Tributes to Martin Legassick

Martin Legassick (20 December 1940 – 1 March 2016) was a revolutionary socialist, brilliant researcher, teacher and mentor. He was an outstanding scholar and a pioneer of radical revisionist history in South Africa and a comrade and contributor to ROAPE. Here we post tributes to him and links to some of his work.


Revolutionary Socialist, Scholar, Teacher and Mentor

By Noor Nieftagodien 

Comrade Martin Legassick passed away this morning, 1 March 2016, after a protracted and brave fight against cancer. Despite ill health and excruciating pain, he completed his final book project at the beginning of this year.

Comrade Martin was a revolutionary socialist, brilliant scholar, teacher and mentor. He was an outstanding scholar and a pioneer of radical revisionist history in South Africa. From the 1960s when he was a university student, Martin immersed himself in the struggle against apartheid, including mobilizing some of the first international student demonstrations in the United States. From the mid-1970s he became a founding member of the Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the ANC (MWT of the ANC) and left his academic post to work as full-time political activist. He served on the editorial committee of the journal, Inqaba yaBasebenzi, and newspaper, Congress Militant. For this, he was expelled by the ANC in 1985. On his return from exile, Martin continued to play a leading role in the MWT of the ANC and simultaneously became active in working class struggles in the Western Cape. When anti-eviction struggles exploded on the Cape Flats, he spent most of his time working with activists and contributing to build these new movements of the working class. Evenings and weekends were dedicated to meetings and political education classes. After the Marikana massacre, he immediately travelled to the platinum mines to show solidarity and to be part of the movement emerging there. Similarly, he stood by the farm workers under the leadership of CSAAWU. He lived for the struggles of the working class. From 2008 he also dedicated some time to efforts to rebuild the socialist left, especially in the form of the Democratic Left Front and was hopeful that the United Front and a new trade union movement would galvanise the working class in co-ordinated struggles against poverty, inequality and racism. When I met him on his birthday in December last year, he wanted to know about the new wave of students’ struggles and, despite physical weakness, was excited about the prospects of a new generation of activists emerging from this movement.

Hamba Kahle Comrade Martin

In 2006 Noor wrote an article based on notes of a talk he did for Martin’s retirement from the University of the Western Cape, the paper was published in the South African History Journal and is available here.

Noor Nieftagodien is South African Research Chair (SARChI) in Local Histories, Present Realities and Head of History Workshop at the School of Social Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand. 


Robust and Utterly Principled

By Patrick Bond

Martin was robust, forceful and utterly principled, apparently not caring if the distant margins of the political and academic worlds were his life’s home. Political relevance seemed important to Martin only if he looked across, horizontally, to his comrades, never vertically upwards to garner the bogus credibility that so many professional intellectuals seek. His anger was unforgettable, like a pure flame, and I was one to experience it – with various singes still in my memory – and yet I always knew it came from a good place. But he could also channel that energy, deploying his eloquence and likewise his demands on us all with sharp, short clarity, unmistakeable for its revolutionary political import. When facing leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers at an all-in labour-community conference of Amandla! magazine in late 2012, he was the only one amongst us who felt the urgency and courage to ask the necessary tough questions about Marikana, for example. Indeed, his personal fuel carried that strong odour of the arrogance that comes from fearless truth-telling, which he did as well as anyone I’ve ever met in South Africa. He lit veld-fires all over the intellectual landscape dating (quite remarkably) to 1964 in the New Left Review. His intellectual legacy provides the great historical sweeps, the micro-details so lovingly uncovered, and the thoughtful – never hackish – recourse to Marxist political-economic theory and historical materialist method. These are what I will always read from Martin’s dozens of major works, and what I will aspire to emulate. More power to his legacy: an exceptionally high standard of intellectual and political morality.

Patrick Bond teaches political economy at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society in Durban.


A Down-to-Earth Comrade

By Ashley Fataar

Although Martin Legassick was an academic and provided extraordinary articles, books and papers he remained a down-to-earth comrade who never wavered from the principles of socialism. He had his humorous moments as well as his grumpiness. He was prepared to explain things to new comrades and could also be blunt in criticism of comrades. Though Marin was always prepared to teach comrades and remained active until the last two years of his life. He was one a few Marxists who critiqued the Freedom Charter from a logical and reasoned perspective. I remember him in Cape Town speaking passionately on the housing shortage and crisis in South Africa and how communities were organising around the issue. He was always able to work with a variety of organisations and I noticed the enormous respect they had for him.

