Bill Freund: Historian, Africanist, Intellectual

Bill Freund was a Marxist historian in method, attentive to political economy and to the material underpinnings of power, while retaining a critical distance to Marxism.

Bill Freund in Paris in 2015. Image via Wits University Press.

Bill Freund was a traveler. As an economic historian, he explored the ways in which the large forces of labor and capital shaped society over time, indelibly marking the present. As a curious person with an insatiable appetite for art and music and landscape, and an abiding interest in the small quirks of human character, Bill travelled the world, each trip bringing fresh joys and insights. South African academia was fortunate that he found—in its history, its sociability, and in its intellectual stimulations—a place that he could call home.

Bill’s first visit to South Africa was in 1969, when he went to Cape Town to work on his PhD on slavery, which he understood within Marxist terms as a mode of reproduction, arguing against contemporaneous liberal scholarship’s focus on race. His PhD (Yale, 1971) completed, his early career might be described as meandering, with several unsuccessful attempts to find a permanent academic position in the United States. He spent a little time in the UK, in the company of leading South Africanists such as Shula Marks and Martin Legassick. Before moving to South Africa in the mid-1980s, he lived and taught in Nigeria, at Ahmadu Bello University, and developed a love for the smells, tastes and culture of Northern Nigeria. In Zaria, he was appreciative of the brilliant scholars teaching alongside him, Nigerians and others, at what was then Africa’s largest university. He lived and worked in Tanzania, where he engaged with the international community of radical scholars such as Samir Amin, Lionel Cliffe, and John Saul. It is important to pinpoint just how different and alluring these experiences were to the community he joined in South Africa, where the ‘model’ universities were white and aspired to Oxbridge, and where it was assumed in the 1980s that South Africa was the most advanced country on the continent.

Into the milieu of apartheid South Africa, Bill brought the eyes of the traveler. He had seen the past (Harvard, Yale, Oxford) and despised its bloated pretentiousness and lack of imagination. He had no romantic or nostalgic illusions about American democracy, seeing America (and its academic institutions) as a place of cramped conformity. He had seen the future (Ahmadu Bello University, Dar es Salaam), especially the coming distance between the postcolonial state and the radical scholars who had utopian dreams of a just society. In Dar, especially, he made friends with the South African academics in exile, and was angered by the ANC’s treatment of the Marxists, like David Hemson, who refused to toe the party line. A long month in India followed his time in Tanzania, observing the effects of Indira Gandhi’s rule which had just ended. It laid down in him a deep distrust of both nationalism and postcolonial political parties. The American who brought Africa to Durban: to appreciate that, we need to recall just how parochial South Africa was at the time. It was excessively important in the global imaginary, of course, as the struggle against apartheid was by this time internationally powerful. Yet on the whole South African academics were at the time mostly less concerned about what was ordinary about the country.

Bill came to South Africa ‘for good,’ one might say, at one of its most intense periods, just after the formation of the United Democratic Front in 1983 and just when the state began a renewed and vicious clampdown on political resistance using the states of emergency. It was a heady political time and Bill was an astute and scholarly observer, quite comfortable to name contradictions even of left activism. His work on tin mining and labor, and his magisterial comparative study The Making of Contemporary Africa, are standard texts for courses all over the world. His work on development, sharply observed commentary on economic dilemmas facing postapartheid South African policymakers, strengthened critical scholarship for a generation of his graduate students. His work on Indians in South Africa, though he felt it fell a little short of his best, shows a remarkable grasp of the particularities of a minority community’s complicated navigation of apartheid. The journal that he co-founded and built, Transformation, uniquely retains an independent critical left voice in academia. He wrote with great elegance and ease, and with a self-confidence based on deep reading. He was a Marxist historian in method, carefully attentive to political economy and to the material underpinnings of power, while retaining a critical distance to the political forms that his Marxist friends embraced. He was not romantic about what he had to offer, never feeling the need to perform allyship with the political cause. Mostly, while he was a thorough leftist and egalitarian, he was impatient with the demands of struggle involvement and thought many white leftists were driven by a savior complex. This meant that he had a healthy and dispassionate distance from the factionalism that sometimes characterized South African left academia. The down side of it was that he did not fit easily into those academic cliques either, and as a result was not included to the extent that was justified by his meticulous scholarship.

Bill Freund, Shireen Hassim and Jo Beall. Image via Shireen Hassim.

Later in his career, he was indeed sought after as a keynote speaker and invited to all the academic tables, but there were long years when he was appreciated but not celebrated by his senior colleagues. Despite what I thought of as a lack of generosity towards him, Bill was unfailingly generous himself. He read the work of his students and colleagues with care and insight, and with a rapidity that made you think that your work was the most important thing on his schedule. His intellectual range was incredible. I felt this power firsthand. He took me on as an MA student when my first supervisor, Jo Beall, was imprisoned, tortured and forced to flee the country. Despite my choice to work on a feminist reading of Inkatha (far from Bill’s own interests), I was enriched by his skillful ability to bring out the best arguments in my writing. I was especially emboldened by him to develop my anti-nationalist feminist thinking, which we laughingly contrasted to my everyday romance with the collective.

Bill had the gaze of an outsider, a quality that defined much of his life and which made him appreciate the underdog however that was defined. His parents were Austrian Jews who fled just before the war, settling eventually in Chicago in the US where he grew up in a world dominated by European emigres. His parents carried with them socialist beliefs and a complicated commitment to both secularism and Zionism. They had all the qualities of highly cultured Europeans but without the financial means with which to pursue their artistic and musical interests fully. Bill retained a lingering admiration for Viennese culture, and certainly had his own distinctive taste in classical music that he felt was his central connection to his mother. He spoke German, French, Dutch, Kiswahili, some Italian (self-taught), some Afrikaans and wished he had learnt more Hausa. He was learning Zulu. An only child, with a restless spirit, he made Durban his home and his friends his family. He gathered a group of people around him that included unlikely combinations such as feminists and his touch rugby friends. He was a bon vivant, whose love for good food, travel (we could barely keep up with his letters about his latest trip!), music, art and books was infectious and entrancing. He was fond of an afternoon snooze, and no matter if that had to be taken in the middle of a seminar in a hot summer classroom. He was insistently independent, with his friends holding thumbs that he would arrive in Johannesburg after a six-hour drive with his car and body intact (and, indeed, that no one would feel the brunt of his impotent road rage). The collapse of the vibrant intellectual community in Durban, precipitated by the disastrous management of the University of KwaZuluNatal, was keenly felt in the last decade of his life, although frequent trips to teach and visit his friends in Johannesburg alleviated this somewhat. His friendships were always for life and if you sped along with your own interests in a self-centered way, you could rely on Bill to bring you up to speed with news of others. Once retired, he was able to connect more intensely with his extended family of cousins and their children, which brought him great joy. And in his inimitable fashion, he sought out the next generation of brilliant young people in Durban, making them his new friends and family and sharing with us their gifts and achievements just as he once spoke of us.

Bill Freund: An historian’s passage to Africa, is due to be published in May 2021 by Wits University Press.

About the Author

Prof Shireen Hassim is Canada 150 Research Chair: Gender and African Politics at Carleton University and Visiting Professor at WiSER, Wits University.

Further Reading