Bill Freund, the academy’s outsider insider

The late social historian, who spent much of his career in Durban, leaves a rich legacy in his books, model accounts of labour, capital and developmental history in Africa.

Bill Freund died on the evening of 17 August 2020 in his beautiful art deco flat, in Surrey Mansions on Currie Road in Durban. It was shockingly unexpected. His death abandoned his many friends in the Durban Left diaspora in the middle of what will now always be incomplete conversations.  

Freund was a generous friend and a formidable correspondent, dispatching long, intense, scholarly letters across the world, triggered by his breathtaking reading habit. On the afternoon of 22 August, hundreds of these friends gathered for a memorial service organised by Kira Erwin. It was a powerful vindication of a new kind of online ritual – no priests, no queuing, no catering, no protocols. 

The memorial brought together an amazing network of Freund’s intimate friends – Beth Genné from Michigan, Fred Cooper from New York, Luise White from Florida, Bob Shenton from Kingston, Shireen Hassim from Ottawa, Jo Beall in London and a host of former Durbanites: Michael Morris, Blade Nzimande, Robert Morrell, Vishnu Padayachee (recuperating, himself, in Durban).  

The Zoom memorial was simultaneously a testimony to the scattering of the Durban Left and the astonishing emotional reach of Freund’s life. As his forthcoming memoir from Wits University Press poignantly explains, Freund’s life was an intriguing journey through many of the key nodes of African historical scholarship. He was always an outsider on this journey, and probably came closest to finding his real home in Durban in the late 1980s. Morrell has written about how important Freund was in Durban, so in this essay I want to focus on the reasons for him ending up there.

The road to Africa

Bill Freund was both alienated from and typical of Chicago, the city of his youth. He was an emigré, the only child of Jewish Viennese refugees. He cherished his mother’s European intellectual and cultural interests, growing up as he did in the intellectual epicentre of America’s unbridled capitalism. 

But he also epitomised and embraced the scholarly intensity that is the hallmark of the University of Chicago. It was there, as an undergraduate, that he nurtured the classical training, comparative curiosity and prodigious reading interests that defined the Marxist political economy, which became his distinctive style.  

He liked to remind the many South African social historians around him that he had fallen in love with Eric Hobsbawm’s approach to writing history as an undergraduate in Hyde Park. Hobsbawm was another Viennese emigré, drawn to dispassionate, God’s-eye surveys of the past that make sense of the bewildering complexity of political and economic change by exploring their connections. (Freund wrote an adoring appreciation of Hobsbawm for the Mail & Guardian in 2012.)

Freund’s early interest in Marxism was fostered by Shula Marks and Martin Legassick in London in the late 1960s. These friendships with the young white South African radicals in Britain – Freund thanks Marks three times in the acknowledgements of his thesis – can have done his prospects for employment in the United States little good. But he was also the victim of an institutional ambush.  Freund had started his doctoral thesis, on the Batavian Republic at the Cape, at Yale under Maynard Swanson, but had to finish it, in 1971, under Leonard Thompson.  

He did not blame Thompson for his failure to find employment in the United States, but it is likely – because the US academic labour market functioned on the basis of informal personal recommendations – that he was a casualty of the developing civil war between Thompson and his former University of Cape Town (UCT) students.  

After a short stint of relief teaching, and some time on the unemployment lines, Freund was rescued in 1974 by the offer of a two-year contract at Ahmadu Bello University, one of the largest and best-resourced of the new Nigerian federal research universities. It was while he was working in Zaria that Freund (encouraged by Bob Shenton and Michael Watts) decided to “come out” – to write as a Marxist, inflected, as he has often insisted, by his very broad interests in comparative history and its paradoxes. The earliest signs of this new approach, which combined an interest in the deep structures of history with a sharply critical reading of contemporary politics, appeared in a prescient, pessimistic assessment of the Nigerian oil boom that he published in the Review of African Political Economy in 1978.  

Freund remained in Nigeria until the middle of 1978.  He used these years to research and write what is still one of the important monographs of African labour history – Capital and Labour in the Nigerian Tin Mines – which examined the history of the mines on the Jos plateau, to the south-east of Zaria

Related article:

The book was closely modelled on Charles van Onselen’s Chibaro, which had been published by Pluto Press while Freund was in Nigeria. It used the same kinds of colonial archival sources that were housed in Kaduna, and the heart of the book is a study of the miserable consequences of the British decision to use forced labour on the mines in World War II. In what would become a defining characteristic of his scholarship, Freund’s concluding chapter brought the history right up to the present. Capital and Labour remains a model of African labour history, and of what researchers can achieve with intensive archival research and wide comparative reading. It was embraced by Nigerianists, but Freund worried that – because it made no pretence of using fieldwork – that it would not find favour in the ethnographically oriented US academy.

After raising a small research grant, Freund found his way back to Britain in 1978, in time for the famous “winter of discontent” and the first days of Margaret Thatcher’s government. Living like a mouse, he spent two years with Legassick, at Warwick, working out of EP Thompson’s Centre for the Study of Social History.  

While he was there, Macmillan Publishers offered him an advance to write an interpretive book on the history of the continent – and thus emerged his now famous Making of Contemporary Africa. He brought to the book familiarity with the history of both South Africa and Nigeria – and, while he was writing it, the benefits of a short stay at the University of Dar es Salaam (where he befriended Dan O’Meara and David Hemson).  

Finding his place

Freund’s book is unusual – in a field heavily shaped by humanitarian sentimentality and an ethic of redemption – for its even-handedly critical treatment of both African politics and imperialism. His unflinching examination of the postcolonial state is even more marked in the most recent, much revised 2016 edition, which restates his earlier interest in the 19th century forms of African sub-imperialism, and the often shocking forms of conflict that emerged in the 1990s. He remained concerned with a Marxist interpretation of the course of events, but draws heavily on writers like Dan Branch and Stephen Ellis who treat African politics as a matter of very serious local interest. 

Freund worried that the new edition of Making would not find its audience – in part because few people want to read a new version of an old book – but, in time, people will return to it as the defining book of his life. The annotated bibliography extends for 55 closely typed pages, and stands as a monument to a truly formidable scholar and intellectual.

Freund completed Making while he was doing a stint of temporary teaching – this time at Harvard, where Fred Cooper found him a replacement post. He had few friends there, but was clearly impressed with and shaped by the interpretive power and systematic research of the group of feminist scholars – Sara Berry, Jane Guyer, Jean Hay, Jane Parpart, Pauline Peters – who were based at Boston University, and reworking the study of African economics.  

Related article:

By the middle of 1984, he had two successful books in print, and a third – The African Worker – well under way, but he had run out of road in the US, and he began to think seriously about looking for a job in South Africa. He first visited UCT in 1983 on Chris Saunders’ invitation, and then applied – unsuccessfully – for a professorship in Durban.  

Like many others before and after him, he was then offered a three-year post at the African Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand by Van Onselen. It was from there that he would apply, successfully, for a professorship in Economic History in Durban – his first permanent job, 14 years after completing his doctorate at Yale.   

Aside from his many carefully nurtured friendships, Bill Freund was the author of Bill Freund: An Historian’s Passage to Africa (Wits Press, 2021), Capital and Labour in the Nigerian Tin Mines (Humanities Press, 1981), Insiders and Outsiders: The Indian Working Class of Durban, 1910-1990 (University of Natal, 1995), The African City: A History (Cambridge, 2007), The African Worker (Cambridge,1988), The Making of Contemporary Africa: The Development of African Society since 1800 (Macmillan, 1984, 1998, 2016), and Twentieth-Century South Africa: A Developmental History (Cambridge, 2018). 

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.