Monica Wilson's parents, Scots Presbyterian missionaries, emigrated to Lovedale at the end of the 19th century; Monica was born there on January 3, 1908. From relatively humble beginnings as a missionaryÁ¢'s daughter in Lovedale, Monica Hunter Wilson went on to read History and Anthropology at Girton College, Cambridge, and graduated with a Ph.D. from Cambridge at the age of 26.
She married Godfrey Wilson in 1935. They had two daughters and two sons. Her Pondoland book, Reaction to Conquest, was immediately proclaimed a classic. Shortly after marrying, she spent three years in the field in western Tanzania just north of Lake Malawi, where she and her husband became thoroughly fluent in the Nyakyusa language and energetically assembled a rich collection of ethnographic data. Their exhaustive joint fieldwork was written up by Monica in four volumes published during the 1950s, delayed as it had been by her husband’s tragic death at the end of the Second World War.
Monica and her husband Godfrey did fieldwork together in Nyakyusa, Ngonde, and Tanganyika from 1935 to 1938. Monica revisited these places in 1955 and then published Good Company: A Study of Nyakyusa Age-Village. Monica wrote another monograph on this topic in 1977 called For Men and Elders. Monica and her husband wrote a joint essay called The Analysis of Social Change in 1945, which was an analysis of social change in colonial Africa. In 1947, Monica was appointed Professor of Social Anthropology at Rhodes University in Grahamstown.
Monica took up her first university post at Fort Hare in 1946 and two years later she took up a position at Rhodes, the first woman to be appointed as a full professor at a South African university. During this period, she participated in the Keiskammahoek Rural Survey, which produced three volumes on rural life, livelihoods and land tenure in the former Ciskei.
After completing this study, she took up a post at the University of Cape Town in 1952. This remained her intellectual home until her retirement in 1973. During this period she produced the three books on the Nyakyusa (1951, 1956, 1958, 1959), co-authored a study on Langa with Archie Mafeje (1965) and worked with Leonard Thompson to produce the landmark Oxford History of South Africa (1968, 1970) in two volumes.
Wilson studied several different areas including the traditions associated with the wedding cake and its introduction to African society. She also studied the education and enculturation of the children there. Two tribes she worked with were the Nguni and the Ndembu. While with the Nguni tribe, she focused more on the entire society. Traditions and rituals were two interesting areas for Wilson, who said "Rituals reveal values at their deepest level...it is the values of the group that are revealed. I see in the study of rituals the key to an understanding of the essential constitution of human societies." Along with wedding rituals she studied the society as a whole.
Monica developed an international reputation as an anthropologist and lectured all over the world. In 1952 she won a Rivers Memorial Medal for socio-anthropological fieldwork in Southern Africa. Besides her fieldwork, Monica published a book titled Religion and the Transformation of Society: A Study In Social Change in Africa.
She was a distinguished scholar and Head of Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cape Town from 1952 to 1973. Monica dispelled many myths about African society that had arisen from racially based history and anthropological writings, particularly regarding colonial rule and the justification for apartheid.
The work of Monica Wilson has left an enormous legacy in South African anthropology and history, and the field of African studies more generally. The quality of her fieldwork, her fluency in the languages of her respondents, her eye for detail, her unique insights into the position of women in African society, and her commitment to documenting social and cultural change in Southern and Central Africa remain exemplary. Since her death, historians and anthropologists that have either developed or revisited key research sites and themes in her central and southern African ethnography reflect the continuing influence of her work in a growing number of studies.
Monica also edited Professor ZK Matthews’ biography. He died in 1968 before he could finish his autobiography when his wife, Frieda Matthews, asked Monica to prepare it for publication. Published in 1981 under the title Freedom For My People, Monica completed the memoir by adding some chapters to it.
Monica Hunter Wilson's groundbreaking research work in indigenous communities in the Eastern Cape, and her immersion in the cultures and languages of these communities, is a clear illustration that she did not see her role as an academic detached from the day to day reality of ordinary people.
Wilson is regarded as one of the heroines of South Africa's intellectual history. Her name appears in the African National Congress's list of 100 foremost heroes/ heroines of the Eastern Cape alongside legendary figures such as Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Oliver Tambo, and Govan Mbeki.
Monica Wilson retired to Hogsback where she passed away on 26 October 1982.