Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique
Conselho para o Desenvolvimento da Pesquisa em Ciências Sociais em África
مجلس تنمية البحوث الإجتماعية في أفريقيا

Tribute to Bernard Makhosezwe MagubaneJimi O. Adesina _ University of the Western Cape _ Cape Town, South Africa

12 April 2013

Professor Bernard Makhosezwe Magubane: An Obituary

Professor Bernard Makhosezwe
Magubane joined the league of
ancestors on the evening of Friday 12
April 2013. He was four months shy of his 83rd
birthday. It is often said that when an elder
dies in a village, a whole library is burnt down.1
With Prof. Magubane we have a rich library of
his scholarly works, political writings, a memoir, and several

For a generation of African students and scholars in North
America, Magubane’s ‘A critical look at indices used in the
study of social change in colonial Africa’ (1971, Critical
Anthropology) would have the same insurrectional impact that
Archie Mafeje’s ‘Ideology of Tribalism’ (1970, Journal of
Modern African Studies) had on the other side of the Atlantic.
The paper was sent to fifty scholars for review, with over twenty
written reviews (Editorial Note, Critical Anthropology,12[4-5]:
419). Often understood as a relentless (even polemical) critique
of the Manchester School of Anthropology associated with the
Rhodes-Livingstone Institute (RLI) in the former Northern
Rhodesia (Zambia), ‘A critical look…’ is better understood as
an uncompromising re-centring of the African experience in
narratives on Africa, especially African in the context of settlercolonialism. As Magubane noted in his memoir, My Life and Times (2010: 252), his encounters early in his academic career with the presentation of Africa and Africans as what others acted upon instigated in him a passion ‘to rectify the situation in my scholarship in line with the post-colonial scholarship that was evolving in Africa.’

Whether in his earlier works—such as his master’s thesis
dissertation at the University of Natal, on sports and politics in
the townships of Durban, his doctoral thesis on AfricanAmerican consciousness of Africa at the University of California,
Los Angeles and his early scholarly journal articles such as
‘Crisis of African Sociology’ (East African 5[2], 1968—or his
subsequent works such as The Political Economy of Race and
Class in South Africa (1979), The Making of a Racist State
(1996), Race and the Construction of the Dispensable Other
(2007), Magubane’s driving motive was the centring of the African
experience and the re-affirmation of the agency of Africans. The
history of the savannah plains will not be that of the hunters
alone but of the lions as well.

To understand Magubane and the corpus of his intellectual
contribution to South African liberation scholarship on the one
hand, and African Sociology on the other, one needs to locate
him within the contending forces that defined 20th century South
Africa, the African-American context of the 1960s, and the
continental African anti-colonial movements. For a person who
regularly described himself as ‘lucky’ and who ‘happened to be
at the right place at the right time,’ Magubane was as much a product of his time as he was an active
force in setting his own stars. As with
the 20th century story of his homecountry, South Africa, the story of
Bernard Magubane is one of triumph
over immense adversity.

Born on 26 August 1930, within two generations of the colonial
dispossession of the historical Zulu nation, the context of his
birth and early childhood epitomised the eviscerating impacts
of settler colonialism. His grandparents lived in the Zulu nation
ruled by Cetshwayo kaMpande. By the time of Magubane’s
birth, colonial dispossession meant that his parents, Xegwana
and Nozibukutho kaKhumalo, were squatters on a ‘Whiteowned’ farm near Colenso, in the KwaZulu Natal Midlands. His
father was a farm worker, who was also a seasonal migrant worker
on the Durban docks during the dry season. An altercation
between his father and the farmer forced Xegwana to flee
Colenso with his family to Durban.2
The family finally settled
down in Chesterville, a new township in Durban. The working
class environment of his home3
and the township, and the settlercolonial context of dispossession and pervasive racism would
provide the vital resources that framed Magubane’s intellectual
approach. It was also a context in which radical trade union
activism and the African National Congress-led resistance to
the racist settler-colonial order meshed in the leading
personalities and issues. African working class struggle was
one side of a coin. The other side was the resistance against
racial oppression and settler-colonialism. This thread runs
through all of Magubane’s intellectual works.

