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Teaching SA history is rewarding

- Wits University

Teaching and researching South African history is a privilege and an obligation.

A specialist in the history of South Africa, Professor Shula Marks, said historians need to continue to bring a critical lens in the ongoing project to decolonise African history, a project which began in the 1960s when many of the former colonies attained their independence.

Liberated states need liberated histories, she said, and the recent turmoil in universities in South Africa and in other parts of the worlds is an indication of the dissatisfaction with history and the burden of history.

Marks was speaking at Wits University shortly after the University conferred on her a Doctor of Literature (honoris causa) for her contribution to South African history.

Addressing a diverse audience at the graduation ceremony for the Faculty of Humanities, Marks impressed upon the guests the importance of history and the difficult yet attainable challenge of writing a contested history.

On the writing and teaching of South African history, Marks said it is possible to “write a history for so uneasy a population, for people who have only fragments of a shared past, and for whom that shared past is too often one of conflict, exploitation and misunderstanding.”

“It seems that one way of doing this is writing about the lives of people in their social, economic and political context. Thinking about a life in history opens its own way of going forward to recapture our pasts and inform our futures as they impinge in one another in this complex part of the world.”

True to her profession which is often underestimated, Marks argued that “history provides good training for a variety of professions that demand critical intelligence”.

On her illustrious career, Marks said: “Teaching and researching South African history has been both a privilege and an obligation over many years. Not least because of the way it has opened up new ways of thinking over my working life.”

Professor Shula Marks with Professor Tawana Kupe just before Wits conferred an honorary doctorate on Prof. Marks.


Professor Shula Eta Marks was born on 14 October 1936 in Cape Town and educated at the University of Cape Town where she attained a Bachelor of Arts and graduated at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies with a doctorate in History.

Shula Marks is Emeritus Fellow and Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London and holds a joint appointment with the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. She is an eminent historian of Africa and an activist for human rights and the rights of refugees. A specialist in the history of South Africa, her contribution to work critical of the Apartheid state in the 1970s to 1990s is highly recognised, specifically her work on Apartheid and Health, as well as her work supporting research into and treatment for people living with HIV.

Professor Marks founded a world-renowned interdisciplinary graduate seminar on the Societies of Southern Africa that established and shaped a field of knowledge about southern Africa's pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial history and society, through the period of colonial liberation in Mozambique, Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe and the post-Apartheid era in South Africa. This seminar, and the theoretical insights and empirical research generated by its members, directed and shaped debate and published scholarship on the society and history of these regions, and the continent, from the 1970s into the present.

Her first publication, in 1963, examined Harriet Colenso's lifelong struggle to defend the sovereignty of the Zulu Royal house (a theme that would possess her student Jeff Guy) in the (then) newly established Journal of African History.  Much of her work since has focused on the cultural and political history of KwaZulu-Natal. 

Her first book, Reluctant Rebellion, applied many of the insights and analytical techniques of the Africanist history that had been publicised by the renowned historian Terence Ranger to the Bambatha rebellion. In Ambiguities of Dependence she broke significantly with the simple political lines of that earlier work, exploring the compromises and paradoxes of the Royal Zulu House and early ANC politics in Natal. Yet she remained attentive to the cultural and psychological work of race in our society and in Not Either an Experimental Doll – a study of the correspondence of three South African women, that has become a key text in the global development of gender history – she produced an eloquent and powerful analysis of the ways in which racial paternalism, dependence and inequality hobbled the precocious forms of feminist struggle. She returns to these themes of the contradictions between gender, race and class in Divided Sisterhood, her history of South African nursing.

A founder member of the Journal of Southern African Studies, Professor Marks has also been a prodigious supervisor – a list published in that journal in 2001 recorded no less than forty doctoral theses, including many students who have charted distinctive subfields in the humanities and social-sciences, like Elaine Unterhalter, Jeff Guy and Brian Willan. The impact Professor Marks has had on shaping the thinking and careers of current and former University of Witwatersrand academics is particularly impressive.  Prominent amongst current and former Wits academics supervised by Professor Marks are: Michelle Adler, Philip Bonner, Peter Delius, Tim Keegan and Sheila Meintjes, truly a meaningful life's work and a singular contribution to the global reputation of this university. She continues to supervise doctoral dissertations into the present.

Even more important for this university was Professor Marks role as the editor of three volumes of essays published by Longman: Economy and Society in Pre-Industrial South Africa (1980), Industrialisation and Social Change (1982) and The politics of race, class and nationalism (1987).
These books bridged the gap between the seminars in the United Kingdom and the research being undertaken in South Africa, especially at this institution. Each volume presented a common set of theoretical and analytical interests that highlighted the importance and power (and productivity) of the research that was increasingly being undertaken by researchers here. And they had powerful effects nationally and on the study of the history of this continent.

Over the last five decades Professor Marks has published very widely indeed – five monographs, 14 edited volumes, and dozens of articles and chapters. For those who care about academic metrics, Google reports that she has an h-index of 29. Her mentoring and publication thematics span the archaeology and the prehistory of the sub-continent, African women's history, the history of medicine and health under Apartheid, and the history of race, class and gender in twentieth century South Africa, and the history of ethnicity and political movements.  

Professor Marks has held many visiting positions and lectured widely on southern African history and given numerous named and keynote lectures including: The Creighton Lecture; The Raleigh Lecture (for the British Academy); and The Douglas Southall Freeman lectures at the University of Virginia.

As an important part of this combination of political and scholarly works Professor Marks was Chair of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (now known as the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics). In 2011, working with Paula Wintour and Paul Weindling, she produced an edited volume of the Proceedings of the British Academy on the history of academic refugees in Britain. As a member of the Canon Collins Trust she has worked tirelessly to bring academic bursaries and scholarships as well as legal aid to generations of graduate students from Southern Africa.

Professor Marks has lived a life of exemplary scholarship.  She was the second woman to be elected to the Modern History section of The British Academy, and, in recognition of her life's work, she was awarded an Order of the British Empire as well as the Distinguished Africanist Award.

Professor Marks holds three honorary doctorates from the University of Cape Town, the then University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu Natal) and the University of Johannesburg.

It is therefore befitting that the University of the Witwatersrand, awards Shula Eta Marks an Honorary Doctorate Degree for her distinguished scholarship, her mentorship and support for generations of students of Africa and as an outstanding public figure for work that advances human rights and justice