New Books | A historian’s passage to Africa

Bill Freund’s autobiography follows his journey to universities in Chicago, England, Nigeria and finally Durban, where he became a leading scholar of African history.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from Bill Freund: An Historian’s Passage to Africa (Wits University Press, 2021) by Bill Freund.

South Africa, my home 

In the end I stayed well under a year at the African Studies Institute (ASI) in Johannesburg. After several months, the geography lecturer Alan Mabin brought me together with two of his friends from Durban, geographer Jeff McCarthy and planner Mike Sutcliffe, both holders of doctorates from Ohio State University. Another Durban option had emerged and they succeeded in talking me into applying. And this time, the job, for a newly created professorship of economic history, was offered to me. I hesitated out of gratitude to Charles van Onselen, who was understandably annoyed at my leaving, but the idea of a permanent job, as South Africans refer to this kind of situation, and an end to those long years of uncertainty – and, after all, I now had turned 40 – was too good to refuse. What I did see in Durban was the warm sea, the luxuriant vegetation and the mild winter climate. Johannesburg winter nights are cold and, after my wait in Boston, my body felt that it was experiencing a whole year of winter weather, so Durban was even more seductive. I also liked Jeff, Mike and particularly Dan North Coombes and his new partner, Jo Beall. Dan was a lecturer in economic history, a remarkable, erudite and dedicated Mauritian from a family that settled in South Africa via Rhodesia, a route that followed the sugar cane industry trail. Dan had a somewhat different take on race from what a South African would but, a rather late convert, he had become both an enemy of racism and a very well-read Marxist thinker; he was then organising his PhD research after having already produced an MA in economic history at the University of Cape Town (UCT). It all seemed too good to pass up. As a result I gave up my little flat on Sharp Street in Bellevue, Johannesburg, and began what would be my life in the city of Durban. 

I should, however, comment on my days in Johannesburg where I met many people, some of whom have remained my friends over decades. Charles had a poor relationship with Eddie Webster, the leading light in Sociology, for reasons I can’t really discern even now. Eddie has played a remarkable part in connecting his department to the renewed labour movement; indeed, its links continue to this day. Friendship with Eddie meant that I got called into service to “monitor” the Vaal Rising of mid-1984, a protest that began with resentment at the high service charges being imposed for the introduction of better amenities in a big township south of Johannesburg. This marked a new wave, bigger than ever, of resistance, quite violent and with its heart in the townships – “the youth” – rather than the trade unions. I realised from this experience in particular that the reform impetus from the state was not going to work, whether it petered out or intensified, and that the South African political crisis had considerable space to run. The first State of Emergency was declared in 1985, but it struck me that reform was going to be retained, if not accelerated, and that further change, however it came, was certain. This reinforced my sense that my new life was not being built on too shaky a basis. 

While I worked at the ASI, I was mostly busy finishing The African Worker for Cambridge University Press. However, I also began to tinker with the industrial and economic themes to which I have largely stuck ever since. The ASI job contained within it a requirement to teach one final-year history course, which I was happy to do. This was a different kind of group from what I had experienced before in either Africa or America. At the top end of the scale, Matt Chaskalson, later to be a professor of law and son of a future chief justice, paid me the compliment of attending my lectures. The best student, who himself later became a professor of history, was Clive Glaser, and yet a third Jewish student, Laura Menachemson, also stood out. Then there was a gap. Only a few students, white males aiming at a further law degree plus a few Indian young men who had been denigrated by the more conservative department members, had the middling grades you would assume were the norm. The majority were very mediocre indeed, able to grasp only the basics, if that, of what I was saying and what they should have been reading. Many came from rising working-class immigrant families; the better students would have been in medicine or engineering or some such discipline. But attending to this majority was not really expected of me, just as it could be presumed that the bright few were anti-apartheid stalwarts already, perhaps very active ones. I had also done some teaching at Honours level (the year required after the three-year first degree) at UCT. That had been an outstanding group. It included Ciraj Rassool and Les Bank, both future academics and authors. Ciraj had been formed politically by the Unity Movement, a grouping with support largely among coloured intellectuals and largely in the Cape. The Unity Movement was dying out organisationally but had a strong hold on intellectuals, and its understanding of the nature of South Africa and in particular the “national question” – race – deserved that hold. Unfortunately it had developed a sect-like character and had little mass appeal. I mention this because it was actually Ciraj I asked when seeking the opinion of someone who was not white (the Rassools are Indian) about my coming to an academic job in South Africa. His thumbs-up was important to my decision. This marvellous UCT class, however, did not give a real indication of what teaching in South Africa would be like, though the days at Wits were a good prelude. 

