SA: Blade Nzimande: Address by the Minister of Higher Education and Training, at the Memorial Service for Prof Bernard Magubane, University of Johannesburg (17/04/2013)

17th April 2013

Programme Director,
Members and friends of Professor Magubane’s family,
Honourable guests,
Ladies and gentlemen.

South Africa has lost an important and influential intellectual. Prof Magubane was one of South Africa’s leading social scientists – a historian and sociologist. An eminent academic and a leading Marxist intellectual, he spent many years in exile, teaching at universities in the United States where he was a member of the African National Congress (ANC) and a leading activist of the anti-apartheid movement in the United States of America (USA).

He was born in 1930, and came from humble beginnings, the son of a labour tenant (or squatter as they were called) on a white-owned farm in the Colenso district of KwaZulu-Natal. His father was illiterate and his mother had been to school only for three years.

His father apparently had a serious argument with the farmer and the Magubanes left the farm and moved to Durban where they settled in the informal settlement of Cato Manor when the young Bernard was seven or eight. 

There, he attended school and, after completing his Junior Certificate (Standard 8 or Grade 10), he went on to become a teacher, qualifying at the Marianhill Teacher Training College. He also became a political activist and a member of what was then increasingly becoming militant African National Congress, attending ANC rallies and meetings almost weekly. He was an avid reader of the Guardian and the then New Age of the time, both run mainly by Communists, increasing his understanding of politics and society.

When Bantu Education was introduced, he, with some colleagues including Johnny Makhathini, decided that they did not want to continue teaching. He then did his matric at night school (at Sastri College) and later got a fellowship to attend the University of Natal (non-European section) as a part time student.

There he earned a BA and an honours degree and then a Masters in Sociology. In 1961, he managed to get a fellowship to study in the United States of America. After doing another Master’s degree he went on to do his PhD at the University of California in Los Angeles. During this time he became one of the founders of the anti-apartheid movement in the US.

In 1967, he then moved to Zambia where he taught at the University of Zambia and became a member of the ANC community in Lusaka. Oliver Tambo stayed with the Magubane family for some time and they became close friends. At the university, Ben Magubane worked closely with ANC and SACP stalwart, Jack Simons, who also taught there.

Magubane later recalled that, ‘We used to meet at [Jack Simons’] house every Sunday to discuss South Africa. In fact, almost everything that I had learned for my PhD, I had to unlearn from the lectures he gave... That's when I became interested in the political economy of race, and that's when I really started taking notes for the book, which I would work on when I went back to the United States in 1970. ”

Back in the United States he continued his academic career, teaching in universities in both California and then in Connecticut. He wrote widely and his best known book was The Political Economy of Race and Class in South Africa (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979) which, despite being banned in SA, was an important source of knowledge and inspiration for many during the struggles of the 1980s.

Once again he became a major force in the anti-apartheid movement, working also with his old friend from Durban, Johnny Makhathini, who had become the ANC’s Chief Representative at the United Nations.

In 1994, Prof Magubane returned home to South Africa. Here he became Editor-in-Chief of the South African Democracy Education Trust (SADET) in Pretoria, which published the important four volume series, The Road to Democracy in South Africa. He was the consummate activist intellectual and worked across the boundaries of sociology, history and anthropology.

He kept in touch and exchanged ideas with other Africanists in the US and across the world, and especially across the African continent. His work and his life should be an inspiration to young academics and intellectuals, both black and white, in South Africa.

When I look back at Prof Magubane’s life, a few things strike me. Firstly, if his parents had not fallen out with the farmer and gone to live in Durban when he was a child, he most likely would have had to start to work on the farm for six months a year as soon as he was old enough (possibly at the age of 10 or 12).

This would have meant that this youngster, so full of potential, would not have had the opportunity to go to school and university and we would never have had a Professor Bernard Magubane. What this should prompt us to ask ourselves is how many other talented youngsters grew up on farms, reserves (Bantustans) or other poor areas who could have led different, productive and fulfilling lives, contributing greatly to their societies if they had had the opportunity.

It is this thought that should ensure that we are determined to provide educational opportunities to all South Africans.  If we don’t do this, we must know that it is certain that we are depriving not only talented individuals of an opportunity to reach their potential, but also we are depriving our country of a vast pool of talent.

Another thing that strikes me as I contemplate Prof Magubane’s life and work is how important it is for us to uncover our history and to interpret it in such a way that it leads to the full liberation and development of our country. Ben Magubane contributed to this project decisively, working with others, building collaboration among historians and other social scientists to ensure that our past is not forgotten.

But there is so much more to do in this respect and I hope that young South African historians and others will take this up with enthusiasm. The past is what has shaped the world we live in and we must understand that past if we are to fully understand the present and be able to shape the future.

Although some progress has been made in capturing and interpreting the history of the liberation movement, more still needs to be done. Just as importantly, we need to do a lot more work on the social and political history of ordinary people: workers,  people living in rural areas, how social and economic changes have impacted on the lives of people, how they work, how they spend their leisure time, how and why they pray, eat or learn the way they do.

Academics like Prof Magubane have ensured that they record and analyse the processes which have shaped our society: colonialism, conquest and cultural domination, the reserves or Bantustans and the migrant labour system, the nature of apartheid and its relationship to capitalism, the political economy of the mining and manufacturing industries, the relationship between race and class, Afrikaner nationalism, African resistance to conquest and domination, and the international dimensions of the struggle for freedom. These are all very important issues and need further investigation and analysis.

Just as important is the need to look at history from the point of view of ordinary people.  We still need to look in greater detail at local histories: narratives of resistance to oppression in small towns, neighbourhoods and rural areas; how ordinary people reacted to conditions created by colonial and apartheid governments and indeed our democratic government.

Prof Magubane and some others were pioneers; we must take their work forward, finding ever new frontiers as well as the forces and processes that have and continue to create our society.

The Department of Higher Education and Training intends establishing a National Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences in the next few months. I have taken this initiative in order to ensure that the humanities and social sciences are not neglected as we focus on the urgent issues of developing our economy and providing it with the scientific, industrial, and commercial skills.

As important as these skills are, we neglect the social sciences at our peril. The work started by Prof Magubane and others like him, must not be forgotten and must be built upon. It is important to our identity as a nation and it contributes importantly to our understanding of our social and political systems and therefore guides the policies that we adopt and the actions we take as a government.

As a nation, we bow our heads in tribute to Professor Bernard Magubane and extend our deepest condolences to his family and friends. His was a life well lived. He was a credit to his country, to his movement and to his family. He will be remembered by us all.

Thank you!