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Tom Lodge — a premier chronicler of South Africa’s political life, past, present, and future

Tom Lodge — a premier chronicler of South Africa’s political life, past, present, and future
Professor Tom Lodge (Photo: Supplied)

Prof Lodge’s considerable legacy has come from his insightful, close inspection of this country’s turbulent history — most especially black politics at a time when scholars were focused on white politics — and as a roadmap for its possible future.

Nowadays, any browser in a half-decent bookstore in this country will encounter shelves loaded with books on South Africa’s politics, the country’s evolution away from apartheid, and numerous biographies of important names, along with memoirs written by many involved in the great transformation of South Africa’s political life. There are so many of these books — including some very thoughtful ones — that even a conscientious reader is hard-pressed to stay abreast of this flood.

But that was not the case when I arrived in South Africa almost a half-century ago for my first embassy assignment here. Yes, one of Johannesburg’s best-stocked bookstores offered many books on South African history, but they largely focused on the country’s white politicians, and their politics and careers. Meanwhile, the politics of the majority of the country’s population barely figured in those works. Back in the early 1970s, there was a new wave of poetry, novels, and short stories from black writers (usually with a significant landscape of politics crucial for the text), along with a few memoirs, but there were few studies of black political life.

True, there were anthropological studies of traditional ethnic groups, and there were occasional works on the oppressive apartheid political, economic and social order. Here and there one might find manifestos of organisations that had not yet been banned by the government, but that was thin gruel for gaining a serious grip on the nation’s politics through scholarly discourse. 

As an aside, in the early 1970s, our embassy’s internal organisation also had an echo of the starkly separated worlds inside South Africa. Within the political section — that part of an embassy whose staff follows government and political developments — the staff was split in two halves. One part followed the politics of the white world, especially the parliamentary and legal machinations of the ruling National Party. The other, probably less prestigious, was responsible for interpreting black political life, even though many elements of that universe were in the shadows — or, worse, where its principals were under threat of arrest.

From reform to emancipation

In those years of my first assignment in South Africa back in the 1970s, I worked hard to meet as wide a range of people as possible who were active in the country’s politics and its possible future. Reports by the SA Institute of Race Relations, the Christian Institute, SPRO-CAS (the Study Project on Christianity in Apartheid Society), and a handful of other independent groups were key for my understanding of what was happening around me. 

Sadly, however, the work by a majority of university academics was usually less help for gaining a richer understanding of the currents in black political thought. Most scholars were still focusing most of their attention on white politics or in speculations about reforming apartheid, rather than moving beyond it. As political scientist/international relations scholar Peter Vale, who is affiliated with the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship, University of Pretoria, explained, “Before Lodge, political science was aimed at reforming apartheid; after Lodge, it was about emancipation.” 

Surprisingly, before Lodge’s major contributions to political science and history, the only extensive work exploring the historical developments of black political life and organisations actually came from the pen of a botanist — Eddie Roux — in 1948. His book, “Time Longer Than Rope,” had examined South Africa’s political evolution significantly through the optic of the struggles of organised, increasingly radical black labour, such as the trajectory of the ICU (the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union). For Roux, that organisation was a kind of stand-in and actor on behalf of the larger questions of black liberation, before black unions had been banned by government action. 

Back in 1975, a friend lent me his copy, but cautioned that Roux’s book was banned by the government. As a result, I would not find my own copy in a bookstore if I wanted to buy it. Reading it was a revelation. (Later, I did manage to purchase a copy while I was on leave in the US, but then someone borrowed that copy and never returned it. Years later, I purchased another copy in a local used book store and it serves as a remembrance of those days, pre-Soweto Uprising.)

As I was beginning to write this article, my wife and I had discussed how history and the political landscape had been taught in the black high school she had attended. Approved history textbooks obviously hewed to an official orthodoxy, essentially ignoring black history and political life. Nevertheless, her teachers quietly supplemented this education through guided discussions. Even so, that still left major gaps that remained, on through her university years. Those gaps were partially filled for her and other students through conversations with family and older friends such as struggle veterans like John Gomas so that she might hear about events that could inspire — or caution — black South Africans. 

