Leo Kuper was born November 24, 1908, in Johannesburg, South Africa. After receiving his law degree from Witwatersrand University in 1931, Kuper practiced law until 1940, when he joined the South African Army. He served in the military in Kenya, Egypt, and Italy until 1946 when he returned to South Africa to organize the National War Memorial Health Foundation, which helped to provide health services initially for Africans, Coloureds, and Indians, and which was expanded later to serve whites as well.
In 1947 Kuper attended the University of North Carolina, from which he received an M.A. in sociology. After returning briefly to South Africa, he was appointed Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Birmingham in England. While in Birmingham, Kuper also directed a research project, the purpose of which was to help the city of Coventry recover from the destructive bombing of World War II. This research resulted in the publication of Living in Towns (1953), which Kuper edited. After completing his doctorate in sociology at the University of Birmingham in 1952, Kuper returned to South Africa as Professor of Sociology at the University of Natal, where he remained until 1961.
An active member of South Africa's Liberal Party, Kuper published extensively in the field of race relations while at the University of Natal. In addition to a satirical novel on the newly segregated universities, College brew (1960), Kuper published Passive resistance in South Africa (1956), and Durban: a study of racial ecology (1958), with Hilstan Watts and Ronald Davies, while teaching at the university.
In 1961 Kuper was appointed Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he remained until his retirement in 1976. While at U.C.L.A., he served for four years as the Director of the African Studies Center and also as a member of the Board of Directors of the African Studies Association. In 1965 Kuper published An African Bourgeoisie (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965). Based upon research and interviews conducted in South Africa in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this study of the black professional and mercantile classes won the Melville Herskovits Award. More recently, Kuper edited Pluralism in Africa (1969), and has written Race, Class, and Power (1974), and The Pity of It All (1977).