Stanley Trapido: Politically engaged historian

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Stanley Trapido was one of the foremost historians of South Africa. From 1970 until 2001 he was Lecturer in the Government of New States at Oxford University and was also a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford.

Trapido was born in 1933 in Krugersdorp, a relatively poor mining town dominated by Afrikaner conservatism. He was the son of an immigrant English mother and a trader father, who at the age of 10 had been sent alone to South Africa from a Lithuanian shtetl. As a child, he observed the complexities of his environment, finding friendship with local boys through his early passion for cricket and rugby, while being bullied by others for being Jewish. His resistance took various forms – learning to box was one; developing intellectual and political interests another.

As a student geologist, he worked in mining to finance his entry to the University of the Witwatersrand to study science. But he was attracted to the more radical students associated with the Congress of Democrats and could be spotted reading the New Statesman. Here he became a friend of Bram Fischer, who was a leading member of the South African Communist Party and would later lead Nelson Mandela's legal team at the Rivonia trial. In order to explore his interest in social change and politics, Trapido shifted into a History degree, and went on to write a master's thesis on the ANC.

In 1958, as a junior lecturer at the University of Cape Town, he was supervised by Jack Simons, one of the most sophisticated radical thinkers of his time. In 1962 he moved to the University of Natal in Durban, where he met and married Barbara Schuddeboom. Harassed by police, and with a growing number of his close friends and comrades being arrested, he and Barbara left for Southampton, arriving in 1964. Before completing his doctorate at London University, Trapido took up a lectureship at Durham, where he remained until 1970, when he was offered a University Lectureship at Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford, where he taught until his retirement in 2001.

Stanley Trapido's highly original PhD (1970) explored the history of representative institutions at the Cape in the second half of the 19th century. His deep interest in Afrikaner nationalism, paternalism and the contradictions of liberalism stayed with him all his life. Trapido took seriously the idea that the histories of all South Africa's social classes were deeply intertwined, and so he wrote about Calvinist preachers, slaves, British imperialists and African labour tenants with equal care and attention.

His ability to combine broad sweeps with microscopic detail enabled him to weld the peculiarities of the Cape and South Africa into broader comparative experiences. This differentiated him from many of his contemporaries. In 1971 he published a paper which compared South African industrial development with that of Tsarist Russia, Imperial Germany and the American South. In a string of other important articles, Trapido explored the history of the South African state, industrialisation and class formation, and of the complex labour institutions and social relations of South Africa's rural areas. With Shula Marks he wrote a seminal paper, "Lord Milner and the South African State" (published in History Workshop Journal, 1979), with Peter Delius an article "Inboekselings and Oorlams" (Journal of South African Studies, 1982), on children captured to work as servile labour. In 1986 he edited, with Peter Delius and William Beinart, Putting a Plough to the Ground, a path-breaking collection on South Africa's rural history; and in the following year, with Shula Marks, an equally important volume, The Politics of Race, Class and Nationalism in 20th-century South Africa.

For 30 years, generations of students were drawn into Trapido's intellectual orbit, attracted by a unique and piercing mind which was able to range across continents and centuries. Once drawn in, many a student was diverted from their original course, becoming absorbed by his constant questioning. Trapido was at the cutting-edge of South African historiography, exercising a defining influence over generations of students, many of whom in turn went on to become academics and leaders in civil society. Behind his benign and sometimes unkempt exterior was a steely belief in dignity and inner standards and a commitment to perfectionism in his own work and relationships.

Stan and Barbara's canal-side home became a refuge for many students where, as well as attempting to keep up with Stanley's continuous leaps of intellect, they were nourished by the warmth of the atmosphere. Barbara, his partner and friend, accompanied him throughout, drawing at times on their life as an inspiration for her novels. Her extraordinary patience and generosity of spirit became even more evident as her writing had to give way following Stanley's first stroke in 2005. He was a devoted husband and a proud father to Anna and Joseph, and was delighted when, shortly before his death, he became a grandfather.

Ian Goldin and Megan Vaughan

Stanley Trapido, historian: born Krugersdorp, South Africa 5 November 1933; Lecturer in the Government of New States, Oxford University 1970-2001; married 1963 Barbara Schuddeboom (one son, one daughter); died Oxford 12 January 2008.