Farewell to Jeff Guy, an extraordinary SA historian


Jeff Guy (1940 – 2014)

The historian Jeff Guy died on December 15, at Heathrow Airport, waiting to board a flight to return to his home in Durban. It was, writes a friend, “a very Jeff way to go – struck down in the stride of life, no doubt grumbling about long queues or poor service, but distracted by a new idea or line of inquiry”.

He had been in England for a few weeks, where he gave a lecture at a conference marking the bicentenary of the birth of Bishop John Colenso. Several who saw him during the trip have remarked on his evident zest for life and intellectual vigour.

Jefferson John Guy was born on June 13 1940. After schooling in Pietermaritzburg, he roamed for four years: he worked on farms in Britain and what was then Rhodesia, served as a sailor, and briefly as a soldier. In 1963 he registered at the University of Natal, where he fell in love with history. Guy always paid credit to Colin Webb for igniting this passion.

After history honours at Pietermaritzburg, Guy travelled to England. He approached Shula Marks and became her first PhD student (“and one of the finest”, she says). His thesis was reworked as The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom: The Civil War in Zululand, a ground-breaking study of the political and social consequences of an imperial war. Guy had commenced on an engagement with the history of colonial Natal and Zululand that occupied him for the rest of his life, at universities in Norway and Lesotho, and at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

There followed, in 1983, The Heretic: A Study of the Life of John William Colenso. It explored his turbulent relations with the Anglican church, and also his sympathy for the Zulu kingdom. Colenso’s indignation at the British invasion was constrained by his persistent belief in the ultimately benign nature of empire – a limitation largely transcended by the bishop’s eldest daughter, Harriette. Guy’s The View Across the River recounts how this knowledgeable, practical woman worked with Zulu supporters of the exiled king, Cetshwayo, to bring him home and to staunch the bleeding in what remained of his kingdom.

Then, marking the centenary of the Bambatha (or poll-tax) Rebellion, Guy wrote two shorter books, The Maphumulo Uprising and Remembering the Rebellion. It was not just that the rebels were subjected to ferocious and vengeful military defeat: Guy’s contribution is a meticulous account of how the colonial legal system was used – and abused – to exact the pounds of flesh required to satisfy a jumpy settler community.

In 2013, Guy’s decades of research culminated in Theophilus Shepstone and the Forging of Natal, a big book in every sense. At its core is a magisterial reassessment of the “aloof, secretive, intelligent and devious” official, challenging the orthodoxy that Shepstone was an architect of segregation and apartheid. It outlines instead a complex, sinuous set of practices trying to balance settler demands for land and labour with a conservative, pragmatic paternalism designed to secure land for Africans in Natal.

Two points are worth making about this corpus of work. First, he remained a Marxian historian, but not in any doctrinaire or sectarian form. Marxism, for Guy, was not about the repetition of received ideas; rather, he believed, it yielded an “historically dynamic set of ideas which can be used to track, organise and better understand the events, divisions and conflicts that make up the modern world”, a set of ideas always open to criticism.

Second, he was an orthodox, even old-fashioned, craftsman of his discipline. He hacked and hewed at the archival coalface, winnowed and worked on his haul, and then fashioned his findings in characteristically controlled, forceful prose. He once wrote of the essential social role of academic historians as “guardians and propagators of informed, critical, disinterested history”. That goal shaped all his work.

The historian will be remembered. But the individual will be missed and mourned, wrenchingly. As with anyone a little larger than life, Guy’s sudden death feels wrong, a breach of nature. He could be gruff, even cantankerous; he was quickly angered. He worried, at times to exasperating extent: so self-aware was he that he sometimes played up to these characteristics, accentuating them for effect.

Most of the time he was exhilarating company, a peerless raconteur, blessed with an eye for the absurd. He was steadfast in friendship, acutely sensitive to the moods and needs of others, an unnervingly acute judge of character. He was an intensely moral man, who never lost the belief that the world could be made a better place. Hamba kahle, dear Jeff.

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