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In Memoriam Stephen Ellis, 1953-2015

Monday 28 September 2015

by Ton Dietz, Director of the African Studies Centre, Leiden

The leading historian, Professor Stephen Ellis, passed away on 29 July 2015. Ellis published groundbreaking works in African studies – on South Africa as well as other countries. He is remembered by Ton Dietz, Director of the African Studies Centre in Leiden.

The best-known scholar of the African Studies Centre (ASC) in Leiden, Professor Stephen Ellis, died on 29 July 2015. Stephen was diagnosed with leukaemia three years ago and he could be treated effectively until early July. With great admiration we witnessed how Stephen coped with his illness and how he, until very recently, worked on a manuscript for a book, which is virtually ready, about his most recent research on the history of Nigerian organized crime.

Life and work
Stephen Ellis was born in Nottingham, Great Britain, on 13 June 1953. He studied modern history at University of Oxford and obtained his doctorate there in 1981. His study about an uprising in Madagascar in the late 1890s was published in 1985 by Cambridge University Press as The Rising of the Red Shawls. Later on he published a book about Madagascar in French (Un Complot à Madagascar, 1990, Karthala). From 1979 to 1980, he worked as a lecturer at the University of Madagascar, but this was not his first time in Africa: at the age of eighteen he worked as a voluntary teacher in Douala, Cameroon. From 1982 to 1986, he was head of the African sub-region at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International in London, followed by a position as editor for the newsletter Africa Confidential. Between 1991 and 1994, Stephen was appointed General Secretary and later Director of ASC in Leiden. This was followed by an assignment for the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Global Coalition for Africa), which resulted in his book Africa Now, published in 1996, and a position as senior researcher at ASC until his death. From 2008 onwards, he was also appointed Desmond Tutu Professor at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam for two days per week. During 1997 and 1998, Stephen was a researcher for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.

Stephen Ellis was ASC’s most prominent scholar, and one of the key researchers in African studies in the world. The ASC library has 82 of his publications. Many of these publications deal with recent or historical political developments in Africa, and African religion; the latter were often published together with his wife and colleague Professor Gerrie ter Haar. He wrote most extensively on South Africa, Madagascar, Liberia, and Nigeria, but his work also includes studies on Togo, Zambia, and Sierra Leone. Stephen Ellis’s personal page in Google Scholar shows that more than 4 700 colleagues cited his publications so far. His most popular book is The Criminalization of the State in Africa, which he wrote together with Jean-François Bayart and Béatrice Hibou, which was published in 1999 (following the French version published two years earlier). Other well-known books of his hand are The Mask of Anarchy: the destruction of Liberia and the religious dimension of an African civil war (2001),Worlds of power: Religious thought and political practice in Africa (with Gerrie ter Haar, 2004), and Comrades against apartheid: the ANC & the South African Communist Party in exile (with Tsepo Sechaba, 1992). Among his recent publications are: External Mission: the ANC in exile, 1960-1990 (2013), Season of rains: Africa in the world (2012; there is also a version in Dutch, Het regenseizoen), and ‘West Africa’s international drug trade’ (in African Affairs, 2009).

Stephen started publishing about South Africa in 1992, dealing with the African National Congress (ANC) in exile, a theme which would keep him busy until recently, when External Mission was published. He did not shy away from controversial issues, such as ANC’s misconduct in the camps outside South Africa and Nelson Mandela’s membership of the South African Communist Party (SACP). The results of his research on these two topics ‘infuriated people who saw the ANC as a heroic organization, led by its saintly leader,’ according to Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society in London, in his tribute. He also added: ‘Although the ANC were angered by his exposure of less-than-heroic aspects of the party’s past, senior members admitted that the book was broadly accurate.’ For Stephen, exposing the historical truth was always more important than the risk of his findings being misused politically, or misquoted. Stephen also published about the politics of nature conservation and the role of security forces in the ivory trade, about corruption and crime, and about international migration. In his tribute, Tim Kelsall, co-editor with Stephen of African Affairs, wrote: ‘Widely admired, his work was also often provocative and occasionally misunderstood.’

On www.ascleiden.nl you can read the many obituaries published by colleagues from all over the world.