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As my 40th year came to an end, I left the new friends in Johannesburg and drove down to Durban and the flat assigned to me in Shepstone Building. Whatever the flaws in the institution, my gratitude remains and I have a strong attachment to the place without ever being blind to its limitations. In fact, there never was an opportunity to move on and, until after the political change in 1994, I never tried. 

My time in Johannesburg was not long enough for me to really gauge the character of the University of the Witwatersrand in any depth. The rhetoric that was characteristic of the institution seemed familiar enough to me from my experience of the US, Britain and Britain’s former colonies in Africa. However, as I gradually found out, South African higher education was fairly distinctive, quite apart from the notorious feature of racial segregation. By the mid-1980s there were universities that were supposed to cater for each of the four national “races” as well as those located in the more substantial Bantustans. 

The white English-speaking institutions saw themselves as the cream of the crop. In reality, they had had a distinctly colonial character in the earlier decades of their foundation. South Africa was a country with a population sizeable and rich enough to require a regular stream of engineers, doctors and lawyers who needed university institutions in order to qualify (and to obtain degrees recognised in the Anglosphere, above all in Britain). A very small number of individuals – liberals in the South African mould, a few of whom were radicalised – studied Africans and their ways. This was Bantu studies, later dubbed African studies. Thus Natal had a small African studies department which included several anthropologists. By contrast, sociology, with its more universal claims, was newer and less developed, growing out of social work. After the efforts of the brain trust assembled by General Smuts, including EG Malherbe, the future University of Natal vice-chancellor, and the establishment in 1940 of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, science received strong support in every sense from the government. This was essentially respected by the National Party when it came to power in 1948. You could not perhaps compare the science world in South Africa with that in the US or even Britain in wealth or prestige, but it did probably compare very decently with, say, Canada or Australia although it was always relatively smaller than was desirable. 

By contrast, the social sciences and humanities were weak sisters. In the popular eye, there was little reason to study these subjects. The most talented or ambitious teachers tended to be foreigners passing through or were South Africans en route to overseas. My impression was that there was even a longer tradition in which serious intellectually minded individuals were expected to leave the pleasant world of the colonies for Oxbridge or London. Especially after 1960, for many it was no longer an acceptably pleasant world. In any case, the South African equivalent to what the British call the chattering classes or the French the BBs, bourgeois bohemians, largely nestled in or not too far away from the universities, was and still is very small. 

At first, the humanities could at least hope to count on enrolling future teachers, but the popularity of school teaching diminished as time went on and it lost respectability compared with accountancy or actuarial science, the dreary university gold standard. Since student numbers were the basis for hiring staff, often the biggest humanities department was Classics, because the fusty medicine and law programmes demanded that students take a minimum of Latin. The dominance in real terms of the subjects that offered students direct access to jobs became more pronounced after the universities grew (not that they were very large) in the 1970s. In my faculty we had to deal mostly with students who did not really know what they wanted to study and were in fact very weak. The South African school system, very old-fashioned, led to matric exams for university entrance that were of a poor standard compared with British A-levels or good SAT scores in the US. As university education spread for people of colour, there developed an undercurrent of white feeling that you needed to get your children a degree so they would continue to be able to compete and, indeed, more than compete and, by the 1980s, emigrate to Britain, the US, Australia or Canada, where their inexpensive South African degrees were recognised. 

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Despite the creaky and old-fashioned school curricula that were dominant, it remained true that students needed to study only three years for a degree, and in the final year only needed to take two subjects, their “majors”. Only a tiny proportion went on to the fourth, Honours year. In the South African system at its best, students were in a sense prepared to respond systematically to particular questions, just as they were encouraged, if bright, to take up debating. However, they read very little, had little access to general knowledge of real sophistication, and there was very little equivalent to the term papers and long essays which American students start to do, often on topics of their own choosing, from the later years of elementary school onwards and which often form the basis of university grades in advanced classes. By this token, I would have described only the final major year as a real university-level set of courses. The majority of our students just wanted a degree and were happy to have the economic history major, which only functioned in the final two years, with the lowest class of marks that could get you through. 

These students were in general uncomplaining and passive. I remember being very amused when a poll was taken of student satisfaction with Howard College, which was the usual name for the University of Natal Durban (UND) campus, and the main negative response concerned the irritating seasonal presence of ants out of doors during lunch hour. My impression was that undergraduate education, which had been life-changing for me, was for them comparable to going to the dentist – unpleasant but probably necessary. The boys were much happier on the sports fields. Standards were such that the great majority could expect to get a degree. The large bottom group also included some male scapegraces who exhibited their sense of individuality and rebellion by doing no work (or perhaps cheating in some way) and failed. 

