Robert Morrell

Dr Robert Morrell by Lerato Maduna
Dr Robert Morrell by Lerato Maduna

Robert Morrell was a pioneer of Critical Masculinity Studies in South Africa. His path to the study of men and masculinities began in  1989 when he was teaching Education students at the University of Natal (now UKZN)) in Durban. He had just joined the staff after teaching history at the Universities of Transkei and Durban-Westville and was, as the new boy, given feminism to teach to a fourth year class. He knew little about gender or feminism and so began a journey of exploration and discovery which ended with opening up a new field in research in South Africa.

Robert Morrell (and his twin brother, Chris) was born in Cape Town, grew up in Swaziland and attended Rhodes as an undergraduate, studying for a B.Journ and then BA (Hons) in history. At Rhodes he was inspired by Africanist historians, Jeff Peres and Julian Cobbing. They combined a passion for the discipline of history with a commitment to critiquing and opposing apartheid. In 1979 Robert was Deputy President of the Rhodes SRC and was part of a consistently out-voted left-wing minority which sought affiliation with NUSAS.  Vice-Chancellor of the time, Derek Henderson, with a smile, referred to Morrell as ‘Red Rob’ in his dealings with students during the tense times following the Soweto uprising and the murder of Steve Biko in 1976 and 1977 respectively.

The Wits University History Department was Morrell’s next port of call. Here he worked on a MA under Phil Bonner. He encountered the lively and sometimes testy revisionist debates as they were fought out in places like Charles van Onselen’s African Studies Institute seminars. In 1982 he got his first academic job in Mthatha at the University of Transkei, now Walter Sisulu University. Here he taught South African and African history with Francis Mashasha as Head of Department. He, and his wife, Alison Gillwald (BJourn 1979)) welcomed their first child, Tamarin, at the St Mary’s hospital, Mthatha in 1982. This made for challenging times as Morrell balanced a heavy teaching load (lectures were taught twice, in the morning and in the evenings (for part-time students)) with a commitment to equal parenting.

Morrell’s keen interest in the destiny of the country, his commitment to social justice and his gregarious nature meant that he developed close ties with students. The SRC was politically active in the wake of the founding of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983, In May 1984 when student protests occurred, the military occupied campus and Morrell was briefly arrested and then deported to South Africa. In the fraught months that followed, there was a crackdown on activists and Bathandwa Ndondo, prominent SRC member, was murdered by security police at Cala.

Morrell was able to find another academic job, this time in Surendra Bhana’s history department at the University of Durban-Westville. He taught third year history to classes of up to 300 students. He also began to publish from his Masters research – on rural transformations in the Eastern Transvaal (the Middelburg District). His first article was "Farmers, Randlords and the South African State: Confrontation in the Witwatersrand Beef Markets, c1920 - 1923", Journal of African History, 1986, 27: 513-532.

Morrell joined the UDF affiliate, NEUSA (National Education Union of South Africa) in 1986. He became secretary of the Durban branch working with Jeremy Routledge and Nozizwe Madlala (later Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge), amongst others. This was the time of states of emergency and living in South Africa was tense. Morrell was the Secretary-Treasurer of COMSA (Combined Staff Association) of UDW and worked with John Butler-Adam, Vishnu Padayachee and others to push the university to be more open and progressive. This brought him to the attention of the Vice Chancellor, Jaap Greyling, and without warning and late in December 1988, his contract was not renewed.

In October 1988, he and Alison had a second daughter, Ashleigh. In need of work to pay the bills, Paul Maylam and Bill Freund at the University of Natal, at very short notice cobbled together a job together for him. In mid 1989 an opening in the area of History of Education, in the Department of Education appeared and Morrell successfully applied for a permanent job as Lecturer in Education.

Morrell was at the University of Natal/UKZN for 21 years. In this time he was promoted to senior professor and served as Interim Co-Dean (with Robin Mackie) as the University of Natal absorbed the Edgewood College of Education and merged with the UDW School of Education.

It was in the two decades at the University of Natal that Morrell found his stride academically. He began teaching gender courses and constructed a raft of post-graduate courses which attracted large classes and which still exist today under the leadership of Deevia Bhana.

In 1997 he conceived of, organised and hosted the first masculinities conference in Africa. The Colloquium on Masculinities in Southern Africa ultimately generated a special issue of the journal of Journal of Southern African Studies and an edited book. Morrell’s introductory essay remains to this day one of the Journal’s most cited and downloaded articles. “Of Boys and Men: Masculinity and Gender in Southern African Studies”, Journal of Southern African Studies, 1998, 24(4): 605-630.

Morrell had finally completed his PhD in 1996 and this appeared as a prize-winning book in 2001 (From Boys to Gentlemen: Settler Masculinity in Colonial Natal, 1880-1920 (Pretoria, UNISA Press, 2001). Morrell’s masculinity work opened international doors and he began to travel to conferences around the world and became part of a new global network of scholars, often termed profeminists. He was invited onto various journal editorial boards including of the leading masculinities journal, Men and Masculinities, founded by Michael Kimmel. He developed a gender team in Durban that included Relebohile Moletsane, Deevia Bhana and Vijay Hamlall and he established research links with UK colleagues, Debbie Epstein and Elaine Unterhalter, both former South Africans.

In the two decades of Durban life, 1990s and 2000s, Morrell was sustained and energized by a strong circle of friends. He had divorced in 1991 and in the period thereafter he relied heavily on a number of people including his sister, Penny, who lived in Cape Town. Among other loyal supporters were Mike Hart, his spearfishing companion, Geoff Schreiner, his half-marathon running and canoeing mate, Alan Rycroft his weekly lunch companion, David Johnson who loved weekends by the sea. And then there were those associated with a touch rugby game that ran from 1985 to 2000 and beyond – including Keith Breckenridge, Cathy Burns, Ben Carton, Bill Freund, Imraan Valodia and Alan Whiteside.

In 2006 Morrell met and fell in love with Monica Fairall, well known radio personality. They married in 2007 but she tragically died in 2009 of cancer, aged 60. This sadness and the increasing unpleasantness of the work environment at UKZN propelled Morrell to move to Cape Town where he found a job in the Research Office in January 2010. In this position, Morrell’s job was to support mid-career researchers, promote inter-disciplinary research and African-centred research collaboration. The move took steam out of his masculinity work since at UCT he was no longer considered to be an ‘academic’. On the other hand, it opened the door onto the ‘third space’ – work that occurs between the conventional academic space and support services. He was well suited to this work and enjoyed it.

One research project that was permitted in his new position was around knowledge production. He was fortunate enough to be invited by long-time friend, Raewyn Connell at the University of Sydney to collaborate on a Southern Theory project (with colleagues in Brazil and Australia) and this resulted in a book, Fran Collyer, Raewyn Connell, Joao Maia and Robert Morrell, Knowledge and Global Power: Making new sciences in the South (Melbourne: Monash University Publishing, Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2019). The geopolitics of knowledge production remains a relevant issue and Morrell developed reading groups and research projects to build a critical mass. Key players at UCT were Rebecca Hodes, Ameeta Jaga, Anye and Francis Nyamnjoh and Vanessa Watson.

Having been born in Cape Town, Morrell had effectively come home. His mother and sister lived close by as did his daughters. To complete the picture he met Karen Barnes, professor of clinical pharmacology at UCT and they married in 2018.

As he approaches retirement he looks forward to writing a book about Durban in the 1980s and 1990s, supporting the work of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) and continuing to work with academics to help them along a career path that can be rocky but also comes with huge rewards.