All of this took place in the years before a research unit like the University of the Witwatersrand’s History Workshop began their efforts in 1977. That group’s intention was to produce a legacy of a broader roster of South African history studies “from the bottom,” similar to academic trends elsewhere moving well beyond “great men and bold deeds”-style narratives. 

A historian of political resistance

Prof Tom Lodge was a key figure in a new, more inclusive historical and political studies movement that focused on the importance of black politics in South Africa and who helped nurture a kind of academic revolution in the study of history and politics in South Africa. This was the territory of Prof Lodge, who died on 8 November. 

Lodge’s books include a biographical study, “Mandela: A Critical Life,” described as “riveting” by Desmond Tutu and “authoritative and open minded” by The Economist when it was published.

Paul Trewhela, who had been editor of MK’s underground newsletter years earlier, wrote to me, to say, “I think he [Lodge] was one of the most major historians of the political resistance during the apartheid period following the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, [with] his book ‘Sharpeville’ being one of the most thoroughly researched on the subject. Among many other books, his ‘Mandela: A Critical Biography’ and ‘Red Road to Freedom: A History of the South African Communist Party, 1921–2021’ are similarly indispensable sources for study on major subjects.”

Other important works were his 1983 volume, Black Politics in South Africa Since 1945, the two 1999 studies, Consolidating Democracy and South African Politics Since 1994.” His final published work was Red Road to Freedom: A History of the South African Communist Party 1921-2021, although a biography of Walter Sisulu was nearly completed when he died.

Daryl Glaser of Wits’ Political Studies Department, adds, “Lodge closely studied South Africa’s anti-apartheid movements in opposition and then, after 1994, in power. Lodge also followed political developments in post-apartheid South Africa, analysing, among many other things, corruption and election results. His work on the ANC, PAC and other liberation movements, based on rich fieldwork, established him as a key political and social historian. At the same time he maintained a foothold in political studies, as befits someone who trained as a political scientist and who was a member of the Wits Politics Department for twenty-five years.”

His brother, Robin, noted in his obituary of his brother in The Guardian, noted that while Tom Lodge had been born in Britain, their father had served in the British Council and his assignments in Nigeria and North Borneo meant for Tom Lodge “an early childhood spent in developing countries on the verge of independence [that] stimulated Tom’s interest in colonial and postcolonial development”.

Lodge did two degrees at the University of York and then joined that university’s newly established Centre for Southern African Studies as a research fellow. That, in turn, led to research trips to South Africa based at the University of Witwatersrand, where he then became a lecturer in 1979. He completed his PhD in 1984 at Wits with his research on the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania. He then spent much of the next thirty years at Wits, with a three-year hiatus for service at the Social Sciences Research Council in New York City. 

Xolela Mangcu, then an undergraduate student and now Wolfson College Visiting Scholar at Oxford, remembers vigorous debates with Lodge about black consciousness, writing to say, “I first met Tom Lodge as a first year political science student at Wits University. Even though he had written his PhD on the PAC, Tom would be known for his authoritative book ‘Black Politics in South Africa’, which catapulted him to the position of the leading authority on the ANC. We would soon cross swords because of what I, as chairman of the black consciousness student movement on campus, perceived as his bias towards the ANC. I remember confronting him at one of those big rallies we used to have at the Wits library lawns, where he spoke of the history of the liberation movement without any mention of the other movements.

“…Tom was not just an academic confined to his desk but a public intellectual who made an enormous contribution to the public’s understanding of the liberation struggle. We kept a regular correspondence through the years and I always found him helpful and gracious. His passing came as a big shock and a great loss for African scholarship.”

In addition to research and teaching, Lodge was active in various anti-apartheid activities, including appearances as an expert witness for the defence in trials of people accused of sedition. Such efforts gave him credibility with senior figures in the ANC, and the resulting insights about their organisation and its efforts helped give his writings still greater authoritativeness.

Daryl Glaser adds, “In the 1980s Lodge was a major source of expertise on the PAC and Poqo, formations on which he wrote his PhD and that were neglected in an intellectual and political landscape dominated by the ANC. Some conspiratorial ANC-aligned folk back then considered him to be PAC-aligned, though what he actually was, to his great credit, was independent-minded, interested in a range of opposition forces and intellectually curious enough to fill knowledge gaps wherever they opened up.”

