This commemorative essay marks the 2003 centenary of the Department of History in the University of Cape Town, South Africa. It has the longest‐known record of continuous academic history teaching and research in Africa, and has for decades been a leading site in the construction of a South African national history. Its beginnings in the segregationist South Africa of the early 1900s were quintessentially colonial, with Cape Town historians bewitched by a historiography of British imperial achievement and the march of an English settler civilization. While course teaching remained almost exclusively Eurocentric in focus for many decades, this small scholarly world of safe, grey‐suited white males (and the occasional female) helped gradually to pioneer the writing of the history of South African society and economy in its own right. Inevitably, earlier concentration was on the political and constitutional history of white society, with professional historians showing little interest in the internal dynamics of majority black societies, or in exploring their role in the shaping of the country's history. Yet, treatment of the past also developed a liberal vision, with historical focus on race relations as a spur to improvement and reform. The period after the Second World War produced further new recognition of the importance of a more Africanist history. In more recent decades, partly as the inevitable result of the crumbling of apartheid and the coming of majority rule, Cape Town history perspectives followed paths into social history, urban history and oral history, inspired by movements like History Workshop.
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