Collegial Venture:
The late Professor of History Jeffrey Butler (left) and his colleague, Professor Emeritus of History Richard Elphick (right), shared deep professional and personal interests in South Africa. Thanks to Elphick and others, Butler’s comprehensive study of race relations in his hometown of Cradock was published posthumously.

When Professor Emeritus of History Rick Elphick set out to complete a major work left unfinished by the late Wesleyan history professor Jeffrey Butler, he faced challenges that few editors ever encounter.

Starting in the late 1970s, Butler had undertaken a 20-year study of Cradock, the South African town where he grew up, as an exemplar of how growing racial segregation in the early 20th century, followed by the imposition of apartheid, had reshaped the fabric of the town. Scholars of South African history had looked forward to publication of his work, but tragically, in 2001 he suffered a massive stroke that left him unable to complete the project.

Elphick was determined to finish preparing the work for publication, motivated by great fondness for his senior colleague and a belief that the book would make an important contribution to the history of South Africa—a topic that had resonated at Wesleyan, which saw a sustained anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s and into the ’90s.

Butler had mostly finished the narrative portion of the text. With advice from Jeannette Hopkins, the former director of Wesleyan University Press, and Butler’s daughter, Katy Butler ’71, Elphick edited and cut the text by about a third. Butler’s extensive and detailed endnotes presented a more vexing challenge: He had written them in a personal code that relied on idiosyncratic acronyms.

“About half of them were not self-evident,” Elphick related. Decoding the endnotes was a major challenge, for which Elphick enlisted the help of Susan Sturman, a retired librarian in Cape Town. She undertook the “heroic” task of identifying first, the archives, and then, the relevant files where Butler had done his research, in order to fact-check the text and notes. She was assisted by Adam Tinkle ’08, who checked numerous microfilm records. Together, they clarified about 80 percent of the hundreds of footnotes.

And then there were the illustrations.

“The book needed illustrations because it is trying to evoke a distant world,” Elphick explained. Butler had suggested about 50 illustrations, and it was only late in the editing process when Elphick discovered that many of the originals were lost. He hired another librarian, Elizabeth de Wet, to hunt down alternative images that would serve similar purposes. “It wasn’t easy,” he said.

Next were the maps. Butler had collected a number of maps of Cradock, in the Eastern Cape Province, created by different people, at different times, with different scales and varying attention to detail. To impose order, Elphick worked with an information technology specialist at Wesleyan, Mariah Klaneski Reisner ’04, who configured the maps on a consistent grid based on aerial photography.

Mapping was a key component of the project because it showed how the community landscape had evolved over the years, particularly during the imposition of compulsory racial segregation under apartheid. For Butler, the question that drove his book was how his liberal, civic-minded family had shaped, and then failed to shape, Cradock in the age of apartheid.

Butler’s family had deep roots in the town: his grandfather founded a business there, his father was editor of the local newspaper, and an aunt was a Quaker activist on behalf of blacks. When Butler was growing up in the 1920s, Cradock was by no means racially integrated, but some “coloreds” (a South African designation for mixed-race people) lived in a mixed area, as well as a few Asians and African blacks. Most blacks and coloreds lived in the “location” (a South African term), which was separated from the white area by only a single street. Many blacks worked in the white area of town.

In subsequent years segregation gained a stronger hold, and the location saw few, if any, of the advances in electrification, water supply, and sanitation that the exclusively white area enjoyed. In 1948, the South African legislature adopted the Group Areas Act, which mandated apartheid, a much harsher version of segregation.
By the time Butler returned to Cradock in 1977 after an absence of four decades, none of his family members remained. The location still existed, but no one lived there and it resembled a bombed area of destruction. Blacks and coloreds lived each in their own segregated townships.

In the preface to Cradock, Butler describes his return: “I reached the town from the south on a new national road along the wide, rocky, and nearly dry Great Fish River, which runs here on the edge of the Great Karoo semi-desert, a landscape of koppies (rocky outcroppings) and tafelberge (table mountains) rising from a thirstland of low gray bush. Here white settlers, from the Netherlands and the British Isles, established themselves from the 1780s on, marking out large sheep and goat farms on lands that had once been pasturage for the cattle of the Xhosa people, and building towns and garrisons fifty miles apart. To the left of the road, about six miles from Cradock and rising two thousand feet above the valley floor, was the familiar sight of Buffelskop (Buffalo’s Head) … .

“Past the kop, I came upon two townships new to me, one on the left for Africans, another on the right for coloreds (mixed-race people), both with the dreary uniformity of most South African public housing: little boxes in straight lines, tightly packed in a dusty landscape, with no evidence of any attempt at a pleasing urban design. I could see no parks, no church steeples, and no main commercial street. Closer to the center of Cradock itself, I passed the old ‘location’ that the townships had replaced, a neighborhood contiguous to the white town but dwelling worlds apart from it, where urban Africans and coloreds had been relegated (and regulated) since the 1840s.”
One of the principal themes of the book, according to Elphick, is that the imposition of apartheid was far messier than is generally realized. Efforts to implement the apartheid system in Cradock stretched over two decades until 1971, and bureaucratic wrangling was the norm.

Opposition to apartheid grew over time in South Africa, sometimes violently, including in Cradock. Butler writes: “The political murder of four Cradock men in 1985—soon to become the ‘Cradock Four’—was to raise the political temperature even further, as authorities wrestled with urban violence in one town after another, particularly in the reef towns of the Transvaal. For a brief period, Cradock became a symbol of the national struggle.
“Nothing could make clearer that the enforcement of the Group Areas Act in Cradock, and in other towns and cities, far from calming a society in wrywing [friction], was one more provocation to people of color that would eventually bring down not only the apartheid regime, but also the long-standing structures of white political supremacy in South Africa.”

A launch party was held in early December at Wesleyan’s Wasch Center for Retired Faculty for Cradock: How Segregation and Apartheid came to a South African Town, published by the University of Virginia Press, December 2017.

William L. Holder ’75 served as editor of Wesleyan from 1994 until he retired in 2018.