“We know… but we don’t know.”
These were words that we heard often from Jeff Guy (1940-2014) in discussing the history of KwaZulu-Natal, the region that fascinated us all. In print, these words may look banal. But in Jeff’s dramatic, deliberate cadence, they resonated as a historian’s call to arms: a command to return to the archives to dig deeper, to talk to more people, to think more creatively, to write more clearly.
To honor his life, we have begun to assemble an archive on Jeff, in which his friends, colleagues, and students from around the world have shared their memories.* Jeff’s first reaction to this archive would have been to shrug those broad shoulders, widening his eyes in incredulity at the legacy that we describe. “Don’t romanticize me,” he would warn us, stretching out his syllables.
He needn’t worry. We have left these recollections minimally edited, shown in the order in which they were received. Together, they reveal both more and less than a scholarly icon: they conjure a man who took everything personally, and so made history personal to his many friends. In the words of his student Eva Jackson, “He insisted on the personal nature of everything, the love and affront and importance of the past and present.” And so we remember the love, affront, and importance of Jeff.
* * *
On the morning of Tuesday, 16 December, we opened our email to find a dashed note from a colleague, with the subject line “Tragic sad news.” Jeff had collapsed at Heathrow airport, waiting to board his flight home to Durban after a Cambridge University conference on John William Colenso, the controversial Natal bishop and advocate for the Zulu kingdom whom Jeff had immortalized in his 1983 classic The Heretic and its 2002 successor, The View Across the River. There Jeff had given a powerful presentation and enjoyed the company of old friends—returning to the networks in which he had trained as a scholar, as the first Ph.D. student of the path-breaking South African historian Shula Marks in 1960s and 1970s London.
Jeff was 74 years old, a cancer survivor with a recent history of ailments. But his sudden passing had the startling force of the death of a young person, still rich with potential, not the anticipated sadness of the death of an elderly man. His vitality at once made his death more tragic and his life more awe-inspiring.
Reflecting this vitality, most of the memorials we received came from younger scholars who found in him a remarkable willingness to take their ideas seriously. For both of us, too, Jeff was the kind of mentor more common in campus fiction than in the 21st century academy: the curmudgeon with the heart of gold, stooped and pensive, always thinking, asking, writing, revising.
But to experience Jeff’s mentorship, one first had to overcome his formidable persona. He was to Durban intellectual circles what Larry David’s character is to the entertainment business on the HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm: principled to the point of pugnaciousness. Many memorials follow a similar script, in which the young scholar incurs Jeff’s wrath before securing his friendship. After she called an aspect of his question at one of Durban’s legendary History and African Studies Seminars “banal,” Meghan spent a month with her name in what Jeff called his “grudge box.” (We regret never asking whether that box was proverbial or literal, as it would surely contribute richly to Jeff’s archive.) His student Dinesh Balliah recalls an intimidating first visit to his office hours after a class absence, in which he cut an apple in a way that made her fear it represented her “effigy.” Another student, Scott Couper, raised Jeff’s ire by calling him “sir,” explaining that he was “raised to show respect for benevolent authority.” Jeff protested vigorously: “I’m not benevolent.”
Yet of course he was benevolent. Jason Hickel—both American and an anthropologist, two categories of which Jeff did not initially approve—remembers the intellectual joys of Jeff’s Tradition, Authority, and Power (TAP) Research Group, in which Meghan also participated. Mwelela Cele, another participant in TAP and a colleague at the important Durban archive Campbell Collections, recalls Jeff’s inspirational support for his research into his family’s past. Scholars who knew Jeff for months or decades treasure his encouragement of their projects.
Jeff’s benevolence was valuable because it came with his critical engagement—the very quality that made him a curmudgeon. As his student Jenny Josefsson recollects, as an editor “he was hard on me, but he was hard on everyone… He was also his own toughest critic… Although it made him miserable and grumpy at times, this also made him a great historian and writer.” His colleague Norman Etherington, who enjoyed fighting with Jeff for half a century, describes this engagement best: “Argumentation, questioning and debate were the essence of his being. I shall miss them.”
