Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen Obituary

Bill Freund (1944-2020): Pioneering economic historian of Africa and South Africa

Bill Freund (1944-2020): Pioneering economic historian of Africa and South Africa
Bill Freund in 2006. (Photo: Robert Morrell)

On Monday, 17 August, Bill Freund died in Durban. He was 76 years old. He was among the most eminent of South Africa’s historians and published prodigiously broadly in the area of economic history. His sudden death was a shock and his passing will mark another moment when pioneer scholars made a new South African history. In the past few years, Phil Bonner, Jeff Guy and Patrick Harries have all died, but they left behind an intellectual history that truly can be said to have changed the country.

Bill Freund was born in Chicago, the only child of Austrian emigres Carlo Freund (1902-89) and Elisabeth Gross (1912-95). His parents (not yet married) managed to escape the holocaust, leaving by ship from Trieste bound for the US in the second half of 1939. Most of their relatives who remained behind in Europe perished before the war ended in 1945.

Bill grew up in Chicago and did his PhD at Yale University, graduating in 1971.

I met him early in 1985. I had just arrived in Durban for a lecturing job in history at the University of Durban-Westville and Bill had just assumed the Chair of Economic History at the University of Natal (Durban). I had some sense of Bill before I met him as he’d had a position at Wits with Charles van Onselen at the African Studies Institute and I had studied in the Wits History Department with Phil Bonner in the early 1980s and so was connected to that world.

But I soon came to realise that Bill was something special. In 1984 Bill’s The Making of Contemporary Africa was published. I was at that time and in the coming years busy with Peter Kallaway and his team writing what was, for its time, a novel series of history school textbooks called History Alive (Pietermaritzburg: Shooter and Shuter). For this task, I needed to bone up on African history. It was in this circumstance that I came to read Bill’s book. I was awestruck. In 1985 John Lonsdale reviewed the book in the Journal of African History, then and now one of the best journals in the field. It is worth being reminded of the power, originality and elegance of this book by quoting from this review.

“This book is quite a landmark in African historiography. It is the first introductory work of narrative history to gather together all the ideas of the materialist revision which has so enlivened the subject over the past decade.”

It continues by drawing attention to Bill’s explicit self-location as a “materialist” (“rather than a Marxist, so as not to be thought sectarian”) and congratulates Bill on the clarity of his writing, “no mean feat within the materialist mode of explanation”. It draws attention to Bill’s willingness unflinchingly to draw attention to interpretations he regarded as wrong – “It is a combative work, critical of his Africanist and dependentist predecessors alike”.

It chastens him for “some questionable judgments” such as describing the founders of modern African history as “‘would-be managers’ of petty-bourgeois nationalists”. But my favourite observation is Lonsdale’s criticism that Bill knew too much about South Africa. One of the best back-handed compliments I’ve ever seen in the discipline of history. Testimony of the book’s enduring appeal and quality was the appearance of a third edition in 2016.

It is necessary at this point to put the achievement of this book into the personal context of Bill’s life. He was 40 years old when it was published. He was introduced to books very early in his life and, indeed, books were his major companion in what was often a lonely childhood.

Bill was most comfortable being with, reading and talking about books. I recall attending a seminar on reading skills in the early 1990s when a room of 30 or so academics were given a text to read in a short period of time and then asked to write a short summary. Most did not finish the reading at all and fumbled their way towards a vague grasp of its meaning. Bill finished the reading (it wasn’t a history reading either) and delivered an astonishingly clear summary of its purpose, its scope and, for good measure, its weakness.

While books were central to Bill’s life they were also in a way his Achilles heel. Bill’s mastery of the written word was not matched by an ease with people, although he steadily developed his ability to befriend and stay a friend. In the language of today, Bill was a geek who didn’t fit in easily, especially in the US establishment. Despite being an exceptional student — Bill studied at Chicago and completed his PhD at Yale — he never landed a tenured history job in the US despite a three-year stint teaching African History at Harvard. He felt shunned by the history establishment and unappreciated.

Bill was totally incapable of schmoozing.

It should be a consolation to all true scholars that Bill’s gifts were recognised in different ways. He had time at Oxford during which he met people like Gavin Williams and Stan Trapido and slowly was inserted into a network of Southern Africanists which critically included those with connections with the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Many of Bill’s life-long friends were to be made in these years. These friends ensured that Bill got invitations throughout his life to address conferences, give seminars and provide commentary – this trend actually grew in the latter parts of his career and post-retirement and Bill frequented all of the centres of African Studies in Europe and Africa, a revered guest.

