Van Onselen, Charles 1944–

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Van Onselen, Charles 1944–


Born 1944; son of a police detective (father). Education: Attended Rhodes University; attended University of Witwatersrand; St. Antony's College, Oxford, Ph.D., 1974.


Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London, junior research fellow; International Labour Office, Geneva, Switzerland, research officer; Centre for International and Area Studies, University of London, Ford Foundation research fellow, 1976-78; Yale University, New Haven, CT, visiting fellow, fall, 1978; University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, Institute for Advanced Social Research, and African Studies Institute, director, 1979—. Has worked as an ore-setter in the Free State gold fields.


Trevor Reese Memorial Prize, c. 1982, for Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand.


Chibaro: African Mine Labour in Southern Rhodesia, 1900-1933, Pluto Press (London, England), 1976.

South Africa's Lumpenproletarian Army: "Umkosi wa Ntaba," "the Regiment of the Hills," 1890 to 1920 (World Employment Programme research working paper), International Labour Office (Geneva, Switzerland), 1976.

(With I.R. Phimister) Studies in the History of African Mine Labour in Colonial Zimbabwe, Mambo Press (Gwelo, Zimbabwe), 1978.

Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand, 1886-1914, Volume 1: New Babylon, Volume 2: New Nineveh, Ravan Press (Johannesburg, South Africa), 1982.

The Small Matter of a Horse: The Life of "Nongoloza" Mathebula, 1867-1948, Ravan Press (Johannesburg, South Africa), 1984.

The Seed Is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper, 1894-1985, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 1996.

New Babylon, New Nineveh: Everyday Life on the Witwatersrand, 1886-1914, Jonathan Ball Publishers (Johannesburg, South Africa), 2001.

The Fox and the Flies: The World of Joseph Silver, Racketeer and Psychopath, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 2007, published as The Fox and the Flies: The Secret Life of a Grotesque Master Criminal, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 2007, paperback edition published as The Fox and the Flies: The Criminal World of the Whitechapel Murderer, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 2008.


Charles van Onselen is a highly respected social historian whose area of expertise is the South African working class. As director of the African Studies Institute at the University of Witwatersrand since 1979, van Onselen has been part of a team that works toward achieving as well as documenting the history of social justice in the historically divided country. Van Onselen's most important contribution to the history of South Africa is widely considered to be documenting the lives of ordinary people, an outgrowth of his dedication to writing history from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Chibaro: African Mine Labour in Southern Rhodesia, 1900-1933, one of his first books, is an example of this dedication. A "caustic study," according to Andrew Roberts of the New Statesman, of black miners in Southern Rhodesia during the first third of the twentieth century, Chibaro describes not only how the miners were treated like slaves, but the ways they found to fight back. Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand, 1886-1914, van Onselen's two-volume collection of essays, contains "work of extraordinary insight and sensitivity," according to Richard Rathbone in the Times Educational Supplement, and sets the standard for the social history for the region. Van Onselen is also the author of The Seed Is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper, 1894-1985, a biography of a black South African sharecropper whose nearly century-long life coincided with the industrialization of South African society.

In the late nineteenth century, the mining potential of southern Africa began to be exploited, mainly by land owners from Europe. The mines in southern Rhodesia were poorer than those in South Africa, and the owners attempted to keep costs to the bare minimum by starving their workers, by housing them in crowded huts that bred disease, and by exploiting the system of chibaro, a long-term labor contract under which the miners differed little from slaves. "Most mine compounds were, in effect, prisons, and van Onselen aptly compares them to Soviet labour camps," Andrew Roberts wrote in the New Statesman. From this premise van Onselen proceeds to investigate in Chibaro the ways in which these workers exploited the system for their own benefit, either by joining together in unions, by occasionally striking, or by "loafing," that is, stealing back their labor from the owners. Published in the 1970s, "Chibaro is the first scholarly study of central Africa to discard the blinkers of liberal historiography," according to Roberts, by concentrating on the miners as workers rather than as members of a racial group, that is, by portraying them as victims of industrialization rather than of racism. "As the economic history of southern Africa comes to be written we must hope that those who do it share van Onselen's ability to write terse and lucid prose, … and his humane insight into the economic microcosm of the individual worker," Roberts concluded.

Van Onselen's two-volume Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand, 1886-1914, traces the development of South Africa from a pastoral backwater to a booming industrialized country in the space of three decades, from the discovery of gold to the onset of World War I. "Van Onselen's great gift is his feel for the rich diversity of group experiences," according to George M. Fredrickson in the New Republic, and this work collects the author's short monographs on the area's workers, grouped by occupation. Beginning with a brief, conventional history of the period, focusing on the mining industry and the changes it brought to the area, "the chapters that follow are mainly concerned with the non-capitalist human elements within or on the fringes of the world the mine-owners made," according to Rude. Thus, van Onselen focuses on cabbies and brick makers, washermen and domestic servants, prostitutes and alcohol dealers, and the black outlaws who fled the city's prisons and mines for the hills, and whose story provides the author's "last, and perhaps most exciting, chapter," according to Rude.

Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand, 1886-1914 was widely lauded for its historiography, and for the light it sheds on the everyday lives of the ordinary people who made their living in Johannesburg during the turbulent years between 1886 and 1914. While Fredrickson faulted the author for failing to pay sufficient attention to the issue of race—"Because he fails to analyze the nature and function of racism, van Onselen deals only inferentially with a major issue of South African social history," Fredrickson noted—he nonetheless calls this work "social history of an exceptionally high quality." "It deserves to be widely read, even by people who have never felt much interest in South African history," Fredrickson concluded. "These two volumes cannot be recommended too highly," enthused Richard Rathbone in the Times Educational Supplement. "They are on the one hand remarkably professional…. On the other hand they share with the best of the new social history an intense humanity."

Van Onselen's 1996 publication, The Seed Is Mine, a biography of Kas Maine, a sharecropper, patriarch, healer, and memory-man for a family for which no official documentation exists. Maine was a remarkably successful farmer, at one time owning numerous livestock, expensive machinery, and having the ability to loan money to poorer, white sharecroppers. But the gradual institutionalization of racism, culminating in the apartheid laws of 1948, eventually deprived him of even the marginal prosperity he had earned. "Given the opportunity, he would have made a great venture capitalist," wrote Vincent Crapanzano in the New York Times Book Review, "but as a black man he never had the opportunity." Critics found The Seed Is Mine richly detailed, and took particular interest in the sections of the book which demonstrate the fluidity of race lines before the enactment of apartheid, when the tradition of Afrikaner paternalism painted a more generous face on racism. While critics felt that the amount of detail might overwhelm some readers, "for those studying South African history, [The Seed Is Mine] is a vital contribution," the reviewer for Publishers Weekly concluded.

The Fox and the Flies: The World of Joseph Silver, Racketeer and Psychopath traces the story of Polish emigrant Joseph Lis (his name in translation means "Fox," which explains the title) and his thirty-year career as a petty criminal throughout the Atlantic world. Lis (who also worked under the noms de crime of John Smith and Abraham Ramer, in addition to Joseph Silver) left his native Poland for London in the mid-1880s, where he became involved in prostitution and the white slave trade. After exhausting his welcome in England, he moved first to New York and then to South Africa, Argentina, and back to Europe where he repeated the pattern. Silver finally disappeared from the record in the final months of World War I. Van Onselen suggests in his final chapter that Lis was actually Jack the Ripper, the infamous murderer of prostitutes in the Whitechapel district of London in 1888. Van Onselen "details known Ripper facts compared to known and strongly suspected aspects of Silver's life," Karen Sandlin Silverman declared in Library Journal, "and concludes that the circumstantial and coincidental evidence is simply too compelling."

Although they celebrated the author's accomplishment in documenting the life of a pimp across four continents, not all reviewers were convinced by van Onselen's identification of Lis as the Whitechapel serial killer. "The Ripper theory, argued in the book's last chapter, rests on a heap of circumstantial evidence, some intriguing, some overly ingenious," William Grimes declared in the New York Times Book Review. "To find it convincing, readers must believe that Lis was deeply influenced by the Book of Ezekiel, Chapter 23, and its warning to the whores of Egypt that their noses and ears would be cut off." "This may be interesting, but there is little in the record of Silver's life to suggest he was much of a Bible reader," stated London Telegraph reviewer Matthew Sturgis. "And quite why Silver abandoned his serial-killing spree to devote himself to a life of petty larceny and organised prostitution remains rather hazy. It is all pretty tenuous stuff." The Fox and the Flies is "a vast canvas painted in florid detail," concluded a writer for Kirkus Reviews, "but the climactic indictment certainly is not documented enough to persuade a jury or even an especially skeptical reader."



Biography, September 22, 2007, Margaret von Klemperer, "Silver, Joseph," review of The Fox and the Flies: The World of Joseph Silver, Racketeer and Psychopath, p. 710; January 1, 2008, review of The Fox and the Flies, p. 203.

Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2007, review of The Fox and the Flies.

Library Journal, September 15, 2007, Karen Sandin Silverman, review of The Fox and the Flies, p. 73.

New Republic, February 27, 1984, George M. Fredrickson, review of Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand, 1886-1914, pp. 37-39.

New Statesman, August 6, 1976, Andrew Roberts, review of Chibaro: African Mine Labour in Southern Rhodesia, 1900-1933, pp. 182-183.

New York Times Book Review, March 17, 1996, Vincent Crapanzano, review of The Seed Is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper, 1894-1985, p. 7; October 3, 2007, William Grimes, "Dogging the Footsteps of a Wanderer on the Low Road."

Publishers Weekly, January 29, 1996, review of The Seed Is Mine, p. 94; June 25, 2007, review of The Fox and the Flies, p. 45.

Telegraph (London, England), May 17, 2007, Matthew Sturgis, "Bad Enough to Be the Ripper?"

Times Educational Supplement, January 21, 1983, Richard Rathbone, review of Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand, 1886-1914, p. 48.

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Van Onselen, Charles 1944–

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