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The Fires Beneath by Seán Morrow

23 June 2017

John D. Davies recalls the subject of an inspiring biography

The Fires Beneath: The life of Monica Wilson, South African anthropologist

Seán Morrow

Penguin £17.50


Church Times Bookshop £15.75


SIXTY years ago, social anthropology was a tiny dot in South African academia. It may have been attractive to a few eccentric first-years, looking for a soft option as a subsidiary subject. Otherwise, few people took much notice. Thirty years on, and it had become a highly respected discipline, entered only by mature students in their second year, and honoured around the world.

One person can be credited with this change: Professor Monica Wilson of Cape Town. This was in spite of a huge range of obstacles; anthropologists were suspected of being spies of the Security Police, instigators of unrest among the “Natives”, neo-colonial nosy parkers, and propagators of liberal fantasies that could divert from proper Marxist analysis.

Monica defied all these calumnies and misunderstandings and, indeed, grew strong through them. For her, after the age of 50, it was a matter of rejoicing when she saw people moving further to the Left. (I refer to her as “Monica”, because her biographer does so; but to me she was always Professor Wilson, a towering authority of Christian defiance who could not be trifled with.)

Her greatest struggle was, however, at a different level. Professor Morrow states that his book is in effect two biographies, because a large part tells the story of her passionate romance and marriage to Godfrey Wilson, her colleague in anthropology. In some ways, he was the better scholar, certainly the better linguist, and a brilliant intellect. But he suffered seriously from depression. He found it very difficult to maintain his commitment as a pacifist at the same time as serving in the South African army during the war. His wonderful co-operation with Monica ended in tragedy when he hanged himself. She was left with two young sons and an academic programme to fulfil.

The book shows how she insisted that anthropology had to serve the interests of the people being studied. She was a historian before she was an anthropologist. She insisted on going behind the observed “facts” and taking account of the history of the community concerned. In producing The Oxford History of South Africa, she broke away from the convention that South African history began with the arrival of the white colonisers.

She was particularly supportive of her African postgraduate students, who often got into serious trouble. One of them, a prisoner on Robben Island, recalls how Monica used to tell them: “it’s not what happens to you that matters, but how you react to it.” Years later, it struck him that she was really speaking about herself.

All this is described in this splendid and inspiring book. It is a valuable window into South African history. It testifies to a defiant Christian witness against prejudice and tyranny. It is flawlessly produced by Penguin of South Africa.

It would have been good if Professor Morrow had been able to go into more detail about the actual work that the Wilsons were doing. He does indicate issues of land-tenure and the cruelties of the migratory labour system; but there is little reference to the destructiveness of the Group Areas Act and the mass removals of black people which were happening later in Monica’s working life.

Professor Morrow says that the title of the Extension of University Education Act is “paradoxical”. It was much worse than that: it was extreme double speak; it should have been called the Destruction of Universities Act. As Monica noted, it removed from the universities the freedom to decide who should teach, whom they should teach, and what they should teach: it abolished academic freedom in favour of the ideology of apartheid.

It ruined Monica’s beloved Fort Hare; it turned the big “open” universities, such as Cape Town, Monica’s most prestigious workplace, into white tribal colleges. The academic world in which Monica presided was, like the rest of South Africa, trapped in an increasingly cruel ideological tyranny.

When she died, speaking her last words in isiXhosa, she left behind an indomitable model of defiance which nourished a generation. This book shows how personal, professional, and political commitment can belong together in passionate integrity. That was Monica.


The Rt Revd John D. Davies was a mission priest and university chaplain in South Africa 1956-70.

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