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  • Liberalism interruptus:Leo Kuper and the Durban school of oppositional empirical sociology of the 1950s and 1960s
  • Geoff Waters (bio)

Its roots lie in nineteenth-century liberal thought generally: in characteristically liberal assumptions about the basic unity of mankind, the dignity of the human personality, the fundamental rights of the individual without respect to race or creed, the benefits of education, the power of reason, and the possibility of reasoned progress. In South Africa liberalism has been particularly marked by its concern with race relations.

(Wright 1977:4)

As a consistent indictment of what it saw as the political and social injustice and economic irrationality of segregation and apartheid, in a general sense, liberal … writing may be seen as something of a manifesto for a multiracial capitalist society built on individual rights.

(Ross et al 2012:3-4)

There is evidence of a growing interest in documenting details of the oppositional intellectuals and intellectual movements at South Africa’s English-language universities during the apartheid era. Hitherto, however, the focus has been primarily upon those dating from the 1970s and 1980s and espousing a ‘radical’ or ‘marxian’ perspective on South African society (Ally 2005, Transformation 72/73 2010, Keniston 2013, Maré 2014, Moss 2014). In the process, it is conceivably possible that the potential significance of the work of an earlier generation of oppositional scholars who generally adopted a ‘liberal’ perspective could be overlooked.

Here I focus on the intellectual endeavours of one such earlier small grouping: the liberal scholars led by Leo Kuper at the University of Natal, [End Page 43] Durban (UND), during the 1950s and 1960s. These scholars produced a series of detailed empirical social studies of Durban which were broadly concerned with ‘race relations’ in the city. In so doing, they followed the classical Chicago sociologist Robert E Park’s dictum of viewing the city as a ‘social laboratory’ (Park 1929/1967). Simultaneously, they implicitly shared the liberal assumption that apartheid as it was then in the process of being implemented at the local level in Durban was an inherently destructive social force.

In the event, this proved to be but a brief flowering of liberal empirical sociology in Durban. Several members of the group, most notably Leo Kuper himself, left the country permanently, in most instances because of increasingly frequent harassment by the apartheid state. As a result, while the group’s synthesis of oppositional liberalism and empirical urban sociology was to be continued by those few of its members who remained, with the disappearance of key figures coupled with the rise of the ‘radical’ sociopolitical paradigm in local intellectual circles, this rapidly became a case of ‘liberalism interruptus’.

In what follows, first the CVs of the members of the group are outlined; next the group’s specific empirical contributions are explored in greater detail; then the subsequent diaspora of its members is traced; and lastly its potential intellectual legacy is suggested.

The dramatis personae of the UND social research initiative

Leo Kuper was appointed professor and head of the UND department of sociology and social work in 1953. He was 45 years of age, had qualified as a lawyer at the University of the Witwatersrand before World War II, served in the South African forces during the war and then studied in both the USA and Britain. He had received an MA in sociology from the University of North Carolina (1947) and his PhD from Birmingham University in Britain in 1952. In Birmingham, he worked with the leading British empirical sociologist, John Madge, and was involved in a large-scale survey of the war-ravaged city of Coventry as a basis for its post-war reconstruction. Simultaneously, his LSE-trained anthropologist wife, Hilda, was appointed a senior lecturer in the then department of Bantu Studies at UND. Together they formed a formidable intellectual couple on campus.

In 1953 the Kupers also became foundation members of the multiracial new South African Liberal Party which included the author Alan Paton and [End Page 44] other leading oppositional intellectuals. The Liberal Party was bitterly opposed to the programme of apartheid policies then being increasingly instituted by the National Party government. In Durban, the Kupers established an informal...


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