Ashley Fataar is a leading member of the Democratic Left Front in Cape Town and he writes for websites and newspapers around the world.


Articles and Links

In 1972 Martin spoke at the famous seminar series started in 1969 at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies coordinated by Shula Marks. The Societies of Southern Africa seminar series, welcomed Martin’s original approach. His paper titled, The Frontier Tradition in South African Historiography is available here. In 1976 he co-authored with Harold Wolpe an article for ROAPE on The Bantustans and Capital Accumulation in South Africa which can be accessed here.  In 2007 he wrote Flaws in South Africa’s ‘first’ economy which was originally presented at the Centre for Civil Society Rosa Luxemburg Political Education Seminar at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in February 2006 and published in Africanus Journal of Development Studies.  He also wrote an astonishing paper that he was too ill to deliver at the 2015 World Association of Political Economy conference which ROAPE Online has published here.


  1. Liked this dedication.Attended the 2006 conference at UKZN and listened to his analysis of the failure of SA economy .

  2. I first “met” Martin Legassick in 1969 at UC Santa Barbara. I was a young activist, new to the causes of peace, racial justice and just beginning to learn about class struggle. Martin was one of the most outspoken faculty leaders, lighting fires at all the demos with his Rolling Stone length hair and his British-style leather boots. I never got close enough to Martin to shake his hand but I felt his spirit of resistance and it helped light the fire of struggle in me which still burns today. Over the years, my path would cross with his again, first in my work as an anti-apartheid activist where I absorbed his pro-class struggle perspective on South African liberation, then in person when in the early 1990s I moved to Johannesburg and Martin was deeply immersed in the debates of the day over the future of the nation. A few years later, I moved to Cape Town and my wife was blessed with a job in the History Department at the University of the Western Cape, which Martin would call home for the last couple decades of his working life. I was fortunate enough to share time and space with Martin, to hear his wisdom, to watch his efforts to bring education to the working class, a mission most of the SA left had long since abandoned. When I “fell”, i.e. was captured by the US authorities and returned to serve time in prison, Martin stood up for me, my family and repeated his stance of support twelve years later when the authorities at the University of Illinois tried to drive me out due to my “criminal” background. Martin taught me many things- I saw his fervor from afar as a youth, absorbed his intellectual wisdom as a growing intellectual and activist and basked in his solidarity during the hardest times. Martin was old school, Martin was dedicated to rigor and the working class-incorruptible, incorrigible, untainted by the temptations of power. Long live his spirit and intellectual power, long live!!

  3. I have written a long tribute to Martin in the SA Historical Journal some years back when they did a tribute to him to which I can refer friends and comrades.. Martin was a remarkable engaged young scholar, coming out of the tiny revolutionary wing of the white liberal movement at the end of the 1950s. I only knew Martin as extremely principled and engaged but he was very important as the most important innovator with Harold Wolpe of the left revisionists. He was young in those days but willing to take on everything and anything as he charged on with new ideas about what had formed South African society. He could never entirely decide whether to be an activist or a scholar, a sociologist or an historian, but this meant that his contribution extended over many places, a good 50 years and many fields. How could I forget Martin driving me around in Coventry, his car filled with copies of Karl Marx’s volumes on the theory of surplus value and much else, Martin in his black leather jacket? And how kind of him to engage with this politically not very engaged but highly sympathetic American graduate student and semi-employed peripatetic academic.

    . Much of what he wrote about South African history, especially in the old days still demands reconsideration and still deserves to be a serious influence. His ideas about class meant a lifelong devotion to social struggles of many descriptions, notably when he was able to return to South Africa after 1994. He experimented with different forms of activism and organisation over many years, probably made many mistakes but never abandoned his principal ideas and ideals. He was never very comfortable in the ANC, from which he was notably expelled but he enthusiastically searched for alternatives and was absolutely committed to overcoming racial boundaries in order to create a new kind of society about which the classic ideas of Marxism inspired him. I am sorry that Martin was so ill in the last years but he had a full and varied life and influenced many individuals. He loved Cape Town where he spent many years. He will always stay green in my memory.

  4. This is an obituary of Martin Legassick that was originally published in City Press

    In the hours following the announcement of Martin Legassick’s passing, scores of messages of condolences streamed in from across the world. Written by activists, former students, professors and workers, they contained a common thread: he was an exemplary scholar and committed socialist activist.

