THE death of South African poet and writer Timothy Holmes leaves a hole at the heart of research into colonial and post-colonial days in central and southern Africa.

Born in Johannesburg on

January 1, 1936, Tim Holmes was a rare breed of white African who spent most of his life reading, researching, and castigating his white tribal elders, and producing in the process some

quite remarkable, even unforgettable, poetry.

He fought apartheid in South Africa and discrimination in Zambia when it popped up under the guise of humanism.

His contribution to scholarship and a better understanding of nineteenth-century African history will be lasting and lies in

the shape of two seminal works: David Livingstone: letters and documents 1841-1987 (published in 1990) and Journey to Livingstone: Exploration of an Imperial Myth (1993).

In these works he tried to restore the much besmirched image of the great Scottish explorer and missionary. In the latter he wrote: ''If Livingstone was wrong in believing that his ideal (for Africa) could be achieved by the single Man of Destiny, wrong in seeking to

belittle and crush those he thought stood in his way, he was right in his wish to see the people free.''

Certainly, Holmes shared that final wish of the great Scot and was shocked and amazed to note that while imperialism fell away so easily after 1945, it took almost half a century to rid his own country of apartheid.

Like most South African liberals of the post-Sharpeville, pre-Soweto period, Holmes had two choices: to shut up, grow up, and make money under the system, or leave.

He chose the latter and in Kaunda's young Zambia embraced the cause of freedom. He wrote good poems, argued vociferously for independence

in white-ruled Rhodesia and worked tirelessly at the Livingstone Museum, which at independence in 1964 was directed by the legendary Dr Kafungula Mubitana who went out of his way to encourage the study of

pre-independence history, and opened the museum's doors to all people studying African life and culture in pre-colonial and full-colonial times.

While working there, Holmes found more than 100 unpublished letters, 20 of them unknown, written by Livingstone. The universities of Oxford and Cambridge helped him finance research in Portugal where he learned Portuguese to encompass important sources on Livingstone's travels in Angola and Mozambique.

The search for the hearts and minds of the great Victorian explorers is an ongoing exercise and Holmes was a pioneer.

He helped strike a balance

when it came to understanding

a complicated achiever such

as Livingstone.

His ''warts and all'' approach laid a foundation for further study, but I doubt it will be

at the rundown Livingstone Museum, once the academic home of so many great Africanists - J Desmond Clarke, D W Phillipson, Kafungulwa Mubitana, Reay H N Smithers, and Joseph Vogel.

Two years ago in the Times, Ishbel Matheson told how a priceless collection of books, detailing the earliest days of European exploration in Africa, was under threat of destruction. The building's leaking ceiling collapsed after one heavy storm and piles of ancient, sodden volumes were left to dry in the

tropical heat.

In despair, the tireless and fearless Tim Holmes said publicly, much to the anger of the Lusaka authorities, that the

once vital museum had been starved of funds because its collection was perceived by the new black elite as a relic from the colonial past.

''After independence came, what Zambians wanted to know most of all, was their own history. The colonial history was seen as an irrelevant burden. But trying to ignore colonialism is like trying to tell the history of Britain without the Romans.''

Last week I received a letter from the Livingstone Museum's new director who told me that his staff are ''still working round

the clock looking for support to finish the various tasks that are required to be done.''

He added stoically: ''The museum is limping on,'' words which I hope would have cheered Tim Holmes, whose ashes by now have settled over a part of the world he loved so much and served so well.