Professor Isaac Schapera

Anthropologist and champion of the Tswana
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The Independent Online

Isaac Schapera, anthropologist: born Garies, South Africa 23 June 1905; Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Cape Town 1935-50; Professor of Anthropology, London School of Economics 1950-69 (Emeritus); FBA 1958; died London 26 June 2003.

Isaac Schapera was the last of a formidable trio of South African-born anthropologists whose writing and teaching were central to the foundation of the social anthropology of Africa. He was also the last link with the famous seminar held by Bronislaw Malinowski at the London School of Economics in which anthropology as an academic discipline was worked out.

However, Schapera could not be said to belong to a Malinowskian school of anthropology or indeed to any other; choosing to label himself an ethnographer, he compared his work to that of an economic historian. His meticulously detailed studies of the Tswana people of the Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana) constitute a lasting and exemplary body of work that continues to be read. Further, he encouraged a steady stream of younger scholars to follow his lead.

Schapera was born in Garies in northern Cape Province in 1905. He called his birthplace a village, describing it as remote and poor. His interest in anthropology he attributed to two influences there: his Hottentot nanny and the benevolence of the district surgeon who allowed him to read in his library. Consequently, in his second year at Cape Town University reading law, he took anthropology as an additional course. It was taught by A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, the other founding father of British social anthropology and the result was that Schapera changed subjects. But law remained a permanent interest.

At the early age of 20 he obtained an MA in social anthropology with distinction and went to England as a graduate student to work for a PhD under Professor C.G. Seligman, the anthropologist of the Sudan. He worked as a research assistant for Malinowski and admired his mind, but suffered from his anti-semitism. However he established lasting friendships with Meyer Fortes (later Professor in Cambridge) and Raymond Firth (later Sir Raymond), who was to be a colleague at the London School of Economics.

Schapera returned to South Africa in 1929, undertaking a year's field-work in what is now Botswana. After teaching for a year at Witwatersrand University, he moved to Cape Town, becoming Professor in 1935. From 1929 until he left South Africa again he made regular visits to the Tswana people, undertaking some pioneering practical studies as well.

The first, which was published as A Handbook of Tswana Law and Custom (1938) and is still in use in Tswana courts, was requested by the Tswana chiefs themselves. He wrote on social change and tribal law as well as on migrant labour, land tenure and the impoverishment caused by the alienation of land to white farmers. He also published in Sechuana a number of texts on oral history which were used in Tswana schools for many years. In 1939 he was made a Doctor of Science by London University.

In 1950 Schapera was appointed to a Chair at the London School of Economics and moved to London, where he lived until his death. He became a leading figure in the anthropological community, a founding member and then chair of the Association of Social Anthropologists (1954-57) and President of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1961-63). He was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 1958.

There were no more field-trips, but Schapera turned his attention to the historical sources. He had already edited the journals of the missionaries Robert and Mary Moffat while he was in South Africa; now he turned to Livingstone's journals and letters, publishing definitive editions (1959, 1960,1961). He also worked on literary material: one result was a paper on the use of kinship terms in Jane Austen's novels.

Schapera was alone among his contemporaries in his continual awareness of the history of the people he studied and the changes their society was undergoing. Not for him the usual description of "traditional society" as though it could still be observed. He wrote about the Tswana as they were when he visited them and one of his disappointments was the lack of enthusiasm shown by his colleagues for his exposition of the role of Tswana chiefs as agents of change (1970). He insisted, too, that the peoples of South Africa, white and black, were part of a single society. However, he refused to be drawn by his friend and fellow anthropologist Adam Kuper in a filmed interview (published in 2001 in Anthropology Today by the Royal Anthropological Institute) on whether he left South Africa because of the Afrikaner Nationalists' rise to power in 1948.

Schapera was one of the few anthropologists to be honoured by the people he studied. He is lauded as the recorder of Tswana traditions and the champion of the Tswana people. Not only are his works read and used in the courts and schools in Botswana, but the independent University of Botswana awarded him an honorary degree. He was pleased and proud that a street in the capital, Gaborone, was named after him.

"Schap", as he was called by all but a few contemporaries, never married but he liked company. He read widely, even when deteriorating sight made it difficult. He read The Satanic Verses twice, once out of curiosity and the second time because he had enjoyed it. Recently he borrowed the first Harry Potter book from the nine-year old grandson of a friend, "to see what all the fuss was about" and "quite liked it". His sharp mind remained undimmed by the frailties of his body and he attracted visitors throughout his long retirement.

Jean La Fontaine