Farewell to Professor Rodney Davenport

21 Jul 2016 - 11:15

Rodney Davenport, who passed away recently at 90, was one of this country’s leading historians, writing over a wide field, from Afrikaner politics to urban segregation to land and liberalism. Though he completed his initial training in history at Rhodes University, returned there to teach in 1968, and remained there until his retirement in 1990, he had a long association with UCT and this brief tribute will focus on that. It was in 1953 that, having studied theology at Oxford, he began teaching in the UCT History Department.  There he embarked on a Ph.D. thesis on the Afrikaner Bond, which was completed in 1960 and published, in revised form, by Oxford University Press in 1966.  The present writer remembers him as a dedicated teacher at both undergraduate and post-graduate level.  He taught me Constitutional History and led our Honours seminar in the history of the French Revolution.  In 1968, seeing no immediate prospect of promotion at UCT and being offered a Readership at Rhodes, he moved to Grahamstown, but he was keen to return to UCT and when eventually the chair there fell vacant in 1976 he would have liked to be appointed to it.  Having only held the chair at Rhodes for a year, however, he decided that he would wait for an invitation from UCT to apply for its chair, and that did not come. So he remained at Rhodes, making occasional forays in the direction of Cape Town.  This writer remembers him as a striking figure at the conference on liberalism organised by Jeffrey Butler, Richard Elphick and David Welsh at Houw Hoek in 1987.

It was when on sabbatical from Rhodes, holding a Smuts Fellowship at Cambridge in 1973, that Rodney began writing his history of modern South Africa, which he regularly updated.   On retiring from Rhodes, he moved to Cape Town and, looking for someone to help him on the fifth edition of his book, asked the present writer to do so, even though I had written a critical review of the third edition of the book. Rodney was wonderful to work with, always full of ideas and with an old-world courtesy and generosity.  After the fifth edition appeared he began thinking of a new book that would approach all of South African history through a set of what he called strands.  Regrettably this proved too ambitious a project and that book has not appeared.  He kindly suggested that I take over his History and produce a sixth edition.  Whether that will ever appear remains to be seen.

Shortly after his retirement from the chair at Rhodes the South African Historical Journal (26, 1, 1992) produced an issue largely devoted to him.  A founder member of the South African Historical Society, he had by 1992 served on the editorial board of the Journal for its entire 23 year existence.  The SAHJ issue  contained a lengthy and very fine assessment of his career by Nicholas Southey of UNISA, along with an extensive interview with him and a set of reviews of his Modern History, to which, characteristically, Rodney responded in the next issue of the journal (`South Africa: A Modern History-A Response’, SAHJ, 27:1, 264-267).  Always open to new ideas, he remained a staunch liberal.  I particularly like the passage In Southey’s interview with him in which he said:  `There is no reason for the historian to underrate his capacity to have an open mind. He should work quite hard to get one if he hasn’t got one.‘   Rest in Peace Rodney, mentor, colleague, friend. ..

Emeritus Professor Christopher Saunders