Francis Aylmer Hunter Wilson is the oldest son of the anthropologists, Monica and Godfrey Wilson. He was born in May 1939 in Livingstone, Zambia. During this time his father was the director of the newly created Rhodes Livingstone Institute. Due to political pressure, in 1941 Godfrey Wilson was forced to resign from his position and subsequently took the family back to South Africa. They settled in rural Hogsback in the Eastern Cape, thirty kilometers from Alice. Godfrey joined the Red Cross and unfortunately died when Francis was four. Monica Wilson returned to live with her aging parents in Lovedale, where she took up a post at Fort Hare College. In 1947 she was appointed the first female Professor of Social Anthropology at Rhodes University and, in 1952, Professor and Head of Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
The young Francis attended the English-medium Alice Primary School and later St. Andrews College, a private boarding school in Grahamstown. In 1957 he proceeded to the University of Cape Town where he obtained a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in physics three years later. At UCT he was exposed to a lot of Christian and socialist literature which began influencing his worldview. He mentions the liberal National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) as some of his circle of intellectual stimulation at university. He was also a member of the Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation (SHWCO). Wilson’s quest to understand South Africa’s racial dynamics influenced his decision to undertake postgraduate studies in economics. He followed family tradition by enrolling at the University of Cambridge where he obtained a Master of Arts (MA) degree in economics and subsequently a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). In 1960, before going to Cambridge he spent a couple of months in Geneva with the Calvinist family of Diane and Alain Perrot.
Towards the end of 1966, in the aftermath of the Sharpeville police shootings, the banning of major Black political activity and the consequent Rivonia trial, Wilson decided to return to South Africa with his wife Lindy, whom he married in 1964. The following year he took up the post of a lecturer at the University of Cape Town. He started getting involved in research while teaching economics, mining, and the dynamics of poverty, economic justice and migrant labour in the context of South Africa. In 1975 he founded and for many years (until 2001) was the director of Southern African Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) at the University of Cape Town’s School of Economics. During this period Prof Wilson published three pieces of hard-hitting and graphic research about the effects of the migrant labour system in South Africa. In 1971 he contributed a chapter titled Farming 1866 – 1966 to the Oxford History of South Africa. The following year, Labour in the South African Mines 1911 – 1969 was published from his PhD. He subsequently published the book, Migrant Labour in South Africa in the same year.
In April 1982 he was head of directed the Second Carnegie Inquiry into Poverty and Development in South Africa, an influential investigation into poverty amongst black people in Southern African In 2001 he founded an information and training programme, Data First Resource Unit. In the 1990s Prof Wilson was Chairperson of the Council at the University of Fort Hare and of the National Water Advisory Council. He also chaired the International Social Science Council Inquiry into strategies to overcome poverty and inequality. In 2012 he was appointed the Acting Pro Vice-Chancellor for Poverty and Inequality at the University of Cape Town. He organised a conference that launched the Scientific Committee of the Comparative Research Programme on Poverty.
Professor Wilson, a theologian and activist scholar has shared his vast knowledge with students for over forty years in the School of Economics at the University of Cape Town. Throughout his illustrious career he has been a visiting professor at, amongst others, Oxford University, Yale University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Princeton University and the University of Fort Hare. He has co-edited and authored a number of books, chapters and articles. Currently he is the national coordinator of the newsletter Mandela Initiative: Dialogue and action to overcome poverty and inequality.
- Francis Wilson: A heart on fire, with a mind on ice, University of Cape Town news
- Tribute to renowned South African economist Francis Wilson, The Conversation