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Leading historian of Africa, Stephen Ellis, dies

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 died.

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 1998.

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 1962.

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 year.

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