Bill’s love of Africa might have grown through books, but it was solidified in his stint as lecturer in Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria. From 1974 to 1978 Bill spent four happy years in Zaria. He adapted quickly to local cuisine and enjoyed the cultural mix and social ease of university life. But when nationalist politics brought that to an end he was able to continue his connection with Africa by obtaining a post at the University of Dar-es-Salaam. This was the time when postcolonial politics was being hotly debated, the euphoria of independence was wearing off and debates about what universities were for and what development path African states should adopt were current.

Bill’s enthusiasm for Africa was tempered by a growing realisation that liberation movements like the ANC were not benign or intellectually tolerant. One of Bill’s friends, David Hemson, was suspended (1979) and then expelled (1985) from the ANC in this period. Moreover, Bill, who was critical and never a true believer, began to detect deep problems with the state in Africa and its choice of development instruments. Bill was sceptical of nationalisms and constantly drew attention to how the working poor were victims of avarice and power-hunger pursued in the name of nationalism by the new elites.

He was to pursue his interest in class formation, power, capital accumulation and governance for the next four decades, writing about the challenges of development on the continent and especially in South Africa, culminating in his most recent book, Twentieth Century South Africa: A Developmental History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2018). It is worth citing one review of this book (by Ben Fine, University of London) to show how the quality of Bill’s work was sustained through the course of his career.

“Painstakingly researched, across detail and sweep of change, and authored by a leading scholar of African economic history, this volume is of profound significance not only for understanding the economic history of South Africa but also for the light shed on the contemporary unravelling in which the post-apartheid state finds itself.”

Bill’s happiest years were lived in Durban. He found levels of acceptance and inclusion that were new to him and very welcome. He built up the Economic History Department, attracting colleagues like Dan North-Coombes, Iain Edwards, Shireen Hassim, Harald Witt and David Moore. He forged close ties with the History Department under Andrew Duminy and Paul Maylam and was a regular and engaged participant in the seminar series developed by Cathy Burns and Keith Breckenridge in 1995 and thereafter.

This became a buzzing intellectual meeting place with speakers from around the world giving seminars. Attendance of postgraduate students was compulsory as was the reading of the pre-circulated paper. Bill was frequently the first to ask a question, bringing an encyclopaedic knowledge to bear and happily disagreeing with those present including Jeff Guy, with whom he shared a liking for being contrary. Despite being apparently entranced by proceedings, Bill was also capable of taking short power naps in the middle of seminars, his gentle snoring providing a sonorous distraction to the lofty and sometimes heated deliberations.

In 1986 Bill, Mike Morris and Gerhard Maré started the journal, Transformation, which exists to this day and recently published its 100th issue. The journal was started at a very different time, a state of emergency. Its first issue in 1987 featured Zwelakhe Sisulu’s National Education Crisis Committee (NECC) paper, “People’s Education for People’s Power” and this flavour – of political engagement, critique and independence – remain the markers of the journal to this day.

The editorial team was joined shortly after the start by Vishnu Padayachee. Vishnu was at that time a lecturer in Economics at UDW and a researcher at the Institute of Social and Economic Research. He was also Bill’s PhD student. In 1989 he graduated with a thesis titled “South Africa’s International Financial Relations, 1970-1989. History, crisis and transformation”. Bill’s status as an attentive and knowledgeable supervisor attracted many good students. I, together with Rod Crompton, Shireen Hassim and Harald Witt, were among those fortunate enough to have Bill as PhD supervisor.

While Bill established an intellectual base and network at the University of Natal, his social life was flourishing. There were many like-minded people in Durban and some, mostly male, sought outlets for excess energy in a touch rugby game that began in 1985. Bill joined that game at the outset and though having had no previous experience of the game of rugby, embraced it enthusiastically, becoming a regular in the weekly game for more than 15 years. The game accommodated different skills levels and featured most of the people that Bill worked with. It was also the meeting point of many academics, lawyers, doctors and members of progressive NGOs who visited Durban during the end years of apartheid and the 1990s. Bill’s life broadened, widened and his home in Carrington Heights became a happy site of social occasions where wine and food were copiously consumed.

Bill was able to write very quickly. His bibliography features many book reviews which is one indicator of his ability to consume and interpret literary contributions. His long publication list is another example. But I want to add a third as a demonstration of Bill’s loyalty and intellectual generosity. In the late 1980s, I gathered together a volume of essays on the history of poor whites. I got stuck when I tried to write the introduction. So what did I do – I asked Bill and he wrote a brilliant introduction which begins:

“There exists an international stereotype, dearly beloved in anti-apartheid literature, that all South African whites consist of the slave-driving but idle rich who sip sundowners at poolside and exist entirely on the backs of a conquered and abused black proletariat.”

