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From ANTHROPOLOGY TODAY Vol. 19 No. 6, December 2003: 18-19.

The legacy of Isaac Schapera (1905-2003)

'I would like to be remembered – although I am sure that I will not be – as the equivalent, to the Tswana, of what Pepys is to English ethnography.' Isaac Schapera interviewed by Jean and John Comaroff, 1988

Whether Schapera will be honoured as an equivalent to Pepys, I cannot say. What is certain is that his writing will be remembered in a way unique among anthropologist of the last century. No chronicler, but, like Pepys, his work is multidimensional, a social history of the Tswana chiefdoms that covers virtually all aspects of life over the 20-year span from 1930 to 1950. Kinship, marriage, sexuality, land and land tenure, law and law-making, the organization of the Tswana chiefdoms and labour migration fitted as naturally into his compass as ritual, magic, praise poems and vernacular texts. As he said, in a recent interview with Adam Kuper, the only topic that he failed to cover was music, as he was tone deaf (Kuper 2002). No boast then, but a gentle joke against himself by a man so aware of the questions he had neglected to ask that he toyed with dedicating a book 'to those who could have told me, and would have told me, if I'd only thought of asking' (Comaroff and Comaroff 1988:557).


Born in South Africa, he was one of Radcliffe-Brown's first students of anthropology at the University of Cape Town. A brilliant undergraduate career led to a doctoral scholarship to the LSE in 1926, where he came into Malinowski's orbit, though Seligman was his supervisor. He returned to South Africa in 1929 and, after a brief spell at the University of Witwatersrand, took up a post at the University of Cape Town in 1931. He was appointed to the chair in 1935 at the age of 30 and stayed until 1950, when he took up a professorship at the LSE. He was thus a central member of the founding group of what was to become known as British social anthropology. Like others in that group, his work is far from the functionalism with which it is too often identified. His were to be no timeless studies of the natives, nor of superorganic isolates. Anglophone anthropology in South Africa engaged with politics from the beginning. The emphasis given to the 'now' in structural functionalism led to an enduring concern with issues of social change in a plural society. Schapera was one of the leaders of this tendency, holding common cause with a distinguished group of luminaries which included Winifred Hoernlé, Monica Wilson, Hilda Kuper, Eileen Krige, Audrey Richards and Max Gluckman. The political and intellectual sympathies of this group were strongly against segregationist policies and this opened up a chasm between Anglophone and Afrikaans anthropology in South Africa that was to remain until the end of the century (Hammond-Tooke 1997, Kuper, 1999).

Schapera's initial doctoral research at the LSE was based on documentary sources, as were others' of that period. Out of this he produced a compendium of the Khoisan-speaking peoples of Southern Africa, published in 1930, a work which was to become classic and reprinted many times (Schapera 1930). By then, he had already begun research in the Bechuanaland Protectorate. He was initially drawn to Bakgatla by reports that they were preparing for the final stages of the boys' circumcision ritual, bogwera, on the South African side of the border. But another news report sent him instead to Mochudi, to the branch of the tribe across the border in Bechuanaland, to witness the installation of a new chief, Molefi, with whose Machama age regiment Schapera was later to become associated. By such a chance was a life's work decided. In a way it came full circle in 1980, when he made a brief return to Mochudi and was invited to the camp of the bogwera initiates where, under Linchwe, the chief at that time, a form of the ritual was revived between 1975 and 1988 [see Fig. 1]

For 20 years Schapera spent most of his vacations from the University of Cape Town in what was then Bechuanaland. Paradoxical as it might sound, this work can only be described as one of meticulous passion. Beginning with Bakgatla, he went on to study many of the Tswana-speaking groups as well as other peoples of the Protectorate, taking up government commissions to delve into matters of law, land tenure and settlement, and problems of land shortage. Through his prolific writings, he produced a remarkable record of life in the Protectorate, one which has formed an indispensable source of information and insight for all scholars of Botswana since. In his concern with current history he did not edit out the impact of traders, missionaries, administrators or the migrant labour system and its recruiters. Not only were they not to be dismissed, they were, he argued, to be studied in exactly the same way as the chiefs and ritual specialists. The chiefs – many of whom became enthusiastic collaborators in his work – were a topic of particular interest. Individual variation here joined cultural variation, as he explored how their particular histories and idiosyncrasies played a role in the innovations that they introduced in their areas (Schapera, 1970).

