Belinda Bozzoli, 1945-2020

Tributes paid to a towering figure from ‘a great generation of politically engaged South African academics’

January 7, 2021
Belinda Bozzoli, 1945-2020

A leading sociologist who went on to become a shadow minister for higher education has died.

Belinda Bozzoli was born in Johannesburg in 1945. She studied at the University of the Witwatersrand and went on to a master’s and then a PhD at the University of Sussex. There she was deeply influenced by a great generation of British left-wing historians such as Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill and E. P. Thompson as well as the radical History Workshop group, based in Oxford. On returning to South Africa in 1977, she found work at Wits and set up the pioneering Wits History Workshop, which established strong links to the black trade union movement.

A professor of sociology, Professor Bozzoli went on to head the department (1996-98) and then the whole School of Social Sciences (2001-03) before serving as deputy vice-chancellor for research. She also had a number of visiting fellowships at Cambridge, Oxford and Yale.

The author of a celebrated essay on “Marxism, Feminism and Southern African Studies”, Professor Bozzoli wrote widely about township rebellions and political struggles as well as the lives of women ranging from domestic workers to activists (and sometimes both). Such interests found expression in major monographs – Women of Phokeng: Consciousness, Life Strategy, and Migrancy in South Africa, 1900-1933 (assisted by Mnantho Nkotsoe, 1991) and Theatres of Struggle and the End of Apartheid (2004) – but also in her introductions to the groundbreaking collections that emerged from History Workshop conferences.

In 2014, however, Professor Bozzoli moved into front-line politics, winning a seat for the Democratic Alliance in the South African National Assembly. Four years later, she was appointed shadow minister for higher education, science and technology. An outspoken critic of the state of South African higher education, she told Times Higher Education in 2019 that corruption was “much more varied and widespread than we like to think”, and that some universities would “need to be closed and reopened as new institutions”.

In a tribute published on the Business Day website, Jonathan Hyslop – professor of sociology and African studies at New York’s Colgate University – described Professor Bozzoli as “one of the most extraordinary people among a great generation of socially and politically engaged SA academics” who taught “with the kind of dash, colour and flair more normally associated with the theatre than the classroom...Questioning all orthodoxies, facing realities, speaking boldly, she is still a model for us all.”

Professor Bozzoli died of cancer on 5 December and is survived by her husband, Charles van Onselen, and their three children.

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