Passing of a Legend

03 March 2003
UCT regrets to report the death of Robin Hallett. This tribute to well-respected academic was penned by Professor Christopher Saunders, Historical Studies.

Robin Hallett (1926–2003) was one of the most gifted teachers ever to have graced the UCT campus. This will be attested to by the cohort of students who enrolled for African History from 1972; large numbers took his courses and some of those whom he inspired went on to teach at universities here and abroad (one is now Professor of African History at the University of Basel). Robin had learned his inimitable lecturing style through taking extra-mural classes in England and then Nigeria.

Those who listened to his quick mind and fund of knowledge were often amazed to discover that he read with great difficulty, using a magnifying glass close to his good eye. In later years he became a regular Summer School lecturer, attracting large and devoted audiences. In his prime, Robin could hold an audience enthralled as only the greatest lecturers can do.

Soon after I started teaching at UCT, I was asked by a student – who happens now to be the Rhodes Professor of Race Relations at Oxford – to recommend someone to visit as a student's visiting lecturer, and I immediately thought of Robin, who had been such stimulating company in Oxford.

Fortunately for us, he felt marginalised at Oxford, and was too unconventional to be appreciated elsewhere in British academe. He immediately felt at home at UCT, and so this child of the Raj, who had worked in Nigeria and Tanganyika and had written a large two-volume history of Africa (the finest synthesis of the continent's history in print, and a work that remains a triumph of humane scholarship), spent many years here, though he accepted that as an Englishman he could never live permanently in another country.

While at UCT, he began to research aspects of the history of Cape Town, and enthused others to embark on a major research project in that field. He himself turned to journalism, composing articles on a vast range of subjects in his head and writing like a dream, as many will remember from his regular columns in the Cape Times over many years.

He continued these columns in the Natal Witness, and his last one appeared there in mid February, a few days after his death. In this he said that the seven years he spent at UCT in the 1970s “were the most energetic and rewarding period of my entire life”.

Of the occasion on which he returned in 1993 to receive an honorary doctorate, he wrote: “The degree-giving ceremony at UCT was a wonderfully convivial occasion, and I realised that the university was my true alma mater–I am deeply aware how much I owe to South Africa. I was able to participate in a stimulating intellectual environment of a kind I have never known in England–South Africa provided me with the gift of friendship–My family and I soon built up a wonderful circle of friends–Almost all those friendships have endured to this day–”.

Sadly, UCT must now bid a friend farewell.

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