    Legassick was born in Edinburgh in 1940 and seven years later moved with his parents to live in South Africa. The Sharpeville massacre was a turning point for him, leading to a life of activism. As a student at UCT he joined NUSAS (National Union of South African Students) but soon came to the conclusion that a ‘white-dominated and white-led organization was … an anachronism as an anti-apartheid force.’ While studying in Britain he linked up with the ANC and became heavily involved in the international anti-apartheid movement. In the mid-1960s he enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he and Ben Magubane established the South Africa Freedom Action Committee. Legassick’s politics were profoundly shaped by the anti-colonial movement and he spent a year in Ghana because, in his words, ‘I wanted the experience of living in an independent black African country.’ Theoretically, he was inspired by Frantz Fanon’s critique of post-independence rulers on the continent. He also imbibed the energy and ideas of the anti-war and Civil Rights movements, especially the Black Panthers, while his Marxism was heavily influenced by the New Left critiques of Stalinist dogma. He later described himself as having become a “radical socialist” during this period.

    At the same time he began to excel as a scholar. His doctoral thesis on the Cape’s northern frontier in the 19th century was regarded as a pioneering piece of scholarship on the idea of the “frontier zone.” In the early 1970s, Legassick emerged, with other intellectuals such as Harold Wolpe, as a leading figure of revisionist historiography. Deploying Marxist analyses, they critiqued liberal scholarship and explained the functional relationship between apartheid and capitalism. Legassick wrote a series of seminal essays, which redefined South African historiography and inspired a new wave of radical scholarship. In 1974 he was appointed as a lecturer at the University of Warwick, suggesting the beginnings of a formal university career.

    But South Africa was on the cusp of a new political era, inaugurated by the 1973 Durban workers’ strike and the subsequent emergence of an independent trade union movement. These developments and the student uprising of 1976 led Legassick onto a new path of political activism. He linked up with Dave Hemson, Rob Petersen and Paula Ensor who had been involved in the new union movement and, after 1976, with Black Consciousness activists. They worked with SACTU in exile to build direct links with workers in South Africa. However, the SACTU leadership, under the influence of the SACP, opposed these efforts. The contestation on this issue, and others, led to their suspension in 1979 from the ANC. This group constituted itself as the Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the ANC and published the influential theoretical journal, Inqaba ya Basebenzi, and from the late 1980s the paper, Congress Militant. Legassick played a pivotal editorial and educational role in both publications. In 1981 he resigned his university post to become a full-time political activist.

    On his return from exile, Legassick joined the University of the Western Cape as a professor in History, where he quickly established himself as a supportive supervisor, while collaborating with his new colleagues on various research projects. Crucially, he immersed himself in working class struggles in Cape Town, especially on housing in Khayelitsha. With local activist, he wrote numerous articles and pamphlets on the housing crisis and proposed plans for building decent and affordable public housing for all. In what is arguably his major political publication, Towards Socialist Democracy, Legassick mounted an incisive critique of the ANC’s neoliberal agenda, which he argued was a root cause of the deepening poverty and widening inequality in South Africa. He was saddened and angered by the Marikana massacre. In the last years of his life he contributed to efforts to reconfigure the left (principally through his membership of the Democratic Left Front) and was hopeful that a new emancipatory movement would emerge from the struggles on the mines, farms and campuses.

    Noor Nieftagodien

  5. As we approach the birthday of Professor Martin Legassick this December 2017, many comrades had said their fairways when he fell. To me Prof. was my tutor, lecturer and mentor. He taught us a course in our third year and honours class on, “Race, Class, Gender and Nationalism”. In retrospect, it was the most important class for those of us who came from a particular political dogma. He challenged us to rethink our views and ideologies that w held dear, taught to us in the trenches of the revolutionary struggle.

    It is no exaggeration to mention that, once one was bitten by the sting of questioning in the Legassick style, one was forever infected by the worlds of ideas, not for their sake, but with the objective of changing society and the world for the better.

    We will forever remember you Prof. for your dedication to the struggles of the oppressed, for your contribution in fighting the struggles of the disadvantaged, for your demands at every level for equality, justice and a socially equatable societies. Marxism was your guiding ideological outlook. Socialism is what you demanded should be practiced.

    In few days, had you been alive today, we would be celebrating your birthday. As we approach your day of birth, we remember you and your struggles for humanity.



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