Emeritus Professor Francis Wilson (1939–2022): UCT mourns the passing of economics doyen

24 April 2022 | Story Staff writer. Photo UCT News. Read time 6 min.

7 May 1939 – 24 April 2022

On Sunday, 24 April 2022 Emeritus Professor Francis Wilson passed away at the age of 82.

UCT Vice-Chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng said, "The University of Cape Town is in deep mourning since we heard of the death of Professor Francis Wilson. Professor Wilson was a student at UCT who went on to become a most impactful staff member, and brilliant and leading scholar in his field. He had a deep and lasting effect on his students, on research, on his faculty and the university as a whole. He served selflessly in many capacities. He was deeply appreciated and loved, and we honoured him for all his achievements with a honorary degree in 2016. He was a giant in the halls of our institution and made a significant impact in society. We mourn this loss with his family.”

Francis spent 30 years teaching at UCT's School of Economics where he made an enormous contribution exposing the exploitation of migrant labourers in South African mines, laying the foundations for the strong labour, poverty, and development studies work that has been a hallmark of UCT's School of Economics.

After obtaining his PhD from University of Cambridge, he published three influential pieces of research: in 1971 Farming 1866-1966, a chapter in the Oxford History of South Africa; and in 1972 Labour in the South African Gold Mines 1911-1969 was published by Cambridge University Press out of his PhD. Finally, he published a book, Migrant Labour in South Africa. These works describe the terrible social consequences of the story of the migrant labour system. Over time his contribution broadened to a focus on understanding how these processes and others underwrite South Africa’s poverty.

In 1974 he founded and directed the Southern African Labour Development and Research Unit (SALDRU) and published a bibliography's worth of books, book chapters and journal articles on labour, poverty and inequality.

In 2012, he was appointed Acting Pro Vice-Chancellor for Poverty and Inequality at UCT, tasked with organising a conference to launch a national inquiry into strategies to overcome poverty and inequality.

In 2016, UCT honoured him with an honorary doctorate degree in literature.

His former colleagues described him as very influential. “I find it difficult to express my sadness, as I know so many will do. Francis was a wonderful man, a man who influenced so many people. He had an enthusiasm for life, despite the trials that beset him throughout his life. He loved teaching, and the legacy he and his colleagues in SALDRU left behind - in the many, many students who cut their teeth in the Unit - is but one that will endure. That enthusiasm for teaching found expression in so many forms, not least in his very successful Dinosaurs, Diamonds and Democracy: a short, short history of South Africa,” said President of the UCT Legacy Society, Emeritus Registrar Hugh Amoore.

Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Transformation Martin Hall has said, “Through a lifetime dedicated to teaching and research, Francis Wilson has made a contribution, both to economics and to a far broader field of scholarship, which continues to have a major impact on the way we think about inequality, social justice and public policy".

Wilson did not just contribute immensely to UCT through his academic teaching and scholarship. But, he also worked hard for over 40 years of his life in documenting and analysing key social issues affecting South Africa.

His continued commitment to UCT found expression after his formal retirement in the work he did as President of the Legacy Society in succession to Stuart Saunders. 

He survived by his wife Lindy, with whom we grieve.

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