PROFESSOR JEFF GUY
Well, here we are in April and, after a busy start to the New Year and a few technical problems which kept my site off-line for a month or so, I’m left feeling guilty that I haven’t updated my blog more frequently. So I really must get back to finishing some pieces I drafted, oh, way back before Christmas! But before that there are several pieces of sad news to pass on, notably the passing of Professor Jeff Guy, Dr Ian Player and actor Dickie Owen, all of whom have died since my last update. Since all of them left very different marks on our imaginative understanding of the history of KwaZulu-Natal, I won’t diminish them by lumping them together, but will say a few brief words about each in separate posts.
Professor Guy collapsed at Heathrow airport on 15 December last year as he was about to return to South Africa following a lecture tour to the UK, during which he had given a lecture at a conference to commemorate the bi-centenary of the birth of Bishop Colenso.
He was born in June 1940 and, after attending school in Pietermaritzburg, he travelled for several years before entering the University of Natal in 1963 where he studied history. He later went on the study for a PhD under Dr Shula Marks at the School of African and Oriental Studies in London. His subject was the Zulu Civil War of 1883-4, and his thesis was published in 1979 under the title The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom. I can still remember the frisson of excitement I felt when I first read it; at a time when most books on Zulu history were popular studies of the invasion of 1879 aimed at a general readership, I was at first taken aback by a study which argued that the real reduction of Zulu power and influence actually occurred in the years after the war with a sustained assault on the political and economic basis of Zulu independence– and argued it with an academic vigour that was unlike almost anything published at the time. It was a book which not only established Jeff Guy’s scholarly reputation – in due course taught at universities in Norway and Lesotho and became a Professor of History at the University of KwaZulu-Natal – but also became a benchmark in the historiography of the old Zulu kingdom. At a time when popular writing about the Anglo-Zulu War tended to be conservative, nostalgic and even romantic, Jeff Guy remained a Marxist in his interpretations of the underlying causes of colonial conflict, and he could occasionally be scathing about the popular interest in minutiae of the combat itself. His interest in Colenso was long-standing, and he explored the contradictions of a liberal opponent of the British invasion of Zululand – who, nonetheless, believed in the essential righteousness of the British Empire – in his book The Heretic; A Study of the Life of John William Colenso (1983). In The View Across the River (2002) he considered the life of the Bishop’s daughter, Harriett, who continued to champion the Zulu cause after her father’s death.
The centenary of the 1906 Poll Tax Revolt – the Bambatha Rebellion – led to two of Professor Guy’s most popularly accessible books, Remembering the Rebellion – a detailed and profusely-illustrated narrative history which will stand as the definitive revisionist history of the Rebellion – and his subtle and detailed look at the impact of colonial power on one particular community, The Maphumulo Uprising. His last book, Theophilus Shepstone (2013) is an exhaustive study of the work of the complex, enigmatic and secretive architect of the policies of colonial management of the African populations in Natal.
Professor Guy’s work was often challenging but always intellectually rigorous and meticulously researched. With his passing the field of KwaZulu-Natal studies has lost a unique and irreplaceable resource.