A few years later, Bill once again stepped into the breach on my behalf. The Natal Workers History Project had been grinding forward for many years and was nearly complete. Except that the final chapter on the grim years that preceded the release of Nelson Mandela had not been written and the collaborators scheduled to write it were indisposed. Once again Bill (1995) produced the goods, though once again swimming slightly upstream in questioning the role of the youth in the liberation struggle. His words ring now almost prophetically:

“The dream of the amaqabane is liberation through the armed struggle of the people. The reality is that violence may lead in unexpected directions. It will impact on powerful social and economic forces and the strategies of dominant institutions and create the first phase of a post-apartheid society in ways that may unfortunately provide little of the ideal democratic and egalitarian world that enemies of apartheid have envisioned.”

In 2002 Malegapuru William Makgoba became Vice-Chancellor of the University of Natal and in the following year, he became VC of UKZN, the result of a merger between the University of Natal and UDW. It didn’t take long for Makgoba to embark on a purge of dissidents (mostly white and Indian males) in the name of “transformation”. A happy and productive intellectual hub was steadily changed into an airless, joyless and repressive institution. Within years a thriving progressive community based at the University had seeped away, some just leaving UKZN, but many leaving the city for good. Bill remained, but his life changed.

Bill’s research productivity didn’t decline, if anything it picked up as he embarked on numerous projects increasingly focusing on the city of Durban, examining its governance, populace and economy. There is not enough space here to do justice to the richness and extent of this work. Suffice to say that Bill worked with many different collaborators, many of them mentioned in this obituary. His last big project on public housing was incomplete at his death, but Alan Mabin, Kira Erwin and Les Bank are dedicated to bringing it to fruition.

Bill had a remarkable ability to work with “younger” scholars – both as a mentor and as an equal. He was good at supporting and giving advice based on his academic experiences and equally happy to be an equal as part of a research or writing team. There are many who will recognise this description: Caroline Skinner, Richard Ballard, Stephen Sparks, Nicolas Pons-Vignon, Siraaj Mohammed, Dori Posel, Nnzeni Netshitomboni, Showers Mawowa, Lumkile Mondi, Sue Parnell and Owen Crankshaw.

As Imraan Valodia comments:

“We all had our differences here and there with Bill but we all retained a close friendship and intellectual bond.” Bill’s reach was long, wide and deep, spanning disciplinary, age and geographical divides.

Bill lamented changes at UKZN but also within the South African higher education system. The critique that grew stronger as the years went by was initially developed before the full advent of democracy in 1994. While looking back nostalgically to the 1990s, he noted the growth of managerialism and a new bean-counting approach which assaulted the autonomy of academics and eroded the space for decision-making where academic concerns were foremost. He charted this development at the University of Natal to the ascension of Brenda Gourley to the VC position at UND in 1994. She came from the Department of Accountancy and lacked a doctorate.

In the 21st century, in his retirement, Bill noticed changes in South African higher education with alarm. He lamented the steady decline in academic standards. His view was that incoming students were mostly ill-prepared for university study – “they don’t read books”, he said. He found little to commend the increasingly violent student protests, and condemned the pyromaniacal attacks on libraries and university property. While retaining his ties with UKZN, he found his affirmation at Wits where he joined Imraan Valodia and Vishnu Padayachee as former high-flying UKZN professors who preferred to ply their trade on the highveld.

Bill’s important place in South African scholarship was recognised in a festschrift dedicated to him in 2006. A special issue of the Journal of African Studies was devoted to an assessment of Bill’s work. Bill’s colleague in Economic History at UKZN, David Moore, wrote the anchor essay. He asked:

“what would Freund write about the holders of power during that interregnum? They promise ‘a better life for all,’ yet given current structures of global and local political and economic power, or their own desire to make an easy fortune from the fat of the land, are reconciled to something less than that. Yet they could instigate a new developmental frontier, of social democracy perhaps – especially if there had been strong currents of activist democracy in civil society in advance of this moment of change.”

Moore concludes that Bill’s multi-disciplinary approach that acknowledged both structural limitation and agentic power provides room for cautious epistemological (if not political) optimism:

“Thus, at the right time, history’s legacies – composed in good part of struggles for social justice, deep democracy, and full employment – can not only constrain but be “on our side”… to further transformation. Given these possibilities, there is no reason to think that making new African history will always be fettered and futile.”

At the time of his death, Bill had just finished writing his autobiography which will appear next year as Bill Freund: An Historian’s Passage to Africa (Johannesburg: Wits University Press). David Moore (University of Johannesburg), referring to Bill as “the Hobsbawm of Africa’s historians”, describes the book as a ‘self-intellectual-biography’ of a lost and very brilliant soul, seeking – and finally finding – solace in the study of history and Africa at the cusp of freedom.” DM/MC

Robert Morrell works at UCT where he is Director of the Next Generation Professoriate. He is trained in history and spent many years lecturing at various universities including the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University), University of Durban-Westville and the University of Natal (now University of KwaZulu-Natal). He is a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.


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