Image Source: Cape Times - Thursday, March 3, 2016
Martin Legassick, historian ( 1940-2016)
Others will write of Martin as activist and champion of the working-class, and as Professor of History at UWC. Here I wish to remember him as the leading historian among the neo-Marxist revisionists of the 1970s, as well as for some of his other historical writing.
Not initially trained as a historian, Martin read physics at Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar. There he came under the influence of the Marxist Africanist Thomas Hodgkin, who arranged for him to go to the new university in Ghana. The former Professor of History at UCT, Leonard Thompson, a friend of Martin’s father, then arranged a scholarship for him to study for a doctorate at the University of California, Los Angeles. Under Thompson he produced a massive, pioneering thesis on the Griqua, the Sotho-Tswana and the missionaries that sought to show the peoples of the interior as agents in the making of their own history. This important work was only published over forty years later, in 2010 under the title The Politics of a South African Frontier. As Professor of History at UWC Martin continued his interest in the northern Cape, an interest now linked to land claims, and a collection of his essays on that region will be published posthumously.
After completing his thesis, Martin moved to London and in the early 1970s he wrote a number of brilliant and very influential papers, on the frontier tradition in South African historiography and the development of segregation in the twentieth century. Along with others, he rejected the idea that modern South African racism emerged from the frontier encounter, instead arguing that segregation developed out of the `mineral revolution’ of the late nineteenth century and the penetration of southern Africa by British capital. In the then new Journal of Southern African Studies he linked apartheid, as a refinement of earlier patterns of racial segregation, to the development of the capitalist economy.
In the 1980s he remained based in the UK but left academe to engage full-time in trade union and political work on South Africa. After UCT in 1990 launched a scheme to help scholars from exile integrate back into South Africa, he applied to come to UCT under this, and was for a time on the UCT campus, before he took up his UWC post. There he wrote his magnum opus, Towards Socialist Democracy (2007) and much else, including two joint chapters for the South African Democracy Education Trust (SADET) Road to Democracy project, until an unfortunate disagreement with his former UCLA colleague, Ben Magubane, ended his SADET work. Martin went on to write an important chapter for the Cambridge History of South Africa, which led to a separate publication entitled The Struggle for the Eastern Cape, 1800–1854: Subjugation and the Roots of South African Democracy (2011). In short, Martin was a highly prolific historian, whose stature in our historiography is likely to grow as the full range of his work is studied and seen in context.