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30 Jul 2015 14:52
Stephen Ellis was the first scholar to publish unshakeable evidence that Nelson Mandela had been a member of the South African Communist Party. (South Photos)
Obituary: Stephen Ellis (1953-2015)
Stephen Ellis, the British historian who
wrote extensively about Africa and particularly about South Africa, died of
leukaemia at his home in Amsterdam on July 29, aged 62. He was the Desmond Tutu
Professor of Social Sciences at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam when he
Ellis’s most recent book, External Mission:
The ANC in Exile 1960-1990, was published by by Jonathan Ball in South Africa
in November 2012, reigniting the debate about Nelson Mandela’s membership of
the South African Communist Party (SACP).
Ellis grew up in Nottingham in the United
Kingdom and studied at Oxford University.
He worked as a lecturer at the University
of Madagascar in the late 1970s and early 1980s, publishing his account of an
uprising there as Rising of the Red Shawls (Cambridge University Press, 1985).
He headed the African sub-region of the
International Secretariat of Amnesty International in London and was the Africa
specialist of the International Crisis Group. As editor of the subscription
journal Africa Confidential in the late 1980s, he reported the first account of
the Umhonto weSizwe (MK) mutiny in Angola in 1984, based on inside information.
He was subsequently editor of the British journal, African Affairs.
Ellis’s 1992 work, Comrades Against
Apartheid: The ANC and the South African Communist Party in Exile, was the
first book to report on the MK mutiny in Angola in 1984, its Quatro prison camp
and the dreaded ANC security department, Mbokodo. The accuracy of Ellis’s work was
confirmed by the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in
Africa Now, developed out of Ellis’s
involvement with the Global Coalition for Africa, and was published in 1996. He
first worked at Leiden University’s African Studies Centre (ASC) in the early
1990s and continued to hold a position there until his death.
“Stephen Ellis is the ASC’s most prominent
scholar, and one of the key researchers in African studies in the world,” wrote
the ASC’s Tom Dietz. “The library of the ASC has
82 of his publications … He wrote most extensively about South Africa,
Madagascar, Liberia and Nigeria, but also about Togo, Zambia, and Sierra Leone.
Stephen Ellis’ personal page at Google Scholar shows that 4 700 colleagues
cited his many publications so far. His most popular book is The
Criminalization of the State in Africa, which he wrote together with
Jean-François Bayart and Béatrice Hibou and which was published in 1999.”
Ellis conducted research in the Stasi
archives in Berlin in the former German Democratic Republic together with his
wife, the Dutch scholar, Gerrie ter Haar and two South African scholars, Loammi Wolf and Paul Trewhela, which brought to light new facts
about the ANC’s years in exile. With Ter Harr, Ellis wrote Worlds of Power: Religious Thought
and Political Practice in Africa (in 2004). He had nearly completed a book
about Nigerian organised crime at the time of his death.
Fellow historian Paul Trewhela writes: Stephen Ellis was the first scholar to
publish unshakeable evidence that Nelson Mandela had been a member of the South
African Communist Party (SACP) in the period between the Sharpeville massacre
in March 1960 and Mandela’s arrest near Howick in KwaZulu-Natal in August
After half a century of denial by the ANC,
the SACP and their supporters in South Africa and internationally, Ellis proved
that Nelson Mandela had been as a member of the Central Committee of the SACP
as well as of the national executive Committee of the ANC at the time he took
part in the secret formation of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) in 1960-61.
Ellis and Russian historian Irina Filatova
were the only scholars to do the necessary work in archives in South Africa and
around the world, as well as in interviews with surviving witnesses, to
established this as fact.
Ellis first published the evidence he
uncovered in July 2011 in an academic paper, The Genesis of the ANC’s Armed Struggle
in South Africa, 1948-1961, in the Journal of Southern African Studies (37:4).
The day after Mandela died on December 5 2013, the SACP issued a statement
acknowledging that he had been a member of the central committee of the party.
Hugh Macmillan, a research associate at the
African Studies Institute at Oxford University, challenged Ellis on the matter.
The debate between the two historians was published in January this year in the
journal Africa, a quarterly journal issued by Cambridge University Press. Ellis’s
final word will be a forthcoming paper in Cold War History, in which he reports
further evidence acquired by Filatova from her research in Moscow earlier this
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