The first of his government commissions in 1934 produced probably his most influential book, A Handbook of Tswana Law and Custom.. It was intended as a guide for the younger and less experienced generation of chiefs as well as for Protectorate administrators. Regular reprinting has ensured that it has been used ever since in the courts and as a basic text for students. Its use has not always been the one intended, as all students of customary law will recognize, its tenets sometimes being quoted without due awareness of their historical context. Recently there was a furore in Botswana when a chief's decision to award compensation of eight cows to a woman who was suing another for the alienation of her husband's affections and subsequent divorce was overturned by the Assistant Commissioner of Customary Courts in 2000. This latter official cited Schapera's text as precedent, quoting the precept that 'a man, like a bull, cannot be confined in a kraal', a maxim that he interpreted as meaning that a man could sue another for adultery but a woman had no such claim.

It is ironic that Schapera, so concerned to document changing usage and variation, should have his text turned into a frozen repository of custom, and yet it would perhaps have amused him as well, since he held that history followed untoward paths. Perhaps there is another lesson in this case: change does not always tend toward the progressive, and Schapera's innovatory chiefs of 70 years ago (reactionary though some have judged them since) had much more freedom in adapting their law to practice (and, indeed, vice versa) than those of today, stifled not so much by a canonical text but by the bureaucracies into which they have been incorporated.

Married life in an African tribe (1940) is perhaps one of the more surprising books of this period in its candid portrait of sexuality and gender relations. It owed its inspiration as much to the psychoanalyst Wulf Sachs as to Malinowski (Comaroff and Comaroff 1988). It too has become a classic and remains in a class of its own. Though based largely on interviews and transcripts from his assistants, most notably Sofonia Poonyane, it gives a vivid picture of the intimate lives of the people and the transformations in family life brought about by Christianity and the pressures of male labour migration. And, as always with Schapera, the written text and the research are closely interwoven so that we know exactly on what basis statements are made. It is refreshing to read that he asked three people, and two said this and the other said that. The value of his work as a historical record is enhanced by such transparency, as well as the economy and exactitude which characterizes all his writing. And when in any doubt there are always the unpublished notebooks, which many have described as 'immaculate'.

An indefatigable scholar, on his appointment to the chair at the LSE in 1950 Schapera continued to write up his Tswana material, his interest turning even more to historical sources. He produced definitive editions of 19th-century mission material, firstly that of Robert and Mary Moffat, and subsequently the letters and journals of David Livingstone. Articles and books continued to appear after his retirement from the LSE in 1969, and though his phenomenal rate of publication had slowed in recent years, there is at least one title forthcoming,1 in addition, no doubt, to a continuing run of reprints and new editions. At the time of his death Schapera's published output ran to over 180 titles, in addition to the unpublished reports he wrote for the Bechuanaland administration.2


I deeply regret that I never attended one of Schapera's lectures at the LSE in the 1960s as, indeed, I might have. When I did eventually meet him, in his room off the Marylebone Road, he was well into his nineties, but by then his name meant a great deal more to me. Teaching at the University of Botswana, I had come across the vast corpus of his work and its inestimable value as a research resource for myself, colleagues and students. It was an appreciation on my part long overdue. I was late to join the generations of students and friends who have trawled, with increasing admiration, through his published work and unpublished notebooks – a list which includes Jean and John Comaroff, Adam Kuper, Simon Roberts, Dick Werbner and a rising generation of younger scholars. And in Botswana the list is longer, for Schapera remains the basic source of reference for all in the humanities and social sciences.

If I have little in the way of personal anecdote to add to the memories, I do have a weight of documents from that first meeting. He gave me a pile of genealogies that he had collected in the 1930s (and clearly still had had some intention of working on) to take back to Botswana. On airmail paper they weighed 7 kilos, which gives a fairly good idea of the quantity. All showed the meticulous scholarship for which he is so justly famed: carefully annotated, with cousin marriages indicated as well as the whereabouts of named individuals.3 If this was typical of his work, it was typical also of his generosity to fellow scholars and, even well into his nineties, his ongoing concern with all things Tswana.

