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In Memoriam: Jeff Guy

19 December 2014

It seems that I’ve reached the age when many of my contemporaries are dying, or thinking of doing so. On Tuesday I was talking to a friend who was speaking of this as the last summer, or perhaps the penultimate one. And on Wednesday I learned of the death of Jeff Guy, the historian, from friends on Facebook. I suppose that is one of the reasons I stay on Facebook, for where else would one learn of such things?

Jeff Guy, Steve Hayes & Thami Sibiya at a jam session at UKZN, Durban

Jeff Guy, Steve Hayes & Thami Sibiya at a jam session at UKZN, Durban, 3 October 2001

I last saw Jeff Guy about 13 years ago, when he asked me to help one of his Masters’ students, Thami Sibiya, with a project. After our discussions I sat in on one of Jeff’s classes, which I enjoyed very much, and we went to a jazz session at the univerity cafeteria, which was also very enjoyable. We said we must keep in touch, which we did a bit by e-mail, and then lost touch again. So how would I have known that Jeff had died if it weren’t for Facebook, and learning about it from mutual friends?

For those who never knew him (and even for those who did) there’s an obituary here, and no doubt there will be more over the next few days, so I won’t try to compete by tryinbg to rehash his life story, but just say a few things about how I remember him.

We were fellow students at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg (UNP as it was known in those days) in the mid-1960s, and attended the same History I and Philosophy I classes. So perhaps I could say I witnessed a great historian in the making, not that I knew it at the time, of course.

One of the most memorable things from that time was when the philosophy lecturer, a Mr Mecurio, did not turn up for a class one day. As I wrote in my diary (20 March 1964):

Mr Mercurio did not come to the philosophy lecture today. Yesterday he had talked about Hobbes’s conception  of freedom as being the absence of external impediments, and discussed freedom in general. He discussed the libertarian and determinist arguments, and then said that neither could be proved, but while it is possible that we are not free, it would be illogical to assert it. To say “I am not free” would be invalid even if it were true.

So as he did not come, we continued the argument. Jeff Guy, a determinist, said, “Can you imagine an event or action that was not caused?” I think he is a bit of a Marxist, having come under the influence of Saul Bastomsky and Co, so we sat around discussing it, and trying to imagine an uncaused action or event, or the circumstances in which such a thing could take place.

I tended to the libertarian side of the argument myself, so disagreed with Jeff on that occasion, but discussions with him were never boring, even if one disagreed with him, it was always stimulating, and the class without the lecturer was more interesting, and we probably learned more from it, than if the lecturer had turned up, thanks in no small measure to Jeff Guy. And when I attended one of his history classes nearly fifty years later, there was the same spark, the same stimulation of interest in the students. Jeff Guy was not merely a historian, he was a trainer of historians, and able to stimulate in his students a love of history.

In the years in between I never saw him, though I read several of his books, and, as on the occasion of that classroom discussion, they were always interesting, even when one disagreed with him. And when we finally did meet again, it was as easy as taking up a conversation interrupted yesterday — not about determinism versis libertarianism, but about the history of Natal and Zululand.

I don’t think Thami Sibiya ever did finish his MA, or at least not on that topic. It was about an organisation called Iso loMuzi, formed at a place called Makhalafukwe in Melmoth, Zululand, in the 1980s. Since he did not publish it, I wrote up the material I gave to him, and posted it on ScribD here, if anyone is interested in reading about it. And that I wrote it up at all was probably stimulated by Jeff Guy.

So I will remember Jeff for discussions about libertianism and determinism, but even more for the simple pleasure of drinking beer and listening to jazz from the Paul Koko Quartet, and I wish we could have done that more.




2 Comments leave one →
  1. misseagle permalink
    19 December 2014 2:22 pm

    A lovely remembrance, Steve. And, yes, Facebook is a wonderful place for the ageing and aged to renew friendships of long ago. No – I am not quite up to the obituary stage yet but am on line with people I haven’t seen for thirty or so years but are worth renewing a friendship with. What would be do without the historians, professional and otherwise.

    The weekend before last Ballarat, where I now live, celebrated the 160th anniversary of the Eureka Rebellion which is seen by many Australians as the birthplace of human rights, democracy, and the fight for justice and a fair go. At St Paul’s Anglican Church on historic Bakery Hill where a lot of the miners’ meetings were held and the Ballarat Reform League was started we celebrated with the focus not on miners -v- troopers but the diversity of the people in Ballarat then and the diversity in Ballarat now. We had somewhat of an interfaith tinge with a Jewish person who is a descendant of the Eureka period and a Hindu. There are anarchist remembrances of the day as well. But the main events were at M.A.D.E. – the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka.

    One of the significant people was the historian Clare Wright who was interviewed about her recent – very thick – book: The forgotten rebels of Eureka. Wright’s book focuses on the women at and involved with Eureka who have been, in the main, omitted from the many histories of Eureka. At first, she said, she was scoffed at as producing window-dressing. No one imagined that she would produce a history which had primary – not merely secondary – importance. However, there are still many absences in the scholarly histories – Aboriginal people for instance, perhaps because many of them acted as mounted police. The Chinese. The census of 1857 does count Aboriginal people and Chinese people but provides two sets of figures one with them included, the other without. Because really neither Aboriginals nor Chinese really counted. It would be a good addition to the histories if these absences could be clarified in the way the Wright has done for women.

    • 19 December 2014 7:52 pm

      Thanks for that; yes, history always needs to be rewritten. In the 35 years since the centenary of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1979 numerous books have been published on it, each bringing out something that the others had neglected. But Jeff Guy’s The Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom focused on what happened after the war, which most of the others had neglected, or dismissed with a few sentences.

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