Phil Bonner, leading historian and Africanist scholar, passed away in Johannesburg on Sunday, 24 September, aged seventy-two.
Bonner was Professor Emeritus of History at Wits University, and published widely on urban and labour history.
During his career, Bonner held the National Research Foundation (NRF) Chair in Local Histories and Present Realities, as well as the Chair of the History Workshop, and sat on the editorial committee of the South African Democratic Education Trust. He was historical consultant to and executive producer of a six-part documentary television series entitled Soweto: A History, which was screened in Britain, Australia and South Africa, to considerable critical acclaim, and was co-curator of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.
Bonner is the author of Kings, Commoners and Concessionaires: The Evolution and Dissolution of the Nineteenth-Century Swazi State (1983), Soweto: A History (with Lauren Segal) (1998), Kathorus: A History (with Noor Nieftagodien) (2001), Alexandra: A History (with Noor Nieftagodien) (2008) and Ekurhuleni: The Making of an Urban Region (with Noor Nieftagodien and Sello Mathabatha) (2012).
Bonner’s frequent literary collaborator, Noor Nieftagodien, Head of the Wits History Workshop, writes:
Obituary: Professor Phil Bonner (1945—2017)
Emeritus Professor Phil Bonner joined the Wits History Department in 1971 and played a leading role in the development of African History at the university and nationally.
He was part of a cohort of young revisionist and Africanist scholars who challenged liberal orthodoxies in the academy and produced new histories that emphasised the experiences of the black majority. His book on the Swazi kingdom, Kings, Commoners and Concessionaires, exemplified this scholarship.
Professor Bonner was also heavily involved in the development of independent black trade unions from the 1970s and in the early 1980s served as FOSATU’s Education Officer. In the late 1980s he offered workers’ education to a number of COSATU’s affiliates. At the same time, he wrote various histories of labour struggles and was a member of the editorial board of the South African Labour Bulletin for nearly thirty years. His involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle led to his detention and threat of deportation.
Professor Bonner was a founding member in 1977 of the History Workshop and was its head from the late 1980s until his retirement in 2012. The History Workshop pioneered Social History—history from below—in South Africa and under his supervision numerous postgraduate students undertook original research on the lives and struggles of black workers, women, youth and migrants in locations, mines, factories and villages. His own research focused on squatter movements, the complexities of urbanisation and histories of black resistance. Oral history was central to the endeavour of uncovering these hidden histories and Professor Bonner was a leading exponent of recording the life histories of ordinary and extraordinary people. He was widely acknowledged as one of the country’s leading historians and his expertise was called on in the production of liberation histories and the development of museums (including the Apartheid Museum). Under his leadership, the History Workshop became more actively involved in public history and heritage. From the late 1990s he collaborated in projects that produced histories of Soweto, Ekurhuleni and Alexandra.
Professor Bonner was the head of the History Department from 1998 to 2003 and served on numerous committees in the university. In 2007 he was awarded a South African Research Chair in Local Histories, Present Realities. In the last few years he was involved in a major project on underground struggles and was completing two books on this subject. Professor Bonner was an outstanding lecturer, supervisor and mentor whose legacy lives on not only in a significant body of research and writing, but in the many students he inspired in more than four decades of service to the university.
He is survived by his wife, Sally Gaule.
The Wits History Workshop has encouraged colleagues and friends to share their memories of Bonner on Facebook, which they we will gather to give to his partner. In addition, there will be a message book in the History Workshop main office at Wits for those who would like to leave memories and condolences.
Jonathan Hyslop, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology and Africana and Latin American Studies at Colgate University, has allowed us to share the following tribute from Facebook:
I remember all those great stories that you would tell so well, over a pint in the post-graduate club or a glass of wine in your garden with the hadedas squawking in the background. So although I didn’t know you until your middle age, I can imagine you in your youth. I can see the teenager, hitch-hiking the roads of the Kenyan savannah. I know you were already the life and soul of the party when you won the crown of “Twist King of Mombasa”. I see you and your friend Walter playing outrageous pranks on the students at the residence in Nottingham. I know how in more serious moments you weighed up becoming a medieval historian, but you knew Africa was what moved you.
By the time I met you, you were already inspiring students at Wits with your lectures and your crazy trips across the veld. And you felt the cause of labour deep in your soul. I remember your arrest by the security police and how we waited to hear if you were going to be deported. You were the greatest fun to spend an evening with, but you were the most steely both with friends and antagonists when it came to matters of principle.
It was a privilege to have worked with you in History Workshop, but even more to have been your friend. So now you have me sitting here with tears pouring down my face. Which you probably would find very funny – you would tell me to cheer up and check what time the pub opens. I won’t say rest in peace, for you were restless. Somewhere the grass is tall and yellow and I see you striding off towards the koppies on the horizon. You will always be walking in the hearts of the comrades you fought with, of the students who learned from you, and of the friends who loved you.
A number of influential academics and thinkers paid tribute to Bonner on Twitter:
— Raymond Suttner (@RaymondSuttner) September 25, 2017
Very sad news from South Africa. Phil Bonner was indeed a great historian–a trail-blazer. A true inspiration when I was learning the trade. https://t.co/VQX0zmeCe2
— John Edwin Mason (@johnedwinmason) September 25, 2017
— Nomboniso Gasa (@nombonisogasa) September 25, 2017
Deeply saddened Phil Bonner has left us. Inspired my love for South African social history, encouraged me to work on fútbol, generous soul.
— Peter Alegi (@futbolprof) September 25, 2017
Raising a glass to Phil Bonner tonight, a brilliant historian of South Africa, who has passed away.
— Rick Halpern (@halpernrick) September 26, 2017
RIP Phil Bonner. You taught important things to a much wider range of people than just your students. https://t.co/dCRAc5A2eK
— Gillian Godsell (@gilliangodsell) September 26, 2017
Rest in peace, Philip Bonner, one of South Africa's — and the world's — greatest urban historians.
— Benjamin Bradlow (@bhbradlow) September 25, 2017
Rest in peace, Professor Bonner.
Work available to read online
- ‘Desirable or Undersirable Sotho Women?1 Liquor, Prostitution and the Migration of Sotho Women to the Rand, 1920—1945
- Kings, Commoners and Concessionaires: The Evolution and Dissolution of the Nineteenth-Century Swazi State