but the son of Middle Eastern immigrants who became Afrikaans on the mines. This defender of race-based privilege and staunch Afrikaner nationalist, it was whispered, was not actually white. The rumour circulated in reform-era South Africa, and persists in the post-apartheid present.

Historians have considered the meaning and function of rumour in relation to events and social groups, but it has received little attention in relation to individual biography. Through the Paulus story, this paper examines the political currency of biographical rumour in late and post-apartheid South Africa. It argues that biographical rumour provides insight into not only the time in which a person lived, but also the context in which their legacy lingers.

Panel P149
The importance of biography in African historical studies