My impression on arrival in 1985 was that you could compare the humanities and social science network of teaching staff in Durban at best to that of the most modest of American state colleges, with some university features rather irregularly added on. There were a number of departments (Zulu, Philosophy, French, Linguistics, Speech and Drama) that were one-man shows although allowed to award PhDs. There were full professors who had never written a research paper or taken a higher degree and academics who were at best suited to be devoted high school teachers. The university disbursed a fair number of hobby PhDs. For example, I was faced with a woman with a Kenya settler background and no doubt good family connections in the business world, wanting to submit a PhD on Kenyan history, which consisted simply of paraphrasing the chief Nairobi newspaper’s articles over some years. She was blissfully ignorant of contemporary African historiography and had not the faintest idea of or interest in what I had written on the subject. On my watch, I made sure that she had serious examiners and, of course, that was the end of this ridiculous thesis. However, the vice-chancellor informed me that I mustn’t do this again! Fortunately, there were no more hobby PhDs in economic history. I also remember that in my first classes on African subjects, the white students cheerfully wrote up 20-year-old material from late-colonial sources – using the present tense. 

The library was still quaintly located in the narrow upper floors of Memorial Tower Block while the present facility (which made a huge difference once completed) was under construction. The chief librarian was a Miss Van der Linde, daughter of a former mayor of Bloemfontein, who presided over a forbidden books section kept under lock and key. The wonderful home of Killie Campbell with its collection of books, artwork and other critical resources concerned especially with Black life in this part of South Africa was a special property of UND, quite another story, but was still suffering from the leadership of Van der Linde’s henchwoman. One committee I did sit on concerned the governance of Killie Campbell, and the struggle to get the lady in charge to do some work was a tedious and long one. 

The university had separately managed humanities and social science faculties, and I chose to stay in humanities as my home faculty. To some extent this reflected my own background but it was also a reaction to the incestuous and, at best, merely superficially liberal nature of the little crowd of social science professors. Much of the humanities faculty was also tedious but the larger size meant that I felt more able to function in this setting. It was typical that Economics seceded from the social sciences and signed up with Commerce, purely because it was a richer faculty regardless of intellectual value or importance. What counted was student numbers – and Commerce was where one could find the mounting number of students who merely sought a well-paying job after graduation. 

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I held little interest in governance in this kind of institution and I suppose the academics would not have liked or trusted me. I was consigned to committees dealing with the likes of the Killie Campbell Library or the University Press, where I did feel some sense of engagement. The truth is that I quite liked the job of teaching. I enjoyed the classroom. I was happy to classify the students with grades as well as getting to know the more interesting ones, and I was not at all unconventional in my ideas about standards even if I was inclined to reward interesting but eccentric cases. I was perfectly happy to eliminate or fail students with miserable track records, to me an important task for universities. Moreover, I didn’t like rewarding students because of their political proclivities per se. 

The dominant culture of the university was liberal. I remember the shrewd vice-chancellor, Pete Booysen, once or twice leading us round the top of Howard College in an orderly and completely meaningless little parade as a supposed demonstration against one or other violation of academic freedom. As a result, one rarely got genuinely right-wing, government-supporting students in one’s class, but I tried hard to mark according to quality alone and not whether my own views were getting support. 

So far, what I have suggested might have been a deadly if materially acceptable setting, but actually that would give an incorrect impression. There were a growing number of politically alive and intellectually open young people entering a number of departments. The Sociology people, although in my view mostly mediocre intellectually, were a left-wing bunch with strong trade union connections and a separate industrial sociology programme. The most interesting departments, far as they were from my background, were Planning, with a professor, Mike Kahn, who happened to be the first cousin of the historian Shula Marks, and Music under the guidance of Chris Ballantine. It was pretty easy to get to know individuals across department and even faculty lines. My first important friendships were with individuals I would never have met in another setting  – Jeff McCarthy, a young geographer, Mike Sutcliffe, a planner who would one day become the Durban city manager, Jeremy Grest, an SOAS MA graduate in the African Studies Department, and Rob Morrell, who arrived at the same time as I did to teach history at the parallel university set up for Indians. There were also others, and they were very interested in Marxist ideas and formed a social as well as intellectual community with which I was very much at home. Only in high school and then in Oxford was there any comparison in my life. It was a rich social integument that kept my weekends very pleasantly occupied.

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