Historian who lit intellectual veld fires

Legassick "lit veld fires all over the intellectual landscape,” writes Patrick Bond of the Centre for Civil Society. (Matthew Buckland)

Legassick "lit veld fires all over the intellectual landscape,” writes Patrick Bond of the Centre for Civil Society. (Matthew Buckland)




The historian and activist Martin Legassick, who died on March 1 aged 75, has been acclaimed as one of the leading thinkers of the South African left.

Expelled from the ANC in 1985, he helped found the Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the ANC, a “Trotskyite” group that continued to subsist in the ANC.

  The Wits History Workshop’s Noor Nieftagodien writes of Legassick in The Review of African Political Economy: “He was an outstanding scholar and a pioneer of radical revisionist history in South Africa. From the 1960s, when he was a university student, Martin immersed himself in the struggle against apartheid, including mobilising some of the first international student demonstrations in the United States.”

Canadian writer John Saul, who worked in Southern Africa for decades, remembers “the night, 30 or more years ago, when I met with him and several of his comrades in the dingy office of their Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the ANC in a dark and rainswept corner of London’s East End”.

Other South African activists, such as Ebrahim Harvey, were educated into the MWT by Legassick in his London home.

“He lit veld fires all over the intellectual landscape,” writes Patrick Bond of the Centre for Civil Society.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Legassick came to South Africa with his parents, at the age of seven. He was a Rhodes scholar, studying at Oxford’s Balliol College.
He completed his doctorate at the University of California and taught at universities in Africa and Europe; in Tanzania, he became more intimately involved with the ANC.

In 1979 he and three other white ANC members were suspended for “factionalism”, accused of being “ultra-left”, and in 1985 they were expelled. By then the MWT had been formed. It would survive into the post-apartheid era, informing struggles such as the Treatment Action Campaign’s battle for HIV drugs.

  Legassick served on the editorial committee of the journal Inqaba ya Basebenzi and the newspaper Congress Militant, and wrote many academic articles.

  His books include   Foreign Investment and the Reproduction of Racial Capitalism in South Africa, which he wrote with David Hemson (1976), The Politics of a South African Frontier: The Griqua, the Sotho-Tswana and the Missionaries, 1780-1840 (2010) and The Struggle for the Eastern Cape, 1800-1854: Subjugation and the Roots of South African Democracy (2011).

Legassick returned to South Africa in 1990, soon after the ANC was unbanned. He taught at the University of the Western Cape and became involved with the Democratic Left Front, among other political and social movements.

“I am for democratic eco-socialism built from below,” said Legassick, in a recent summation of his views at a celebration of his 2007 work, Towards Socialist Democracy, which Saul called “the summa of a life fully and militantly lived”. 

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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