Had his father not fled the Colenso farm with the family in 1937,
Magubane would probably have grown up a non-literate second
generation farm worker. The restricted educational circumstances
in Durban at the end of the 1930s and early 1940s regardless, the
Magubane children proved to be quite precocious. Bernard
progressed from Mount Carmel to Mazenod, and then the
teacher’s college at Mariannhill. Again, in all probability,
Magubane would have settled into the life of a junior school
teacher but the rise of the National Party to power in 1948 raised
new challenges. Its heightened pursuit of racist policies,
especially the Bantu Education policies, would set the limit on
the options available in a teaching career for Magubane and
many in his generation. It was Johnny Makhathini who raised
the challenge to Bernard Magubane and others in their circle of
friends in Durban in 1953, but it was the guidance of Mazisi
Kunene that led Magubane to sit for the matriculation
examinations and eventually gain admission to the NonEuropean section of the University of Natal in 1954. University
education was a channel of escape and an act of resistance
against the rising tide of National Party totalising racist policies.
Already married to the love of his life, Thembie (nee Kaula) and
a growing family of his own, Magubane went to complete his junior bachelor’s, Honours, and Master’s degrees in Sociology Tributes
at Natal. It was during this period that Magubane met and
developed a life-long friendship with Leo Kuper, a Professor of
Sociology at Natal at the time. Kuper supervised his Honours
and Master’s theses. Magubane and Tony Ngubo worked as
field researchers for Kuper in materials that would be published
as An African Bourgeoisie (Kuper, 1965). While diplomas have
to be won, much of Magubane’s education at this time was
facilitated by anti-Apartheid resistance taking place outside the
classroom and the analyses in publications like the Guardian,
Advance, New Age, and Fighting Talk. However, the classroom
provided him groundings in the works of leading ‘bourgeois’
sociologists, having to read Max Weber and Emile Durkheim in
the original. The dissonance between the debate going on in
his classrooms and the lived experiences and struggles of people
in his neighbourhoods is one thing that Magubane would reflect
on then and later in life as disconcerting.4
From Zambia to Storr
(Connecticut, USA), Magubane’s pedagogic practices would
be shaped by the need to avert such dissonance.

In another instance of being at the right place at the right time,
the opportunity to continue his studies in the United States
came through an encounter with an American who was passing
through the University of Natal at the time Magubane was
completing his master’s thesis work. He and Tony Ngubo were
invited to apply for postgraduate scholarship to study in the
US; a scholarship both received. Leo Kuper had left Natal in
1961 for UCLA and facilitated Magubane’s graduate school
placement at the UCLA Sociology department

The delay in Magubane’s departure (on 21 December 1961) was
in large measure a micro-level impact of Dr H.F. Verwoerd’s
infamous question: ‘What is the use of teaching ‘the Bantu
child mathematics?’ If teaching the African child mathematics
was pointless, what would be the point of giving an African in
his early thirties a passport to go for doctoral studies in the US?
It took the intervention of several individuals and organisation
for Magubane to secure the travel passport. The passport, valid
until November 1964, was not re-issued until the 1990s. When
Magubane left in December 1961, he was forced to leave behind
his parents, wife, and three daughters. Thembie had also left
teaching to train as a nurse in the search to escape being tools
for delivering the National Party’s Bantu Education programme.
The family was not to be re-united until Thembie and their three
daughters joined him in Los Angeles in the Spring of 1965.

