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Distinguished historian passes away

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Professor Philip Bonner was associated with Wits University for over four decades

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 teacher, supervisor, scholar 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.

Born in 1945, he died on 24 September 2017.

Our deepest sympathies are extended to the family, colleagues, friends and students of Professor Bonner, and those who knew him well. He is survived by his wife, Sally Gaule.

Read more tributes here.

Read a tribute by Glenn Moss.

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