04 Apr Martin Legassick: Reminiscences of the Young Scholar Activist
By Edward Streinhart
I first met Martin Legassick when we were both graduate students in African History studying under Prof. Leonard Thompson at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). As I recall Martin arrived in the middle of the academic year 1963-64 after a year in Ghana doing an M.A. at the university at Legon. Curiously and significantly, I did not meet him in class or on campus. Instead we met at what I believe was the first anti-apartheid demonstration to take place in Los Angeles. It was the anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre and Martin had organized a protest to both commemorate that event and to dramatize the recent passage of the 30 Day Detention Law. He did this by fasting for 30 hours while a dozen or so placard carrying protesters from both the city and UCLA picketed in front of the entrance to the South African consulate. The protest drew coverage in the conservative L.A. Times, which chose to ignore the much larger demonstration against the escalating U.S. War in Vietnam. Out of this demonstration that was also attended by Tony (Anthony) Ngubo and Ben (Bernard) Magubane, both students of Sociology at UCLA, came one of the first, if not the first, campus-based anti-apartheid movements in North America.
I will return to Martin’s anti-apartheid activism, but for now I want to discuss his career as a budding scholar of South Africa. As a grad student, I learned of Martin’s arrival at UCLA from Prof. Thompson who was eager to add the brilliant and more experienced scholar to his contingent of students. Martin would immediately join Kennell Jackson as the twin stars of the program. Both were head and shoulders above those of us who had entered the program straight from undergraduate schools usually without any experience of Africa, except those who had been in the first groups of Peace Corps volunteers. Martin’s first-hand knowledge of South Africa and his educational experience in Ghana put me in awe. For instance, as a result of his researches in Ghana on Samori Touré’s military, he had already published his first article. Similarly, Kennell had returned from completing a Master’s degree at Cambridge studying anthropology under Edmund Leach that gave him instant star status as well. Despite stark differences in their backgrounds and approaches, they became friends and roommates. They shared a two-bedroom house in a ramshackle complex of three buildings on Federal Avenue in West L.A. Shortly after they moved there, I would take a room in the adjacent house in the complex, often taking my evening meal with them and sharing in the conversations about history, politics and Africa that were the best part of my graduate education. Indeed, it is my understanding that many of our fellow students often sat at the feet of Martin and Kennell rather than their formal instructors. Both Martin and Kennell were among the first generation of African historians who were not ‘re-tread’ imperial or colonial historians and who incorporated anthropological and other social science methods in their original works. They would complete their doctorates at UCLA and go on to important teaching positions at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Stanford University respectively. Martin in particular always had one eye on the political and social implications of his work. His dissertation on the Northern Cape Province would eventually inform the significant work he was doing near the end of his life on land claims restitution in that region.
That brings me back to Martin’s activism and political awakening in those early years. Within a few months of his arrival in California, he had organized single-handed both a demonstration and an ongoing organization to increase awareness and stimulate protests against apartheid laws and racist conditions in South Africa. From the outset Ben Magubane, Tony Ngubo, Alan Smith and I, all from UCLA, participated in the fledgling organization that Martin named the South African Freedom Action Committee (SAFAC). We were soon joined by several people from the L.A. community, in particular two dedicated young women, Judy Dollenmayer and Kris Kleinbauer, who attended weekly meetings and planned and participated in public protests and educational efforts. Make no mistake, Martin’s presence was essential to everything we did, in town or on campus. Most memorable for me were the series of radio documentaries that Martin produced and wrote for Pacifica Radio in which I played the voice of George Steiner, the British intellectual and early critic of apartheid. South African Mansell Williams and his wife, Liza, played more important roles both on radio and in other activities of the Los Angeles group at that stage.
Because we needed access to UCLA facilities, we created a campus chapter, also called SAFAC, in which I played the common Hollywood role of the “front” or face-person for the messages and programs that Martin crafted. This included speaking at an anti-Vietnam war rally at UCLA to compare the violence and racism of the two global crises of the 1960’s and beyond. I also was joined by Tony Ngubo in confronting UCLA president Franklin Murphy, who had recently been named to the board of Ford Motors, about the despicable role that Ford played in the creation and maintenance of the low-wage border industries zone in the Eastern Cape where they had built an automobile assembly plant. Briefly persuaded by our arguments about the unfairness and dangers of investment in such a volatile region, President Murphy said he would bring it up to the board….unless of course Ford could amortize their investment within three years. Only a decade or more later did Ford see the logic of our position, when under pressure from the international divestment movement, it sold its South African holdings to the local (white) management. Although the campus chapter of SAFAC officially sponsored these and other activities, it was Martin who was generally the initiator and resource for all we did to advance the anti-apartheid movement on campus.
Life was not all ‘the struggle’. Many of my memories of Martin at UCLA had to do with his vitality and sociability. I recall his generosity in lending me his 1953 Chevy so I could drive the 60 miles with my then girlfriend to spend Christmas Eve with her parents across the L.A. basin in Pomona. As a high point of our friendship, I remember our hosting a theme party in our mutual backyard. The theme was an art gallery opening at which we displayed rubbings of Los Angeles manhole covers. These were created the night before by driving Martin’s Chevy around town looking for these interesting sanitation department artifacts. Stopping the car in the middle of quiet streets and using paper, red paint and a roller we created the ‘art’ by the light of the car’s headlight beams. I think now that the manhole cover rubbings were a foreshadowing of Martin’s entry into his many years of work in the underground.
I left UCLA at the end of the 1965-66 academic year, and thus ended my almost daily contacts with Martin. By the time I left, Martin had begun his serious political economy reading that within a few years marked him as a major thinker and leftist writer on the politics of South Africa with whom readers of ROAPE are familiar. His education in Marxism if not Trotskyism had begun before I departed and I like to think that my undergraduate education at the City College of New York, known then as a radical hotbed, may have helped start him on the path he followed throughout his life. Needless to say, he quickly and decisively outpaced whatever rudimentary understandings I had brought with me to California. What that meant for our future friendship was that whenever and wherever we met, we rarely found ourselves out of step with each other. We managed to spend time together in Madison, Wisconsin and Austin, Texas when he was teaching at Santa Barbara and in Coventry when he was at Warwick, and especially in London after he left the academy to pursue his political calling full time. There I would learn from him both about current developments in the struggle and his theoretical take on the course of South Africa’s liberation. When he returned to South Africa in the early 1990s, I began making periodic visits to Cape Town whenever my own research took me to the continent. I was always impressed by the depth of his commitment to the struggle for liberation, both before and after independence. Even more was I impressed by his intellectual contributions during his long years in exile, his years at University of the Western Cape, and in retirement from teaching. Mind you, he never retired from the struggle nor from the commitment and energy he showed in sharing his ideas and working to understand as well as to change the world. This is perhaps the most important thing I learned from our friendship and the thing I most admire and will always remember about Martin Legassick.
Edward Steinhart is a professor emeritus at Texas Tech University, Lubbock. An anti-apartheid activist for 30 years, he worked with American, Canadian, and British-based movements for the liberation of southern Africa.
Featured photograph: Painting of the Sharpeville massacre, which took place 21 March 1960, Sharpeville, South Africa, currently located in the South African Consulate in London.