A student on a shoe-string scholarship, Magubane combined
studying with holding down multiple low-paying jobs. He
completed his Master’s degree in Sociology in 1963 and his
PhD in Sociology in 1966. In early 1967, Magubane took up a
teaching position at the new University of Zambia. His initial
stay in the United States would form the third plank of the
intellectual influence on his scholarship. While Magubane’s
exposure to Marxist literature in the 1950s was through the
contributions to the radical newspapers and magazines, it was
at UCLA that he would read Marx and Engels in their own words
for the first time. But while these would be influential, it was the
writings of W.E.B Du Bios and the political struggles of the
African American communities that shaped his thinking on race
and class. He did his doctoral thesis on African-American
consciousness of Africa (published as Ties that Bind in 1987).
The period of graduate studies abroad was not a time of distancing from the political struggles in South Africa. In 1962,
with Martin Legassick and Tony Ngubo, Magubane organised
the earliest anti-apartheid picketing of the South African
consulate in the West Coast. It was also a time for widening the
pan-African network of friends and colleagues. Both would stand
him in good stead later in life.

When Magubane relocated to Zambia in 1967, to take up a
lecturing post in the new Department of Sociology at the
University of Zambia, it was a decision he made against more
financially rewarding job offers in the United States. The three
years he spent in Zambia were not only exceedingly rewarding
intellectually, they would insert him and his family in the growing
network of ANC leadership in exile and South African exile
community in Lusaka. Magubane had joined the ANC in 1951 in
As Magubane would say, it was another case of being
in the right place at the right time. The experience of living and
teaching in Zambia would bring Magubane face to face with the
existential implication of colonial Anthropology as well as the
imperative of creative pedagogy when available materials are
largely irrelevant to the context in which he was training
students. The first set of his scholarly works in the period include
‘Crisis of African Sociology’ (1968), ‘Pluralism and Conflict
Situations in Africa: A New Look’ (1969) and ‘A Critical Look at
the Indices Used in the Study of Social Change in Colonial
Africa’ (1971). They would bring Magubane early scholarly
attention and a measure of academic superstardom.

Politically—and unanticipated at the time of his departure for
Lusaka—the period 1967 to 1969 firmly placed him within the
leadership circles of the African National Congress. O.R. Tambo
would spend time at the Magubanes’—initially for space and
time to work while the family was at work or school, and later to
stay-over. Years later, Magubane would speak glowingly about
the humanity of O.R. Tambo—not simply as one who led the
Movement through the dark days of exile but about the humanity
of a person who would help the Magubane girls with their
Mathematics homework and do dishes with the family after
dinner. Jack Simon and Ray Alexander would become close
friends and intellectual sounding boards. Magubane would also
speak with deep affection and respect for the young activists
like Chris Hani and Basil February whom he met in Lusaka. Hani
would lead the Luthuli Detachment in the Wankie Campaign
and February would be the first martyr of that campaign.

From serving on the production team of Mayibuye journal of
the ANC to being a delegate to the 1969 Morogoro Conference
of the ANC, the period in Lusaka would serve to firmly ground
Magubane’s life work within the works of the ANC. In many
ways, Magubane saw his intellectual works as the pursuit of
the political struggles by means available to a scholar. The
Lusaka period was also a time for deepening his intellectual
engagement with Marxist writings. This was the period of
encounter with Frederick Engel’s The Conditions of theWorking
Class in England in 1844—a work that would reinforce
Magubane’s position that to understand the conditions in South
Africa, one needed a global understanding of capitalism and its
historical developments. Magubane would go on to publish an
article in Dialectical Anthropology (1985, No. 10) on the continuing relevance of the work and Engel’s 1872 The Housing
Question to Urban Anthropology.

In 1970, Magubane returned with the family to the United States,
initially on a visiting appointment at UCLA but later in the year
to a tenure track appointment at the University of Connecticut,
Storr. The UConn appointment, Magubane would argue, was
another instance of a fortuitous convergence of events. The
invitation to apply for the position at UConn was at the instance
of James Faris, who first became aware of Magubane through
his works while in Zambia. It was the start of a life-long
friendship. Faris and Norman Chance would provide a near ideal
environment—politically and intellectually— for the next 27 years
that Magubane would spend at Storrs.

