Remembering David Welsh

03 Nov 2023
David Welsh
03 Nov 2023
David Welsh

The University of Cape Town was saddened to hear of the passing in late September, of Professor David Welsh, who was a well loved and respected UCT scholar and human rights activist.

Professor Welsh was born in Cape Town in 1937 and educated at the Universities of Cape Town (UCT) and Oxford. He joined the teaching staff of UCT in 1963 and retired in 1997 as Professor of Southern African Studies in the Department of Political Studies. At the time of his passing, he was a Professor Extraordinaire in the Department of Political Science at Stellenbosch University.

He has published widely on South African issues, and on ethnicity and politics in other divided societies. He has authored three books, The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, The Roots of Segregation and (with F van Zyl Slabbert) South Africa’s Options, and nearly 100 articles and chapters in academic books and journals, as well as other publications. He leaves behind his wife and four children.

Professor Milton Shain, emeritus professor of Historical Studies at UCT, delivered a moving eulogy about him, at a family memorial service, sharing the impact and influence he had as a scholar, friend and colleague. Milton shared how anyone trying to understand South African history and especially our conflict-ridden history, had to engage with David’s work.  Here is an excerpt of this tribute by Milton, to Professor Welsh here.

By the early 1970s David was already a luminary. Freshly minted from Oxford, David was a scholar whose work stood at the centre of raging debates – debates between liberals and Marxists – as well as debates on political strategy and reform. David was, moreover, an engaged intellectual.  David was deeply immersed in our society – in political theory, the nature of the South African body-politic, Afrikaner nationalism, theories of prejudice and the odious system of apartheid. 

But David was more than just an armchair analyst, ensconced in the ivory tower. He was engaged as a public intellectual and as an activist – and even stood for parliament. He was also a member of the Liberal Party. Indeed, David was a leading liberal. Individual freedom, the exchange of ideas and equal opportunity for all and common decency mattered most.  He was always prepared to listen and make his feelings known– whether in writing, in the classroom, or in petitions. By the late 1970s, liberalism was under assault from the left – but David held his own. In these battles he garnered huge respect.

His liberalism was well rooted. He was close to political icons - the likes of Alan Paton, Peter Brown, Colin Eglin and Helen Suzman. They would canvass his ideas – always thoughtful and reasoned. To the end of her illustrious life, Helen Suzman would phone David and bemoan how the country had lost its way. Like so many others, she solicited David’s insights and appreciated his wisdom.   Although David was watched closely by the security police, in a post-apartheid South Africa he was hugely respected by his one-time political foes. FW de Klerk, for one, was always ready to share a memory or an insight with David.

David was a prolific scholar – his work ranged from history to comparative politics, from the nature of nationalism to the complexity of divided societies. All this came together in his monumental The Rise and Fall of Apartheid, published in 2009. Like all ‘rises and falls’ the demise of apartheid generated substantial debate. To what extent did black resistance cause the downfall? How important were international sanctions? Was apartheid undermined by the growth of capitalism or was it a product of capitalism? How important was the role of leaders?  Few scholars were better equipped than David to reflect on these and other questions. He was at the cutting edge, both as an intellectual and activist. He welcomed the negotiation process and appreciated the fact that ultimately cool heads prevailed in this country. Popular pressure from below and change from above – ‘refolution’ in a term David appropriated from Timothy Garton Ash – ensured the end.

David fought for liberty all his life. It was a privilege to be David’s colleague and friend.

Emeritus Professor Milton Shain