In Memory of Francis Wilson: May 1939 to April 2022

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South Africa has lost a rare, true, and kind intellectual gentleman with the passing of Francis Wilson. It feels, with the timing, after Easter, given sure indices of sound structural reforms in South Africa, and at the University of Fort Hare, despite tremendous uncertain change, this steadfast economist put his last pain and effort toward renewal. He understood South Africa, in his effort toward reform.

A great son of the Eastern Cape has passed; a liberal Christian socialist, steward of the Amatole, child of amaRharhabe, economist, historian, professor, activist, benefactor, mentor, Francis Wilson.

Francis Wilson was born in May 1939, far from the launch of the first issue of “the Amazing and Unique Batman”, in Livingstone, Zambia (at the bottom of “Northern Rhodesia”), aside the edge of the (#) Victoria Falls, when Germany and Italy signed the Pact of Steel, and, in Lane vs Wilson, the United States Supreme Court found against key prejudiced limitations on black voters’ rights. Europe was starting a second world war for imperialism, nationalism, capitalism, socialism, racism, fascism, greed, and domination, and for the progress of universal human rights, civil rights, and workers’ rights; a war to seek control of the world, which ended with two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan.

The setbacks took away his father, Godfrey Wilson, Malinowski’s Scottish anthropologist protégé of the London School of Economics, from Monica (Hunter) Wilson, the anthropologist of Pondoland, of Lovedale missionaries, and of Cambridge; having met and worked together in Tanzania. With her return to Alice, Francis grew up around Hogsback after the war, alongside the Tyhumie Falls. He attended St Andrews. Monica Wilson is the renowned UCT anthropologist of the 1950s and 60s.

Anthropology shares clear genetic roots with Economics in the history of the African mining industry. The Rhodes-Livingstone Institute was the first local African anthropological research facility, founded in 1938 under the initial directorship of Godfrey. Francis Wilson advanced this familiar research to show how the migrant labour system ripped apart families for diamonds and gold, to forge a united South Africa, dividing homelands into an empire of principalities, in indirect rule.

In 1959, the Bantu Education Act intended to turn the non-racial South African Native College into a “bush college” reserved for speakers of isiXhosa, stirring the shades and ashes of a saga of struggles we all know well. Armed with a Cambridge PhD in Economics, and training in Physics, Francis returned home towards the end of 1966, in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre, and the Rivonia Trials. At UCT he taught economics, mining, on poverty, economic justice, and on migrant labour. Francis, the economist, and his wife Lindy, who closely documented apartheid and its transition in film and in writing; the activist friend of Steve Biko, with whom she produced Bounds of Possibility.

Monica Wilson and Leonard Thompson published the Oxford History of South Africa at the height of the turbulent period of cultural, political and social change between 1969 and 1971. The Central African Federation of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland split up in a process of decolonization. Kenneth Kaunda adopted African socialism, like Tanzania, and one-party participatory democracy. Presidents John Vorster and Ian Smith held private talks. Mangosuthu Buthelezi took command of KwaZulu.

In 1972, Francis Wilson published Migrant Labour in South Africa with Spro-Cas, the South African Council of Churches. He directed the UCT Labour and Development Research Unit he founded from 1975 to 2001 to give incontrovertible, hard evidence of the unjust economic and social impact of our uneven and divided development, and its effects of mass poverty. He helped demolish the myth, peddled by a rogue regime, of good neighbourliness, for separate but equal national development. His Carnegie Study on Poverty helped make it impossible to invest in the minerals industrial complex with conscience, faith, or credit, with no policy reform. He and his brother Tim and Lindy, and their family, have long served the University of Fort Hare and its surrounds with consistent dedication.

Prof. Wilson published a short, accessible history of South Africa, from its geological foundations to its social present, which is easily worth reading. He helped to establish and mentor, in his mom’s home, in the Amathole forest, with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the Fort Hare Centre for Leadership Ethics, a long-running Autumn School for Eastern Cape leaders, promoting social democratic rights, whose circles of alumni grow wide. Professor Wilson engaged us with great insight, goodwill, good humour, good isiXhosa, and humility, during a period of radical change, between 2012 and 2020, into his latest years. He saw the light at the end of the tunnel and survived to find evidence of it with recent publication of the Oxford Handbook of the South African Economy.

We celebrate his good work, this May / Workers’ Day, as we learn to work together for one other. Read his work to gain his understanding of where we are, how we got here, and what to do.


Dr CJ Allsobrook

Director, Centre for Leadership Ethics in Africa

University of Fort Hare


Photos: UCT News