What inspired us most, and drew so many of us to him despite the gruff persona, was the inseparability of his scholarship and politics. Jeff was clearly the opposite of his long-studied Theophilus Shepstone, of whom he once said: “The private man keeps a great distance from the public one.” Understanding history was imperative to answering contemporary questions. That his Marxian framework remained across the decades was a testimony to his principles and desire for a just world.
He committed his life to understanding the past with an eye towards shaping the present, from his 1979 classic The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom: The Civil War in Zululand, to his final book, Theophilus Shepstone and the Forging of Natal (2013). He wrote letters and articles in the Mail & Guardian and penned historical pieces for the Natal Witness. He memorialized the 2006 centenary of the Bhambatha Rebellion with a series of articles in English and isiZulu, and in accessible books, The Maphumulo Uprising (2005) and Remembering the Rebellion (2006). While he may have vocally lamented the tragedies and farce of liberation (including Durban’s Che Guevara Road), he sensitively highlighted historical precedents—in both the press and his recent book—that could help South Africa make better sense of key concepts shaping South Africa, including “customary law,” “tradition” and “traditional authority.” As Nomboniso Gasa reflected on Twitter, “Those of us who contest the ‘neo-traditionalist & essentialist trend’ have lost a brave and unflinching ally.”
Jeff wrote anti-apartheid and post-apartheid history, in which “black” and “white” pasts emerge as profoundly intertwined. He charted the transformation of southeast Africa from a social world where “the objective in life was people” to one in which “the objective of life is things,” as he wrote in the introduction to his last book. But his work showed that underlying this fundamental transformation were complex continuities, in discourses and practices of social institutions like bridewealth and chieftainship. His words in the coda to Theophilus Shepstone exemplify the significance of these historical insights, and their intense connection to present politics:
“The years spent researching and writing this book have been accompanied by the controversies around the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act of 2003 and the legislation derived from it. As a result, the private process of historical investigation was unable to escape the public assertions that legal reform would soon wipe clean tradition and custom of the accretions left by colonialism and apartheid, and reveal them for what they are. This book attempts to break free from the self-defining circularity of such arguments and begins with a pre-colonial past at its colonial beginning—with the story of Musi in the 1830s, heir to the Qwabe isizwe, hidden for safety, herding calves in his grandfather’s homestead in the Zulu kingdom, brought into Natal to revive the Qwabe lineage and rebuild the Mthandeni homestead with the social resources accumulated and stored in the cattle given to him by the widows of his forebears. He did this as a colonial chief, using pre-colonial practices. When he died in 1892, the Qwabe was one of the largest chiefdoms in Natal, paying tax on over 3,300 houses. But it was an achievement that cannot be understood in terms of either the traditional or the colonial: it was the result of synthesis in a new situation; it was part of the process of change that continued and continues to this day.”
Jeff’s writing was just part of his quest to share history and scholarship with more people, to get young men and women to study history at the university and policy makers to think more critically. He still had so many ideas and plans: for funding to make academic books cheaper, archival workshops for traditional leaders, and digital databases so that future scholars could access his notes on Zulu history. He was always pushing the young archivists in Pietermaritzburg to do postgraduate studies in history—and they quickly came to lovingly refer to him as “Prof” without ever having him in class. When it came to North American and European scholars, he reminded us of the privileges of our academy—the funding to spend long hours in the archive—and challenged us to make good of them.
The archives will be quieter these days. The cafés on Davenport Road will have an empty chair. The streets will probably be a bit safer—as the memorials testify, Jeff’s driving was notorious.
But his family, his friends, his colleagues, our scholarship: they are all the richer.
Hamba kahle, Prof. Hamba kahle.
*For those wishing to add to the archive, please email the authors. They will continue to add to the site in anticipation of a memorial at the upcoming Southern African Historical Society Conference.