But there were real-world consequences to Lodge’s growing visibility.  As his brother noted, “…his office was burned down and he received death threats. As a result he moved to New York City in 1988, where he spent three years, working for the Social Science Research Council, distributing grants to worthy projects. But his heart remained in academia and he returned to Wits as a lecturer in 1992. Eventually, in 2005, he left South Africa and took up the position of professor of peace and conflict studies at the University of Limerick in Ireland, before becoming dean of arts there in 2012.”

Final work

His last book on the radical tradition in South Africa is a comprehensive exploration that reaches right back to the immigrant radical traditions in early Johannesburg when it was barely more than a mining camp, including the predominantly secular but Jewish craft labour bunds and related movements, and it then traces the institutional and ideological communist party’s trajectory on through to the present. 

Lodge had written about his own volume in the Sunday Times, a summing up of his thinking on the radical traditions. And it is worth quoting at some length when he wrote,  “…the party has moved a long distance from the elitist character it maintained up to 1990. Its organisation is now based largely on the support of unemployed school-leavers whose major preoccupations are to do with the day-to-day insecurities that resemble rather closely ordinary life in post-communist settings in other parts of the world.

“In the meantime, the labour movement, which used to supply its main source of leverage for political influence, has become increasingly factionalised and oligarchical. Among rank-and-file trade unionists, though class solidarities may persist, as internal party commentaries suggest, many of the party’s new members may be primarily motivated by hopes of individual fulfilment rather than egalitarian camaraderie.

“This is where we will leave the modern party, struggling to reassert an independent identity that can set it apart from the wider nationalist movement it joined more than seven decades ago. It seeks to do this without disengaging from its alliance and from what it continues to perceive as the main sites of struggle and the chief centres of power, remaining within the wider movement it joined in the 1950s, not outside it.

“South African communists’ reluctance to abandon their alliance is not just strategic. It is influenced by a history in which communists have played such a central role in the evolution of organised political activities that have sought to engage all South Africans as citizens. It is not a history they can forsake easily, for it includes significant achievements, developments and moments when communists shaped the wider political area decisively and helped initiate and consolidate important social changes.”

It will be fascinating to see how Lodge’s estimations and speculations play out in the upcoming national election in 2024.

‘An academic legend’

His university colleagues in South Africa have described Lodge as a great colleague to have had — respectful of others’ opinions, even as he remained strong in his own views.

Retired anthropology professor David Coplan wrote to say, “His landmark work on black power in SA made him an academic legend, boosted by his reputation as an academic leader and teacher. He was prolific and incredibly hard working, and through the years often scolded his colleagues for idleness and lack of commitment. Not me, fortunately. At Wits he could (like me) often be abrasive in this way, but he was protected by his amazing output, dedication, and leadership qualities. No moss grew on that man’s trail…. [O]verall we respected one another’s work too much to differ very often. [He was] a stalwart and a pillar of our Humanities Faculty, without ego or nonsense. I would count him as a friend…”

Daryl Glaser adds, “Lodge’s lecturing style was unusual, with, at least in the early years, little eye contact but lots of fascinating detail delivered in a mellifluous voice. Students flocked to his lectures, or at least we did in the 1980s, eager as we were then for information about southern African liberation forces and their prospects. Lodge was prolific, and could write amidst hubbub and disturbance, even while serving in administrative roles. He rarely locked his office door and, in response to the suggestion that students might nip in and help themselves to his impressive book collection, he replied ‘I wish’. Lodge was frequently described as kind, humble, understated and good-humoured. Many will miss him greatly.”

Going forward, South Africa now will miss his insights and knowledge about the country’s past, present and possible future. His observations would have been invaluable for the coming year’s political developments in the all-important 2024 election. A local publisher should give some serious thought to bringing out a uniform, comprehensive collection of Lodge’s writing on South Africa to serve as a memorial of his efforts to further understanding of the country’s past, its present, and its probable future. DM

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  • David Bristow says:

    On a whim, when I decided to study journalism back in ’77, a biology student and friend at Wits at the time, gave me a copy of “Time Longer Than Rope”. It was a game cnager for me and helped formed my political perspective at that period. It should have been standard required reading in South Africa. And that has made all the difference.

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