Tribute to Francis Wilson

Image: Francis Wilson.

In 2016, Francis Wilson was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by UCT. Nominators of a person for this highest honorary degree get to select from one of two criteria:

  • On grounds of exceptional scholarship in accordance with the ideals and principles of the University.
  • On grounds of exceptional other achievement or public service in accordance with the ideals and principles of the University.

Those nominating Francis ticked both boxes! And there was no contesting this as the nomination wended its way through the notoriously fractious processes of Senate and Council.

Francis made a unique contribution to documenting and analysing key historical and contemporary social issues affecting our South African society. Even more rare was how he used his research and that of others to promote social change for good in South Africa. The heart of Professor Wilson’s contribution lies, quite uniquely, in the space between the two hononary doctorate criteria. He had a lifetime of exceptional contributions to scholarship and of taking these into the public domain to fight for a just society.

Having returned to South Africa and UCT from his PhD in Cambridge, in 1971 and 1972 he published three pieces of research that individually and collectively have been immensely influential. In 1971 “Farming 1866-1966” was published as a chapter in the Oxford History of South Africa. Then, in 1972, “Labour in the South African Gold Mines 1911-1969” was published by Cambridge University Press out of his PhD. Finally a book, “Migrant Labour in South Africa” was published. Taken together these works tell a connected story of the economics of the gold mines and their need for cheap labour, the decimation of rural life in South Africa to effect this supply of migrant labour, and the terrible social consequences of this system for these migrants and their households.

It is important to highlight that Francis’ academic leadership and his broader contributions were founded on his work as a researcher. He was an extraordinarily thoughtful and creative researcher. Along with this talent, he always invested the considerable time and intellectual perspiration required to craft his research. He valued the honing that came with writing and re-writing and so demanded this discipline of himself. He knew that his research was a foundation stone for his broader contributions, giving him confidence about what needed to be said and what needed to be done. This was an unflinching lifelong commitment to the hard work of careful scholarship.

Francis’ research produced rock-solid evidence detailing fundamental prevailing realities. Many have referred to his famous series on real wages by race in the gold mines in Labour in the South African Gold Mines as an example of the loud power of his work. All of us who aspire to produce such research have to confront questions about why we produced this work in the first place and what we are going to do with it. For Francis it was self-evident that it was his privilege and purpose to produce such research for it to have larger impact.

In 1975 Francis launched the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU). The founding grant was made by Anglo American. Given his work up to this point, this is more than ironic. It has to serve as an early example of Francis’ absolutely unique spirit and gift of communication and engagement.

Francis led this new unit in new research areas such as farm labour and health. He also became a researcher and a convenor of research processes. In the 1970s he co-convened with his SALDRU colleagues research engagements on farm labour and on the economics of health care in South Africa. Each of these engagements led to books that he edited with others.  To this day, now eminent academics speak of these engagements as being defining of their career choices and their commitments as researchers.

By the end of the 1970s, an extraordinary array of young anti-apartheid activists had flowed into the safe space of SALDRU, even seeking shelter from the physical and psychological brutality of the security police under the tables in its small space on UCT’s upper campus.  Francis and Dudley Horner, his co-leader in fashioning SALDRU, were very comfortable with such a SALDRU. But they were equally clear that this remained a research unit, albeit a rather special one. All those within this safe space were unapologetically required to commit to the hard discipline of collating evidence, writing, discussing, re-writing and, through this, honing and strengthening in a way that only the craft of research can do. Those early SALDRU Working Papers make wonderful reading and many are influential to this day. They were important and empowering to the people who wrote them.

Francis and SALDRU had established legitimacy with political groups operating outside of the apartheid parliamentary structures and also with foreign donors, who saw in him and SALDRU strong beacons of credible research on key South African issues. When in 1982, the Carnegie Corporation decided to fund the 2nd Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in South Africa, Francis was asked to direct this Inquiry with SALDRU serving as the base institution.

In the initial years of the Carnegie Inquiry leading up the conference of September 1984, Francis went the length and breadth of South Africa speaking to people about its purpose. He visited academics, as well as community groups, NGOs, private sector groupings, and committed individuals who were trying to make a difference in their own way. Many wanted to be part of this conference. But here too Francis was clear: to do so they had to produce a paper that marshalled evidence and made them think hard about the issue that they wanted to bring to the table. There were close to 400 presentations at the 1984 conference and a photographic exhibition. Soon after the conference, 380 working papers were printed and distributed widely across the country and internationally. In 1986 Omar Badsha’s photographs were published as a book, with a text written by Francis Wilson.

This collective effort presented a formidable and graphic documentation of the structural impoverishment of black South Africans under apartheid. It is hard to think of anyone else with the academic and broader societal credentials who could have convened and marshalled such a process at that stage in our country’s history. This is a massive contribution worth honoring in and of itself.

