When I first began research in South Africa in the mid-1980s, I came across a subversive, and probably illegal, comic book lampooning homeland chiefs as apartheid stooges. The townships had just erupted into violent resistance, and state repression was careening the country toward civil war and, ultimately, to a negotiated end of apartheid. Journalistic coverage tended to be heavily biased toward events in urban areas, and political discourse generally pitted modernizing urban activists against rural, tribal, collaborators.

Most scholars knew better, even if much of the historiography stressed urban politics. The country’s history of migrant labor intertwined rural and urban in powerful and complicated ways. Political elites, especially from the African National Congress (anc), often hailed from tribal leaders. Nelson Mandela grew up among Thembu royalty. Gibbs, however, moves far beyond these facts to a sustained analysis of the rococo history of the nationalist elites and their relations...

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