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In Memory of Bill Freund (1944-2020)

In Memory of Bill Freund

6 July 1944 – 17 August 2020

MEDIA RELEASE reposted with permission from Wits University Press

It is with great sadness that Wits University Press heard the news of the death of social historian, academic and intellectual, Bill Freund on Monday 17 August 2020. Described as one of the grandmasters of South African economic historiography, he was a remarkable and prolific scholar and the breadth of his knowledge on recent African history was extraordinary.

William (Bill) Freund was a professor emeritus of economic history at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He lived in Durban, South Africa. His research interests included African urban history and political economy, the developmental state, and African and South African political economy and economic history.

He had just finished work on his autobiography, Bill Freund: An historian’s passage to Africa, which is due to be published in May 2021 by Wits University Press. In this autobiography and intellectual journey, we follow Freund’s progress from a modest (émigré) Jewish home in Chicago – where his vistas were extended through voracious reading, inspiring teachers and intellectual engagement – to finding his writing voice in Nigeria, stints at the Universities of Chicago, Yale, Harvard and Dar es Salaam, as well as Visiting Positions at the University of Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and ultimately settling in Durban, where he was for many years, until his retirement, professor of economic history at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Describing Freund as ‘…the Hobsbawm of Africa’s historians’, David Moore, professor of Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg, says “it is the memoir, or ‘self-intellectual-biography’ of a lost and very brilliant soul, seeking – and finally finding – solace in the study of history and Africa at the cusp of freedom.”

Veronica Klipp, publisher at Wits University Press, expressed her sadness at the loss of Bill Freund. “ He was a UKZN institution, an eccentric, supremely bright and dedicated man who played an important role in nurturing many young academics. He did many insightful peer reviews for Wits Press, combining rigour with a uniquely personal take on politics and the world. He will be deeply missed.”

Often described as a Marxist or social historian, Bill Freund wrote in his autobiography with great insight about Marx and economic change in Africa. Quoting here from the un-edited manuscript of his autobiography:
“Bob (Shenton) inspired me to write, for the very first time, a little piece on contemporary Nigeria which tried to pull the curtain from, rather than celebrate, the oil boom which was having a drastically distorting effect on many aspects of development in the country. It was accepted, not apparently without controversy, by the Review of African Political Economy. He also convinced me to ‘come out’ as a Marxist, that the important thing was to write as one believed. I suppose I don’t always do this but I started to do so and hung my pennant to the Marxist post for many years thereafter.

And there is of course an emotional core to this and it still is not dead in me. As the song says, ‘Well, you ain’t done nothing if you ain’t been called a Red’. That still resonates for me whether or not it makes the best sense to stand up all the time and it goes back to my undergraduate days, although this book is really concerned to focus critically on the rationale of socialism, not its gut appeal to the senses.

While others taught African related subjects, Marxism for me meant increasingly the study of Marx’s understanding of capitalism in its generative form. But it is noteworthy that I have an historian’s Marxism. This historical way of understanding economic change, and notably the idea of distinct modes of production that led to very different political and social outcomes, seemed to me powerful. I went slowly through Capital which I outlined and carried on into the Grundrisse and other texts. Hobsbawm, whom I admired from my first university class in history, has been one of a limited number of trained historians who addressed Marxist theory. I think Marxism does look a bit different when seen through the eyes of an historian.”

Wits University Press is proud to be publishing Bill Freund’s autobiography that has now turned into a tribute to a great and well-loved South African intellectual.

Bill Freund: An historian’s passage to Africa will be published in May 2021 by Wits University Press. [print ISBN – 978-1-77614-672-7]

Bill Freund in 2002 when he was Head of Department of Economic History at University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, with seated on his left, Harald Witt and to his right David Moore. Standing behind is from left to right, John Karumbidza – PhD candidate, Debbie Boertje, the department’s secretary, and Buntu Siwisa.