The consolidation of the 380 working papers was undertaken by Francis and Dr Mamphela Ramphele. The 1989 book, Uprooting Poverty: The South African Challenge, is a landmark study of poverty in South Africa. It offers a textured account of the harsh life for ordinary South Africans in the 1980s and is probably South Africa’s most well-known book on poverty. In many senses, the post-apartheid research thrust starts with this work.

By 1992 the ANC policy desk was preparing for taking office and had begun formulating policy to govern. A particular concern was the need for a national household living standards survey that produced baseline evidence of the state of the nation at that time. Once more it was Francis and SALDRU who were approached to partner with the World Bank in producing these data. He put in place a diverse and very talented South African management committee that was savvy enough to guide the World Bank into a genuine partnership. An instrument was crafted that drew on available research to give particular attention to the South African circumstances and needs. The apartheid state had refused to include the entire country in its censuses. This damage to the national statistical system made drawing a credible, nationally representative sample very difficult. It required first-rate application of the art and science of survey sampling.

South Africa’s national living standards measurement survey, the Project to Support Living Standards and Development (PSLSD), undertook its fieldwork in the second half of 1993. It used a set of regionally credible survey groups to implement and oversee the quality of this national effort. The results of the survey were released to the public at a conference less than a year later in September 1994. This turn-around time from the field to public release remains one of the fastest on record for the hundreds of World Bank LSMS surveys that have been conducted across the globe.

These 1993 data were used intensively in the 1990s for research and policy purposes, including several influential papers on South Africa’s social grants that motivated the consequent expansion of this grant system into one of the largest in the world. They continue to be used to detail the state of the nation at the advent of the post-apartheid period.

But most of the initial research was undertaken by international researchers rather than South Africans. There were few South Africans with the skills to do this work at that stage. Francis flagged it as imperative to build the capacity of South Africans to analyse their data and to undertake the policy analysis. He set up capacity-building initiatives that have reached into South Africa’s historically disadvantaged institutions and our policy research communities that run to this day.

Over the next 20 years Francis worked as a zealous advocate in the cause of the public release of survey data. He was the founding Director of DataFirst in 2001, a research data service dedicated to giving open access to data from South Africa and other African countries. DataFirst has grown substantially over the years and flourishes to this day as a world-class African data centre. Its data are available online, along with available accompanying documentation. This promotes access and appropriate use.

In the early 2000s Francis handed over the directorship and leadership of SALDRU to me and a group of economists in the School of Economics in order for him to found and grow DataFirst. But he did not ever retire from SALDRU, blowing right through his official retirement from UCT in 2004 and even his decision to clear and vacate his SALDRU office in 2018. Many of us in contemporary SALDRU had the privilege of working alongside Francis for a very long time as colleagues and friends. We have all benefitted many times from the magic of engaging with Francis. He inspired us. He never hesitated to tell us that he was very proud of our quest to produce excellent academic work and would always remind us to ensure that we keep this work embedded in our broader mission as SALDRU.

Francis was so genial, engaging, inspiring and energising for all. This makes it very easy to assume that his contributions and achievements flowed naturally, even effortlessly. This was not the case. This tribute has drawn attention to the fact that he was very serious about his scholarship and committing the time, care and perspiration required to undertake this research.  As he told some of us, he followed the dictum of John Maynard Keynes in his chosen field, economics: it is a method rather than a doctrine – a way of understanding and explaining the world. Francis accumulated evidence and then sought to be true to it, to struggle with its awkwardness and its refusal to accommodate simple, hydraulic explanations. While his research has been invaluable to all, Francis never fitted easily into any school of thought or belonged snuggly in anyone’s camp.

In the fraught world of apartheid South Africa, today in contemporary South Africa, and in between, this has been an uncomfortable and somewhat lonely walk. Despite the importance of his work on the decimation of black agriculture in South Africa’s rural peripheries and the creation of a black labour supply for the mines to the emerging radical historiography of the 1970 and 1980s, he did not fit or sit comfortably in this school. Over the past decade, people in power, nearly all of whom knew Francis and some of whom said that they had been inspired by him, were enacting policies that did not pass the test of being in the best interests of all in this country when benchmarked by available data or by Francis’ boots on the ground.

Francis’ unshakeable credibility and the respect that he showed to all were essential in navigating some of this awkwardness. Yet his chosen path was not an easy walk.

One of his most precious gifts to us in SALDRU was that Francis shared this aspect of himself, perhaps as a way of steeling us for the stresses accompanying this way in the world. He was open about the fact that there were times when this had been too much for him; when he just would not have coped or been able to continue on his mission without his own muse and mainstay, his precious Lindy.

Together they found a way around the obstacles. In his life he ticked many boxes, way beyond the two criteria stipulated for an Honorary Doctorate. All of us in SALDRU and many others have benefited from his personal and intellectual legacy and are deeply grateful for his life.

This is a lightly edited version of the speech that Murray Leibbrandt read at Francis Wilson’s funeral on 2 May 2022.