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Thomas Karis (United States of America (USA))

The Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo in

Thomas Karis (United States of America (USA)) Awarded for:
His excellent contribution to recording the plight of the South African majority during the period of minority rule. His work remains a testimony to the vast disparities during apartheid.
Profile of Thomas Karis (United States of America (USA))

Thomas Karis was born in Minnesota, USA, on 21 November 1919. His parents were working-class immigrants from Greece. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1940, did one year at Columbia Law School then switched to a PhD programme in political science at Columbia. He interrupted his studies to join the army in World War 2 and was among the first American troops to enter Czechoslovakia as the Nazis were retreating towards the end of the war. He completed his PhD with a dissertation on Child Labour Laws in the USA.

He taught for a while then joined the Foreign Service, specialising in research on Commonwealth countries. In 1957 he was posted to Pretoria. Since he had attended Law school, he was assigned to monitor the Rivonia Treason Trial then in progress. He befriended all the lawyers (on both sides) and many of the defendants. He was hooked! When he was posted in 1959 to be chief economic officer in Liberia, he decided teaching would be better and he resigned from the Foreign Service.

After a few short stints here and there, he joined the City College of New York (CCNY) where he taught for more than 20 years, thereafter heading the graduate programme in political science for the City University of New York (of which CCNY is a constituent college). His main field as a professor was American Constitutional Law, but almost all his published writings were on South Africa, on which he was a walking encyclopaedia.

Karis and Gwendolen Carter met at some point and decided in the early 1960s to co-author a book about the Transkei (soon after Verwoerd proposed that it become an ‘independent’ country). They made two research trips to South Africa (in 1963 and 1964) and produced South Africa’s Transkei: The Politics of Domestic Colonialism.

During one of the research trips they also were offered one of the huge sets of trial exhibits from the Rivonia Treason Trial, which had ended in 1961. The defense lawyers were paying to store multiple sets in a warehouse, and Tom and Gwen offered to pick up the warehouse bill in exchange. They were also given one of the sets of the entire trial transcript. The idea for From Protest to Challenge eventually grew out of the Rivonia Treason Trial material. Volume 1 (1882-1934) and Volume 2 (1935-1952) were published in 1972; and Volume 3 (1953-1964) and Volume 4 (The Who’s Who) were published in 1977.