In Botswana his name continues to be held in high esteem. Many have, perhaps unknowingly, learned their chiefdom's history from the Setswana texts he published in the 1930s, which were incorporated into the school curriculum. But his name lives on in many ways – in a road named after him in the capital Gaborone, and in his 'home' village of Mochudi where he was patron of the Phuthadikobo Museum, which effectively stands as a memorial, displaying many of his photographs.4 One of the first acts of the newly formed University of Botswana, in 1985, was to award him an honorary doctorate, and a photograph of this event is reproduced in the current University prospectus.

A decade later, the University of Botswana's journal of African Studies, PULA, ran a special issue dedicated to Schapera's then 75 years of scholarship – an honour perhaps equally appreciated by a man concerned above all with the handing on of knowledge. In the same year, 1998, the Department of Sociology instituted a programme of research linked to his work. The Schapera Project was launched on a wider scale in 2000 with a workshop at the University to explore the various themes in his work and to establish future directions. Concerned to develop a more critical readership of his work in Botswana and build upon his legacy, the workshop was organized around four issues: labour migration and its long-term effects on household and family dynamics; life histories, chronicles, genealogies and personal narratives; tradition and the codification of custom; land and land tenure. Ranging across the disciplines represented at the University, the programme has also developed a network of international scholars whose research is linked to the programme. A conference is currently being planned to honour Schapera's life and develop the project. One aspiration of the project was to reintroduce social anthropology into the curriculum – as in many African countries, it had been rejected because of its supposed colonial bias.5

Loyal friends, ex-students and former colleagues kept Schap in conversation, shopping – and, of course, whisky – in his later years. Though he was physically frail, his intellectual acuity persisted to the end. His passing marks the end of that remarkable generation of 'founders' from whom we all continue to draw inspiration.

Suzette Heald

Brunel University


I am grateful to all who have helped me track names and dates, most particularly Sandy Grant and Bruce Bennett, who have also offered their own assessment of Schapera's importance in Botswana. I am particularly grateful to Sandy Grant for providing the photo.

1. Everyday life in old Botswana, containing a collection of his photographs, is still intended for press.

2. The most recent bibliography of his works can be found in Heald 1998.

3. The originals were deposited in the Botswana National Archives, with copies at the University of Botswana. Other deposits of Schapera's field notebooks and manuscripts can be found in the Botswana National Archives, the University of Cape Town, the LSE and the British Library of Political and Economic Science.

4. The Museum was set up in the 1975 by the Bakgatla chief, Linchwe, and Sandy Grant.

5. Details of the project and of the workshop can be found at The project is currently ooordinated by Dr. G. Mookodi, from whom further details can be obtained.

Comaroff, Jean and John L. 1988. On the founding fathers, fieldwork and functionalism: A conversation with Isaac Schapera. American Ethnologist 15(3): 554-65.

Hammond-Tooke, W.D. 1997. Imperfect interpreters; South Africa's anthropologists 1920-1990. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University press.

Heald, S. 1998. Isaac Schapera: A bibliography. Pula: Journal of African Studies, 12(1&2): 100-115. Can also be accessed at

Kuper, A. 1999. South African anthropology: An inside job. Paideuma: 83-101.

– 2001. Isaac Schapera – a conversation. Part 1: South African beginnings.

Anthropology Today, 17(6): 3-7.

– 2002. Isaac Schapera – a conversation. Part 2: The London years. Anthropology Today 18(1): 14-19

Parsons, N. (ed.) 1998. Special issue: Seventy-five years of scholarship: Essays in honour of Isaac Schapera, Pula: Botswana Journal of African Studies, 12 (1&2).

Schapera, Isaac 1930. The Khoisan peoples of South Africa: Bushmen and Hottentots. London: Routledge & Sons.

– 1938. A handbook of Tswana law and custom (compiled for the Bechuanaland Protectorate Administration) London: Oxford University Press.

– 1940. Married life in an African tribe. London: Faber and Faber.

Fig. 1.[In the original publication of this obituary in Anthropology Today an illustration, not available here, was included:] Taken in 1980, on a return visit to Botswana, in the camp of the bogwera initiates where Schapera was introduced to the Molomakgomo age regiment. [Return]

Copyright © 2003 Suzette Heald
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