Feb 7, 2024

Apartheid, Animation, and the Power of Narrative with Thula Simpson

This interview was conducted by Giraffics producer, Habiba Khashab

Some people have better ways of narrating history than others. Thula Simpson is both a historian and storyteller, constructing an image of a country that lived through decades of war and division.

Simpson is a British scholar of South African History, author of the acclaimed book Umkhonto We Sizwe: The ANC's Armed Struggle, and the brains behind the apartheid Ted-Ed project. His work and studies have explored and explained South African history not only through apartheid but from a more extensive scope of years of segregation and colonialism.

In this interview, we spoke about our latest project together with Ted-Ed, challenges and successes, animation, and, of course, history.

Collaboration and Success:

1. Ted-ed apartheid project is a success, in your opinion, What were the key aspects of this collaboration that contributed to the success of the final product?

A key contributor to the project’s success was the energy, enthusiasm and positivity of the internal communication among the contributors. In fact the power of wording is the most important thing I learned from the initiative. It is something that I tried implementing myself with other people in other contexts, and it works.

Besides this, the other notable contributing factors were the high technical competence of the Ted-Ed team, and the energy and creativity they brought to transferring concepts into realised outcomes.

2. Could you elaborate on your collaboration with TED-Ed and the production house (giraffics) to ensure the animation accurately portrayed historical events and emotions?

Within this partnership, I provided the historical content. It was then up to the giraffics team to interpret the content in visual terms. I think the results speak for themselves – the images in the final video penetrate the subconscious, make an entrance into the soul, and it is only subsequently that you realise how deep the deposit is. The images insinuate themselves by analogy – the chessboard, the ship tottering on turbulent sea, the missing puzzle piece, the conveyor belt leading to a vortex, the inverted pyramid, the key always unable to find its lock – these and others are metaphors that the video employs with great effect. I think the visual imagery is a masterpiece.

 Challenges and Satisfaction:

3. What did you find to be the most challenging aspect of writing and developing this animated lesson on apartheid? 

Offering an overview of apartheid in under 1 000 words was undoubtedly the most challenging aspect. I have been used to attempting the task in full length books and semester length courses. But the tightness of the word count also imposed important discipline that I think carries scholarly merit on its own. You have to reduce the system to its essential content. That involves clarifying in your own mind what is absolutely essential. The Ted-Ed project’s writing team meanwhile did a great job in keeping my feet to the fire in terms of clarifying the aspects of my explanations that would not be clear to an intelligent but non-specialist audience. It was an invaluable test of concision, and precise, clear communication. I feel I emerged having provided a sharper definition of apartheid than I had previously.

4. Are you satisfied with the way it conveys the complexity and significance of this historical period?

 I am. For reasons stated above, I think that within the less than seven minutes that the video lasts, the giraffics team found ways of adding to the text, in terms of impregnating it with additional meanings, suggestions, and resonances. Those layers and dimensions exist in the video in the form of an interplay between word and image that is particularly effective. I think the results are brilliant.

Condensing a Vast History:

5. Could you describe the process of transforming a vast and complex historical narrative like apartheid into a concise 7-minute animation?

The most difficult part involved breaking ground at the initial stage. There are so many possible angles and directions that you can develop, so the questions of where to start, and what route(s) to follow are not easy to resolve. In cooperation with the writing team the alternatives were soon narrowed down, and we worked together in identifying the most fruitful trails and the straightest lines to our destination. The giraffics team further  enhanced our capacity to economise in terms of expressing the maximal content in minimal space. They did this by adding the ‘more’ that I mentioned earlier. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s brilliant essay on ‘History’ suggests that the value of the subject rests not in the discovery of knowledge that subverts existing understandings (modern historians generally agree on a ‘common sense’ approach that involves dismissing as implausible anything in their sources that suggests magical or miraculous interposition – we dismiss such claims simply because they run against the grain of our everyday experience). Rather, Emerson suggests that the value of the subject lies in terms of verifying that which the reader subconsciously knows to be true. The video penetrates into that realm.

Research and Animation:

6. What were the biggest obstacles you faced while translating historical research into an engaging animated narrative?

There were many fewer challenges than I expected. When a research concept was introduced, the giraffics team would illuminate it, and we would be well on the way to a solution. All the obstacles were overcome expeditiously. The biggest obstacle was probably a revision that I suggested just as the clock was about to strike midnight, but that too was accommodated efficiently.

Animation’s Uniqueness:

8. In your opinion, what unique storytelling opportunities did animation offer in narrating the complex history of South African apartheid compared to other mediums?

The animation offered an opportunity to dovetail word and image in ways that heightened the emotional resonance of the account. In a limited sense you are able to do this in books by adding pictures and maps, while if you are a sufficiently gifted writer you will be able to paint with your words, but the Ted-Ed video took it to another level in terms of the immediacy of their interplay of word and image.

Personal Background and Motivation:

9. Could you share more about your background and upbringing? Did you personally experience any forms of segregation or discrimination growing up in South Africa?

I was born and brought up in Swaziland (now Eswatini) in the 1980s. My family were South African expatriates, so we were indirectly affected by the politics in the country, and my mother married an operative of the African National Congress’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, so we became directly affected by the conflict. It was consequent to that involvement that we eventually migrated to Britain when I was eight. So while we did not experience segregation directly, we were most definitely affected by the conflict in South Africa. I basically grew up from the age of eight in Britain, and got my degrees there, and it was only after meeting a South African who was studying in Britain and made it clear that she was going to return home, that I emigrated to South Africa. I had visited South Africa and had stayed there for research visits previously so it was not an alien country, but I had never lived there permanently, so it was like emigrating to foreign land.

