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Laurie Schlemmer remembered

Published Oct 28, 2011


For the past forty years, the name of Laurie Schlemmer, who died in Cape Town on Wednesday, was synonymous with informed commentary on political, social and economic trends in South Africa.

Though recognised as one of the country's top researchers and pollster, his conclusions and views were not always well received. This was mainly because of his steadfast refusal, also after South Africa's political transition in 1994, to favour the prevailing line of official thinking.

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It resulted in him being tagged in some quarters as not only an academic but indeed a political conservative.

Though known for most of his life as an optimist by associates, and apparently also preferring to think of himself in that way, he in recent years seemed to become increasingly despondent about the way the situation was developing in South Africa.

Only last year he was quoted in an article in The Economist as saying that social and political stability, from being a marginal concern in 1994, could become a determining factor in South Africa's future.

He feared that too little was being done to reduce inequalities and that whites would be made the scapegoat for the government's failings.

As a director of MarkData, a research firm, his findings and analyses remained valued by academia, business, the media and politicians in general.

He wasn't one to shy away from delicate or even volatile political situations either.He was a favourite source of information for journalists, especially at election time.

Before polling day he was one of the main analysts consulted about electoral trends, and afterwards he would be among the first to be asked for his views and analyses of the outcome. His was a regular face on election analysis panels on television.

He was born in 1936 into an Afrikaans family in Pretoria and attended the University of Pretoria where he studied criminology and social work.

He served for a while as a social worker before he went to the University of the Witwatersrand where he studied sociology and lectured in the subject.

The most hectic and politically involved chapter in his career and in his life came when he moved to the University of Natal in Durban where, as professor of sociology, he set up the Centre for Social and Development Studies. He had a reputation for a fairly bohemian lifestyle, but also for being an incredibly hard worker.

People spoke of the ease with which he got on with people of all races and persuasions.A major turn in his career came in the early Seventies when he accepted an invitation from then KwaZulu chief minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi to serve as director of his Inkatha Institute.

This was before the breakdown in relations between the ANC and the Inkatha leader that escalated into prolonged violent conflict.He experienced at first hand the brutalities that gripped the province.

He was staying with Rick Turner when the labour activist was shot through the window of his house by an unknown assassin.

He himself became the target of dirty-tricks agents when his office, with all his books and study and research materials, and his house got destroyed by fire on the same day.

He then went to Johannesburg to take up the chairmanship of the University of the Witwatersrand's Centre for Political Studies.

In the early Nineties he became vice-president of the Human Sciences Research Council at the time when the former Nationalist-controlled body had to adapt to the requirements of the new dispensation.

He also served as strategy director of the Urban Foundation, founder member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, vice-president of the Institute of Race Relations, and president of the South African Political Studies Association.

He was the author of various books and numerous study papers.

One of the incidents that in the Eighties at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle put him at odds with activists was when he published research showing that most black workers in the manufacturing industry were against foreign disinvestment.

In the late Nineties he again angered the more activist members of the new government when research he was involved in showed that relations between farmers and their workers in KwaZulu Natal and labour conditions on the farms were not as bad as some researchers have been claiming.

He at one stage accused the government of withholding HIV/Aids data, so preventing the public from getting the full picture.

He did not spare business either, charging that the way it went about affirmative action had the effect of alienating white minorities.

He leaves his wife, Monica, a son, Julian, and a daughter, Lucia.

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