Obituary: Leo Kuper

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Leo Kuper, sociologist: born Johannesburg 24 November 1908; Professor of Sociology, University of Natal 1953-61, University of California Los Angeles 1961-73; married Hilda Beemer (died 1992; two daughters); died Los Angeles 23 May 1994.

LEO KUPER was the outstanding South African sociologist. His studies were full of subtle and sophisticated argument, based on careful empirical research and written with elegance, but it was a moral commitment that drove him on.

Kuper contemplated the bleak South Africa of his day without illusions, but without despair. Some of his major works were banned by the Nationalist government, and he was later venomously attacked by advocates of political violence, but he never wavered in his commitment to the liberal principles that co-operation was better than polarisation, that argument and if necessary passive resistance were to be preferred to revolutionary violence, and that civil institutions, that brought people of different groups together in co-operative enterprises, provided the most effective counter to racial division. He was one of the few to argue in the darkest days of apartheid that a social basis existed in South Africa for a peaceful transition to a democratic society, a consummation that was achieved in the last month of his life.

Born in Johannesburg in 1908, Kuper was raised in an orthodox Jewish family. He studied for BA and LLB degrees at the University of the Witwatersrand and practised law until the outbreak of the Second World War, acting in human-rights cases for African clients and representing one of the first non-racial trade unions, and he supported his beloved sister Mary when she helped to establish the first legal aid charity in South Africa. When war broke out he served as an intelligence officer with the Eighth Army in North Africa and Italy. After the war he organised the National War Memorial Health Foundation, which provided social and medical services for the disadvantaged.

In 1948 he began to train as a sociologist, first at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and then with Charles Madge at Birmingham University, where he wrote a pioneering study of urban planning, Living in Towns, based on research in Coventry. In 1953 he returned to South Africa as professor of sociology at the University of Natal in Durban. He was active in opposition politics and became chairman of the Natal branch of the Liberal Party. He wrote two classic studies on South African society, Passive Resistance in South Africa (1957), and An African Bourgeoisie (1965), both of which were banned by the government, and with two colleagues Durban: a study in racial ecology (1958). 'In present-day South Africa there is a strong tendency to regard as 'impartial' only those studies which abstain rigorously from any criticism of our present society,' Alan Paton wrote in his preface to that book, but he added - and this could have been said of all his South African studies - that Kuper scornfully resisted this false objectivity while nevertheless being careful to present all the relevant facts and to allow his readers to make up their own minds.

When the National Party forced the universities to impose a racial test on entry Kuper wrote a bitter satire on the new tribal colleges, and despite the urgings of his friend Alan Paton he reluctantly decided to emigrate. In 1961 he accepted a position at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he remained until his retirement, serving for four years as Director of the African Studies Center. In 1963 his brother, my father, a judge in South Africa, was murdered, and Leo's commitment to peaceful social change became yet firmer. He published ground- breaking theoretical accounts of race and ethnic relations in plural societies, and then moved on to the great problem of genocidal violence.

In a series of three important books he analysed the major genocides of the 20th century, describing the factors that put a society at risk of genocidal violence and trying to identify forces that might prevent it (The Pity of it All, 1977; Genocide, 1981; and The Prevention of Genocide, 1985). The research was painful. For years he steeped himself in first-hand reports of the most hideous crimes, and I think he could hardly have borne it sometimes without the love and support of his wife, the anthropologist Hilda Kuper. Leo's gentle consideration and Hilda's warmth and hospitality made their home in Westwood Village a friendly and civilised haven for many intellectuals, refugees, students and friends of their daughters. Hilda's death in 1992 was a terrible blow.

He also set up an organisation, International Alert, with the help of Lord Young of Dartington, that was designed to provide early warning of ethnic violence, but he despaired of the record of the established international agencies. Writing of the massacres of Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda and Burundi in the Sixties, he came to the conclusion that the intervention of international agencies and foreign governments had caused more deaths than they had prevented.

His unflinching analyses have a gruesome relevance to the horrors taking place today in the killing fields of Central Africa. He drove himself very hard, because he knew that there were not many scholars who could bear to contemplate these terrible events. For 20 years he was dealing with crimes that challenge any faith, but though he turned against religion he never lost the hope that the great social evils might be mitigated through informed intervention. If there was a Peace Prize for social scientists, Professor Michael Bantom once wrote, it would have been awarded first to Leo Kuper.

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