Peter Loubser Were Becker was born in Rivonia South Africa the youngest of the three sons of Harold Paley Becker and his wife, Anna Petronella Louw. Becker's early years were of great significance, for being born to middle-aged parents and being considerably younger than his two elder brothers, he spent a great deal of time with the black workers on his father's farm. It was in their company that his interest in the languages and customs of other people took root.
Becker was educated at primary schools in Rivonia and Rosebank, and at Jeppe High School, Johannesburg. He subsequently enrolled for a BA degree at the University of the Witwatersrand, graduating in 1942 with Afrikaans and Classical Life and Thought as major subjects. This degree was followed by a Diploma in Native Affairs at the same university, which he completed in 1945, with Zulu as major. Following his graduation, Becker taught at primary school level for several years, and was soon promoted to the position of principal at the FD Roosevelt Primary School in Johannesburg. On 13 December 1946 he married Connie van den Bergh. They had two sons and two daughters.
As a teacher he was known for his innovative teaching methods and for advocating the introduction of an indigenous language as a compulsory third language in the syllabus of white primary schools. Fluent in several African languages himself, it was during these years of teaching that he further developed his interest in the customs of others. During school holidays he set off to the rural areas of southern Africa to gather descriptive material on the various black peoples he encountered. This formed the basis for several of his published works. The first of these books, Sandy tracks to the kraal, was published in 1955, and was followed in 1960 by The peoples of South Africa: race studies/or Standard VII, written in collaboration with F.W. Strydom
After relinquishing his post as school principal during the latter part of the 1950s, Becker accepted the editorship of the black magazine Bona, and subsequently, directorship of the Institute of South African Languages, a business correspondence college. In 1959 he joined the staff of an advertising agency, BBDO (SA), which was geared particularly towards the black consumer market. In 1962 he became a partner in this large enterprise and was its chairperson at the time of his death in 1984
In addition to continuing his trips to rural areas to document customs, Becker had also begun doing research for popular historical books. The first of these, Path of blood: the rise and conquest of Mzilikazi, founder of the Matabele, was published in 1962. Rule of fear: the life and times of Dingane, King of the Zulu and Hill of destiny: The life and times of Moshesh, founder of the Basotho followed in 1964 and 1969 respectively.
During one of his trips to the rural areas he met members of the Zulu royal family, with whom deep and lasting ties of friendship, especially with Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, were forged. The particularly close relationship he enjoyed with King Cyprian was recognized after the latter's death when Becker was 'crowned' father of the Crown Prince, Goodwill Zwelithini, and by extension, father of the Zulu nation, at KwaVulindela ('the home of the pathfinder'), his home in Bryanston, Johannesburg in 1970. The name pathfinder had been given to Becker by the Swazi queen mother. At the coronation of King Goodwill at Nongoma in 1970, Becker was the only white person allowed into the royal stockade to witness and record on film the slaughter of a bull by the young men of Zulu regiments.
While running the advertising agency, and researching and writing three other books on the Black people of South Africa that appeared during the 1970s - Tribe to township (1974), Trails and tribes of southern Africa (1975) and Inland tribes of southern Africa (1979) - Becker was often consulted by industry on matters relating to Blacks. He also wrote a series of newspaper articles published in The Star, which were subsequently published in book form under the title The peoples of southern Africa: their customs and beliefs in 1971, and produced radio talks and an award-winning television series entitled The tribal identity.
A man of many talents, Becker's versatility also extended to the arts. He was an accomplished musician, artist and photographer, and secretary of the West Rand Arts and Crafts Association and the Johannesburg Orchestra and Theatre Movement. Becker, who was regarded as an authority on indigenous birds, trees and plants, was equally at home in the solitude of the natural environment as he was in the company of others.
He was a fellow of the Explorers' Club of New York and his interest in the life-styles of different people extended beyond South Africa. These included the inhabitants of the Indian Ocean islands (his book Mauritius '62, which drew on earlier work commissioned by an international commercial concern, was published in 1975), the Bedouin and the Indian peoples of the Plains and the south-western USA. In May 1984, while engaged in research for a book on American Indians, he died instantly after being hit by a car outside Florence, Arizona, as he was crossing the road to take a photograph. His ashes were buried at the foot of a memorial stone that Chief Buthelezi had erected on the site of King Cetshwayo's monument and kraal just outside Ulundi, KwaZulu. His last book, The pathfinders: the saga of exploration in southern Africa, was published posthumously in 1985.
Becker's works cannot be considered anthropological in the strict sense of the word since the whole thrust is descriptive rather than analytical. He nevertheless showed himself to be very much in touch with the needs of his time in his quest for knowledge of other people's languages and customs as a means of promoting understanding and communication in South African society.
In May 1984, while engaged in research for a book on American Indians, he died instantly after being hit by a car outside Florence, Arizona as he was crossing the road to take a photograph.
• Maureen Hall, email to SAHO dated 1 July 2013
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