Eminent sociologist and political analyst Professor Lawrence Schlemmer was born in Pretoria, Transvaal (now Gauteng) on 11 September 1936. After matriculating at Pretoria Boys High, he studied art under Walter Battiss at the University of Pretoria.
Schlemmer then went on to study sociology and social work at the University of Pretoria from where he graduated with an Honours degree in the Arts in 1960. Shortly after, he joined the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) as a lecturer in sociology before joining Natal University (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal). As professor and dean of social sciences, he established and managed the Centre for Social and Development Studies (CSDS). He graduated with a Doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Cape Town in 1999.
Schlemmer was said to have possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of South African sociology, politics, economics and anthropology. His efforts to help unionise Black workers won him the support of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) from 1975, who asked Professor Schlemmer to direct the Inkatha Institute.
Around 1979-80, Schlemmer arrived at CSDS to find the Security Police waiting for him: they wanted access to the office of one of his Black researchers. They explained that the researcher was an uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) member. They had no warrant but threatened to get one if Schlemmer refused to open up the office. He bargained with them. He would open the office if they would let him be present while they searched it.
Schlemmer opened the office and the police found damning evidence inside. The Security Police demanded to know where the researcher was. He stated that his colleague had no phone and that they would have to wait until Monday when he came in to work. Once the police had gone, he phoned the researcher from a call box and advised him to leave the country immediately.
Not long after this, Schlemmer received a message smuggled in from the researcher, now an MK exile in Lusaka. “You tipped me off”, he said, “now I'll return the favour.” Apparently his comrades were very angry with Buthelezi and wanted to kill him. They were also talking of coming to kill Schlemmer because of his association with Chief Buthelezi. His attitude was that one could not run one’s life on the basis of death threats and therefor he simply ignored it.
Schlemmer’s association with Chief Buthelezi made the sociologist a political target. His university office was burnt down (allegedly by radicals on the Natal University campus). He was too late to save his vast and irreplaceable collection of books and papers which had all been destroyed.
Schlemmer got word that his home was also on fire. Fortunately his wife, Monica, was not inside. Nevertheless, his home was completely destroyed. It was an obvious case of simultaneous arson. The next day it was observed that a leading campus radical, who had frequently denounced Schlemmer, was missing. It was universally assumed that this person was the culprit and that he had fled into exile.
Under death threat, Schlemmer left Durban after 20 years and returned to Johannesburg to chair the Centre for Policy Studies at Wits.
His various roles included founding member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, President of the South African Political Studies Association and the Association for Sociology in Southern Africa. Schlemmer was Vice-President of the Human Sciences Research Council and of the South African Institute of Race Relations, strategic director of the Urban Foundation, director of the surveying company Markdata and a consultant to the Centre for Development and Enterprise.
He was a research associate of the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute (Germany) and he authored or co-authored more than 300 publications and 15 books.
From 2001 to 2005, he was the Director of the Helen Suzman Foundation.
Professor Lawrence Schlemmer died in Cape Town on 26 October 2011, aged 75. His wife Monica, a son, Julian, and a daughter, Lucia, survive him.