Archibald Boyce Monwabisi Mafeje (Kings ’64)

© Margaret Green

Archibald Boyce Monwabisi Mafeje (March 30, 1936 – March 28, 2007), also known as Archie Mafeje, was a South African social scientist and Pan-African activist. 

An anthropologist by training, Mafeje became a prominent scholar internationally. Throughout his career, he contested ideas about colonialism and racial hierarchy ingrained within anthropology and advocated for African-centered ways of studying the African continent and its history.

In Anthropology and Independent Africans, published in 1998, Mafeje wrote about his unique view of ethnography which allowed him to acknowledge the societies he studied as “a knowledge-maker in his/her own right,” rejecting the essentialism that influenced Northern theorists or conventional anthropologists.  His prominent essays include The Ideology of Tribalism, Neo-Colonialism, State Capitalism or Revolution, The Problem of Anthropology in Historical Perspective, as well as writings beyond anthropology such as Science Ideology and Development and The National Question in South African Settler Societies.

Mafeje was born on 30 March 1936 in Ngcobo in South Africa. He grew up with a family of educators – his mother was a teacher while his father was the headmaster of a primary school. Mafeje attended Healdtown Comprehensive School, whose prominent alumni include anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela and founder of Pan Africanist Congress, Robert Sobukwe. At Healdtown, Mafeje also met Livingstone Mqotsi, then a history teacher, who significantly impacted his life. Later, Mafeje went to the University of Cape Town (UCT), where he obtained a first-class honors degree in Social Anthropology, followed by a Master’s degree in the same subject, graduating in 1959. 

During his university education, Mafeje was confronted with the socio-political context of apartheid in South Africa. Racially segregated educational facilities, violent treatment of Black protestors by police officials (such as in the Sharpeville massacre of 1960), and government bans on the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) and the African National Congress (ANC), the two most prominent political groups advocating for Black peoples’ empowerment, surrounded him. The struggles came home when in August 1963, Mafeje himself was arrested by the Security Police for addressing a congregation in the town of Flagstaff, though he was fined and soon after released. 

Mafeje came to the University of Cambridge, matriculating in 1964, to pursue doctoral studies in social anthropology under Audrey Richards. His thesis focused on field research on large-scale farming in rural Uganda, and he graduated in 1968. Mafeje wished to return to his alma mater, UCT, after being appointed as a lecturer. However, he was denied the position due to the apartheid government’s policies because, according to the education minister, Jan de Klerk, a Black African lecturer would defy “the accepted traditional outlook of South Africa.”

This incident, known as the “Mafeje Affair,” led about 600 UCT students to occupy the Bremner Building in UCT in August 1968, demanding the reinstatement of Mafeje’s position, and Dean of Faculty of Arts at UCT, Professor M.W. Pope, resigned in solidarity with the cause. The protests were unsuccessful; although the University Council established an Academic Freedom Research Award in honor of Mafeje, they refused to reinstate the position and defy the law. 

Mafeje spent the next 30 years in exile. He served as the Head of the Sociology Department at the University of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania from 1969 to 1971 before relocating to The Hague. Then, from 1972 to 1975, he worked at the Institute of Social Studies’ Urban Development and Labor Studies Program (ISS), where he met Dr. Shahida El Baz, an Egyptian activist and professor who would eventually become his wife. In 1973, Mafeje was appointed Professor of Anthropology and Development Sociology at the ISS in The Hague, and he was made a ‘Queen Juliana Professor and one of her Lords’ in connection with this position. In addition, he worked as a visiting scholar in Egypt, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Namibia.

Mafeje returned to South Africa in 2000 to work at the African Renaissance Centre at the University of South Africa as a Research Fellow by the National Research Foundation. He joined the Dakar-based Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA)’s Scientific Committee in 2001. In 2003, he has given Honorary Life membership at CODESRIA, and later, in 2005, named a CODESRIA Distinguished Fellow with Africa Institute of South Africa in Pretoria. The African Institute for Economic Development and Planning (IDEP) at the United Nations launched the Archie Mafeje Research Institute in his honor as a platform for critical, transdisciplinary research for social transformation in Africa. 

Mafeje passed away on March 28, 2007. His wife, Shahida, and their daughter, Dana, survive him. His obituary in the annual report for King’s College can be found here