The period from 1970 to 1997 marked an immensely productive
and politically engaging time for Magubane. In addition to his
numerous scholarly works produced, Magubane’s two most
important books, The Political Economy of Race and Class
(1979, Monthly Review Press) and The Making of a Racist State
(1996, African World Press) were released. Several of the articles
have been republished in two collections. South Africa—from
Soweto to Uitenhage (1989, African World Press) is a collection
of Magubane’s more ‘political’ writings. The African Sociology—
towards a critical perspective (2000, African World Press) is a
collection of his more ‘academic’ writings. The more ‘political’
materials, Magubane would argue, were writings he did to keep
himself sane over the long years of exile. The more ‘academic’
writings were to keep his day-job. Yet, a close reading of both
collections would suggest that the scholarly writings were driven
by political commitment, as much as the political was driven by
intellectual demands.

Magubane’s scholarly works contended with the pluralist
narratives of the ‘Liberal White’ scholars and Anthropologists
and the ‘neo-Marxists’’ as well. The former defined the South
African conditions in terms of a ‘plural society’ and dismissed
the relevance of class analysis. For Magubane, it was impossible
to speak of the impact of colonialism on the indigenous
population or their contemporary situation without confronting
the exploitation of the labour-power of the local population.
Memory is a weapon of the oppressed in negating efforts to
routinize their lived realities. In the new settler-colonial society
created, ‘white domination was not only economic but political
and cultural as well. Any theory of change in the patterns of
behaviour of the indigenous population must take into account
this total situation’ (Magubane 1971: 419). To account for the
‘total situation’ requires a venture in historical sociology. For
Magubane, it is in exploring the history of dispossession and
disruption of the human conditions of the indigenous
populations that one can account for their social existence in
the present.

The neo-Marxists who focused exclusively on class relations
fail to address the ‘over-determination’ of racism (Magubane
[1985] 2000: 482). Here, Du Bois (1933: 55) was an important
source for Magubane: ‘First of all colored labor has no common
ground with white labor. No society of technocrats would do
more than exploit colored labor in order to raise the status of
whites. No revolt of a white proletariat could be started if its object was to make black workers their economic, political
and social equals.’6
In failing to grapple with the ‘overdetermination’ of racism and the specificity of the ‘National
Question’ in South Africa, the neo-Marxists missed the knob of
the situation. The issue, Magubane, would argue is not race or
class but race and class; in the racist settler-colonial context,
racism over-determines class. Much of what passed for the
‘workerist’ discourse in South African labour historiography, in
the 1980s, dismissed this critical element to the South African
situation. In Race and the Construction of the Dispensable
Other (2007) Magubane assembled the primary sources and
arguments that underpinned his analyses since the 1970s.

The undeclared undertone of Magubane’s scholarship is the
distinction that must be made between ‘White’ people and others
who may be of Caucasian or European descent but firmly rooted in anti-racist traditions and emancipatory politics. ‘White’ is
a category of power rather than phenotype or pigmentation. As
a description of skin colour, ‘white’ is deeply false. Only in the
context of racial domination does whiteness acquire its salience
as a signifier of power over the ‘dispensable Other.’

If Magubane’s writings did not reflect the pessimism that
sometimes afflicts exile scholars, it is largely because of his
proximity to the liberation movements in Southern Africa and
the ANC in the particular case of South Africa. His time in Zambia
had placed him in close proximity to the leadership of the most
prominent liberation movements in Southern Africa. The return
to the United States and being at Storrs—with its close proximity
to the ANC officials in New York—meant that he maintained a
fire-side view and engagement with political works of the
liberation movement. Over the years, and increasingly in the
1980s, Magubane would undertake representational duties for
the ANC. In addition to the local anti-Apartheid movement in
the West Coast, the increasing mobilisation work would bring
him into close contact with a wide range of people in the antiApartheid community in the United States. Magubane would
later serve as a member of the ANC delegation at the July 1987
meeting in Dakar with a delegation of Afrikaner intellectuals.8