The day after his death, the South African Mail and Guardian published a tribute in which they highlight: ‘Ellis’s 1992 work, Comrades Against Apartheid: The ANC and the South African Communist Party in Exile, was the first book to report on the MK mutiny in Angola in 1984, its Quatro prison camp, and the dreaded ANC security department, Mbokodo. The accuracy of Ellis’s work was confirmed by the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1998.’ And also: ‘Fellow historian Paul Trewhela writes: Stephen Ellis was the first scholar to publish unshakeable evidence that Nelson Mandela had been a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) in the period between the Sharpeville massacre in March 1960 and Mandela’s arrest near Howick in KwaZulu-Natal in August 1962. After half a century of denial by the ANC, the SACP and their supporters in South Africa and internationally, Ellis proved that Nelson Mandela had been a member of the Central Committee of the SACP as well as of the National Executive Committee of the ANC at the time he took part in the secret formation of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) in 1960-61. Ellis and Russian historian Irina Filatova were the only scholars to do the necessary work in archives in South Africa and around the world, as well as in interviews with surviving witnesses, to establish this as fact. Ellis first published the evidence he uncovered in July 2011, in an academic paper, The Genesis of the ANC’s Armed Struggle in South Africa, 1948-1961, in the Journal of Southern African Studies (37:4). The day after Mandela died, on 5 December 2013, the SACP issued a statement acknowledging that he had been a member of the central committee of the party.’

Lansana Gberie, in a tribute written for Africa Confidential, wrote that Stephen Ellis ‘fully confronted the depredations and betrayed promises of the post-colonial state and liberation movements in Africa. Yet, rather than despair, he energetically took on the challenge of understanding the problem without condescension or affectation, using his training as a historian and his skills as a journalist to examine African crises with acuity and consistently dispassionate and rigorous reasonableness. The results were invariably praised and condemned in almost equal measure.’

Stephen was a dedicated, often pioneering, and brave researcher. He was a mover and shaker, to use the title of the book in the African dynamics series (2009), which he co-edited with ASC’s Ineke van Kessel (who, like Stephen, is focused on South Africa, and the author of the tribute to Stephen on behalf of the NVAS [Nederlandse Vereniging voor Afrika Studies]). He was a worthy Desmond Tutu Professor at VU University in Amsterdam. At the funeral, VU’s Ton Salman said ‘… Desmond Tutu wrote in the foreword to Stephen’s 2010 book Season of rains, [about] an unwavering hope for the future. It is a hope, despite humanity’s dark sides and shadows, of which particularly Stephen was very aware and on which he published widely.’

Gillian Lusk, the current associate editor of Africa Confidential wrote: ‘The world, and especially the African world, is a poorer place without him. However, it is immeasurably richer for his having been here.’

Let me end by quoting one of Africa’s leading scholars, Francis Nyamnjoh: ‘Stephen Ellis shall most sorely be missed and in every way we can, we shall do our modest best to keep his memory alive. He deserves no less.’
So be it. Thank you, Stephen!



Stephen Ellis on South Africa

The ANC in exile, S Ellis, African Affairs, 1992, 439-447
Comrades against apartheid: the ANC & the South African Communist Party in exile, S Ellis, T Sechaba, 1992, Indiana University Press
- Mbokodo: security in ANC camps, 1961-1990, S Ellis, African Affairs, 1994, 279-298
- Of elephants and men: politics and nature conservation in South Africa, S Ellis, 1994, Journal of Southern African Studies 20 (1), 53-69
- An insider’s account of the South African security forces’ role in the ivory trade, R Reeve, S Ellis, 1995, Journal of contemporary African studies, 13 (2), 227-243
- Africa and international corruption: the strange case of South Africa and Seychelles, S Ellis, 1996, African Affairs, 165-196
- Les nouvelles frontières du crime en Afrique du Sud, S Ellis, 1997, La criminalisation de l’Etat en Afrique, Paris: Editions Complexe, 77-104
- The historical significance of South Africa’s third force, S Ellis, 1998, Journal of Southern African Studies 24 (2), 261-299
- The new frontiers of crime in South Africa, S Ellis, 1999, The Criminalization of the State in Africa, 49-68
- South Africa and international migration: the role of skilled labour, S Ellis, 2008,Migration in post-apartheid South Africa: Challenges and questions to policy makers. AFD
- Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, Volumes 1-5. Pretoria: Government Printer, October 1998, S Ellis - Transformation, 2000
- The Genesis of the ANC’s Armed Struggle in South Africa 1948–1961, S Ellis, 2011, Journal of Southern African Studies 37 (4),
- Politics and Crime: Reviewing the ANC’s Exile History, S Ellis, 2012, South African Historical Journal 64 (3), 622-636
External Mission: the ANC in exile, 1960-1990, S Ellis, 2013, Oxford University Press

See online: In Memoriam Stephen Ellis, 1953-2015