Tribute to Isaac Schapera (1905-2003)

21 July 2003
Isaac Schapera, professor of social anthropology at UCT (1935-1950), died recently in London at the age of 98. UCT conferred an honorary Doctor of Literature degree on Schapera in 1975. Professor David Brokensha, Honorary Professor of social anthropology at UCT, has offered this tribute.

Schapera, was one of the leading specialists in social anthropology, specialising in African ethnography. Born in Garies, Namaqualand, an Afrikaans-speaking town where his father kept a store, Schapera acquired an early interest in the local people.

He enrolled at UCT to study law but, after attending lectures by AR Radcliffe-Brown (one of the best-known anthropologists of his generation), Schapera changed to anthropology, completing his masters degree at UCT in 1925.

Schapera then went to the London School of Economics (LSE) for postgraduate studies.

The commanding figure at LSE was Bronislaw Malinowski, one of the founding fathers of modern anthropology.

Schapera attended Malinowski's famous seminars, and had two demanding periods as a research assistant. Schapera's doctoral dissertation, supervised by CG Seligman, was published as The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa (1930), remaining a standard reference work for many years.

After spending 1928-1929 as an assistant lecturer at LSE, Schapera, taught briefly at the University of the Witwatersrand before returning to UCT.

He was appointed professor of social anthropology in 1935, and stayed until 1950. Schapera was very active in fieldwork in the Bechuanaland Protectorate (Botswana) in the 1930s and 1940s, producing a steady stream of books that soon became classics in the field of ethnography.

He spent university vacations working among the Kgatla, Kwena, Ngwato and Ngwaketse peoples.

Schapera was always interested in history, editing Robert Moffat's journals, and also David Livingstone's writings.

Anthropologists of that period have been criticised as being "handmaidens of colonialism", and Schapera did collaborate with the colonial administration, which sponsored some of his best-known work, including A Handbook of Tswana Law and Custom (1938), Native Land Tenure in the Bechuanaland Protectorate (1943), and Migrant Labour and Tribal Life (1947).

That Schapera handled the delicate relationship well is shown by the high regard that people have for him in modern Botswana, where his legal work is widely recognised as being authoritative, and is constantly referred to in chiefs' courts.

Schapera has had a street named after him in Gaborone, and he was awarded an honorary DLitt by the University of Botswana.

These are all touching tributes, and they validate his ethnography in a definitive manner.

Schapera left UCT in 1950 for a professorship at LSE, retiring in 1969. After his retirement, Schapera stayed until his death in a small flat at The White House in North London.

His mind remained sharp, incisive and enquiring until the end, and I was one of many regular visitors who joined Schapera in a large Scotch, relished his stories, and his sometimes wicked sense of humour, and who benefited from his interest, advice and encouragement in one's own work.

Schapera had wide and eclectic reading habits; not long before his death, a friend offered to bring him the latest Harry Potter book, knowing that Schapera had enjoyed others in the series. Schapera declined, saying: "I shall not have enough time to finish the book."

And so it proved.

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