10. What initially sparked your interest and passion for studying South African history, particularly focusing on apartheid?

It was almost by default. I experimented with thesis topics on the anti-globalization movement and on Russian history, before settling on South African history. So there was no autobiographical imperative driving me to study South Africa. In fact if anything the prospect of delving into autobiographical content probably served as a deterrent, and I have avoided doing so in any of my research writings. I decided to focus on the armed struggle of Umkhonto we Sizwe after reading Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and Howard Barrell’s MK: The ANC’s Armed Struggle. In different ways they spoke about the ANC’s ambivalence about violence, its horror of civil war, and its preference for a negotiated settlement. I wanted to explain that seeming paradox of taking up arms but seeking to avoid civil war, and I wanted to explore the extent to which South Africa’s ‘miraculous’ and unexpectedly peaceful transition to majority rule could be explained by this aspect of the strategic and tactical thinking of its leading liberation movement.

Addressing Misconceptions:

11. What are some of the most common misconceptions people have about South Africa and its history, particularly regarding the apartheid era?

People have tended to overestimate the depth of apartheid’s roots in South African society. Figures such as Jan Smuts, the leader of the United Party which was defeated in the 1948 elections that commenced the apartheid era, warned during the campaign that apartheid ran against the grain of key traditions of white supremacy in South Africa. A different way of putting it is that racism South African style had rested on a mix of vertical and horizontal domination. Smuts’s point was that the needs of the economy would require horizontal domination to continue and indeed to be expanded. He added that whites would also never accept ceding the amounts of land necessary to make complete separation possible. And he was proven correct. Many aspects of apartheid policy were never implemented, many of the measures that were introduced generated widespread opposition – including among whites, notably in constituencies such as the business community, and most of the pillars of apartheid were removed by the National Party government itself before the 1994 elections. These latter reforms were based on the notion that apartheid actually threatened white survival. So we hear much about the supposedly ineradicable legacies of apartheid, but in many aspects its roots were shallow or non-existent and we need a clearer definition of what apartheid was. In many cases what we see today is actually a more interesting story about how white supremacy and racial inequality evolve in ostensibly non-racial, democratic settings. To give some examples: what are the tipping points in schools after which integration – which is accepted in principle and indeed in practice – leads to minority flight? what guides perceptions of competent and capable leadership in institutions that have, ostensibly, been integrated?  These and other dynamics cannot satisfactorily be defined as continuing ‘apartheid’, for they are responses to the demise of formal apartheid.

12. How do you believe this animation can help address these misconceptions and promote a more accurate understanding of this important historical event?

The video captures the distinction between apartheid and minority rule, pointing out that the two are not coterminous. It points out that the demise of apartheid was the precondition for reform and negotiations and that this preceded the fall of minority rule by many years. If we were to extend the story further, we could probe in detail how the largely peaceful nature of the transition was guided by the realisation and acceptance – importantly by a majority of whites – that apartheid was unworkable, that it had largely collapsed, that attempts to resuscitate it would lead to further violence and decline, and therefore that a negotiated transition to a new dispensation was an attractive alternative.

Recommended Resources:

13. Could you recommend any specific books or documentaries that you believe provide further insights into the history of South African apartheid?

Regarding books, consider Saul Dubow’s Apartheid (https://global.oup.com/ukhe/product/apartheid-1948-1994-9780199550678?cc=gb&lang=en&).

Also, David Welsh’s The Rise and Fall of Apartheid (https://www.upress.virginia.edu/title/4313/).

For a more conversational approach involving leading historians on the period, consider the Apartheid Legacy project’s History of Apartheid podcast series (https://antiapartheidlegacy.org.uk/resources/podcasts/history-apartheid-podcasts/).

Regarding documentaries, consider the BBC’s Death of Apartheid series (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5utQ31THWQ).

While for an earlier period, the Associated Press’s documentary on South Africa in the Seventies (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3KpnREOnvg&t=212s) is useful.


Some people you could listen to for hours, and Thula Simpson is one of them. In an elaborate and beautifully crafted interview discussion, Simspson shared his impressions and feelings on the Ted-Ed projects, along with his life's work on South African history. We started the interview with the Ted-Ed project, where Simpson believed that the success was due to everyone's enthusiasm, energy, and creativity in bringing this project to life. He pointed out how Giraffics' visual contribution greatly influenced the project's success to metaphorically and literally portray the historical content he provided. We then shifted to the major challenges that we faced in the production, and for Simpson, it was to offer an overview of apartheid in under 1000 words and, most importantly, from what angle and direction. It was also essential to provide content that was clarified and easy to understand by a non-specialist audience. However, despite the challenge, the team was able to complement words with images and interlock them in ways that provoke the viewer's emotions and senses. We then got a bit personal and shifted to his upbringing and his motive for his career. Simspon explained how he was directly affected by the conflict when his mother married an operative of the African National Congress's military wing, which eventually got them to migrate to Britain, where he earned his degree. After experimenting with different topics, Simpson settled on South African history, focusing on the armed struggle of Umkhonto we Sizwe and exploring the liberation movement. He is also keen on addressing one of the major misconceptions of South African history, which is the overestimation of apartheid's depth in South African society. He believes that the Ted-Ed project points out how apartheid was not the only key factor of racism and oppression but one of the preconditions that needed to be demolished to step away from the minority rule. The interview ended with Simpson recommending a few books and content that would help further the understanding of the history of apartheid.