Magubane was always the first to acknowledge that it was the
strength derived from the warm family environment that he built
with Thembie, their daughters and the growing number of grandchildren that sustained him and her in exile—as much as the
community that the ANC afforded him. A scholar committed to
the liberation project, Magubane was himself sustained by the
network of people committed to the same project. The friendship
of James Faris and Norman Chance and of their families with the
Magubanes in rural Connecticut provided both an enabling
intellectual environment and support for his political works.
When he was away from the university, he could rely on Faris
and Chance to step in for him—personal angles and contributions
that are easy to miss in a macro-history of emancipatory politics.

The final home-coming in 1997 was meant to be a period of rest,
after retiring from UConn, but this was not to be. Yet, of the
numerous works and challenges that he took on after 1997, the
most significant and rewarding for Magubane was his invitation
to direct the Road to Democracy Project under the auspices of
the South African Democracy Education Trust (SADET) project.9
The project, at the instance of President Thabo Mbeki, was
concerned with the recovery of memory and the documentation
of the years of struggle in a period when documentation was a threat to underground work. The multi-volume works that have
been produced under the SADET project, the nurturing of a
new generation of South African scholars who have successfully
continued the project,10 will serve as the enduring legacy of
Bernard Magubane. The inclusive nature of the project is evident
in the expansive coverage of the contributions of a diversity of
movements, organisations, and forces to the South African
liberation project.

In 1999, Professor Magubane received national honours of the
South African government for his contributions to the social
sciences. He was a recipient of honorary doctoral awards from
the University of Fort Hare and the Walter Sisulu University. In
2004 he delivered the keynote address at the annual conference
of the South African Sociological Association. July 2007 saw
his investiture as a founding Fellow of the African Sociological
Association. In 2010, an international conference was organised
in Tshwane to mark his 80th birthday and to celebrate his
intellectual contributions.

With the passing of Magubane, we would need to double our
efforts in reversing the intellectual erasure and elective amnesia
with which the works of scholars like Bernard Magubane are
met in the mainstream of South African social science. The corpus
of his works and the example of his life are important resources
for educating a new generation of South Africans. They should
be acknowledged as important aspects of our intellectual heritage.


1. This is often intended as a signifier of the non-literate character of
such societies in which elders are considered repositories of knowledge.
The problem with the aphorism is that the ontological underpinning of such societies hardly admits to the irrevocable destruction of
knowledge that ‘burning of the library’ imagery connotes.
Communication between the ‘living’ and the ancestors continues
beyond the different ‘planes of existence’.
2. Interview with Bernard M Magubane, 29 December 2009 (Deinfern,
Johannesburg). Magubane, My life and times. Scottsville: UKZN Press,
2010, pp.14-15. There were three children in the family at the time.
Magubane’s older sister, Mary, and a younger sister, Florence.
3. His father, a dock worker, and his mother combined domestic labour
services with informal traditional beer brewing (Interview… 29
December 2009).
4 .Interview with Bernard M. Magubane, 03 January 2010 (Deinfern,
5. Interview with Bernard M Magubane, 31December 2009 (Deinfern,
6. WEB Du Bois. 1933. ‘Karl Marx and the Negro’, The Crisis 40(3),
March, cited in BM Magubane, 1996, The making of a racist state.
Trenton, NJ: African World Press, p.337.
7. These are materials that Magubane used in his teaching over the 27
year period at UConn.
8. BM Magubane. 2010. My life and times. Scottsville: UKZN Press,
9. Interview with Bernard M Magubane, 3 January 2010 (Deinfern,
10. Dr Sifiso Ndlovu, a trained historian, worked with Prof. Magubane
from 1997 and went on to succeed Magubane as the Director of the
SADET project.