Obituaries: Professor Jack Simons

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Jack Simons was one of the greatest teachers of the 20th century. As a lecturer in African Studies at the University of Cape Town from 1937 until he was banned from teaching in South Africa in 1965 and by way of his lectures and writings in his subsequent exile, all the enlightenment of the century flowed through him - into the freedom movement of South Africa and beyond.

The legend started, as far as my generation is concerned, with his classes at Cape Town from the late 1930s onwards. The subject he was given to teach was called Native Law and Administration. Its objective had been to impart just enough knowledge of traditional African law and custom to enable a class of Native Adminstrators to emerge. Jack Simons turned the class inside out. Instead of being an instrument for maintaining and justifying denomination, he converted it into a means of subverting what had been almost unconscious and somnambulistic white intellectual hegemony.

He introduced generations of students to the subtleties and the rigour of traditional African law, setting it in the context of evolving African society. In those days, there was civilisation, and the rest. Knowledge was about civilisation and the means of controlling the rest. Through Simons we learnt that African society had strong codes of social morality, organized forms of government and sophisticated means of dispute resolution.

It was not only white students who were for the first time being introduced to the rich textures of African culture. The few African students who were able to get to the university responded enthusiastically to hearing the societies from which they sprang being described with dignity and included in the realms of legitimate knowledge.

Yet it was not simply or even primarily the content of the courses that ensured that all Simons's lectures were packed out, so that even students not doing his subject attended in large numbers. It was his method of teaching. He posed hard questions and drew everybody into the debate.

In those days the word apartheid had just emerged and was being used as the foundation of all government legislation. We derided it, dismissed it as a reactionary smoke-screen for naked oppression. For this Simons criticised us severely. He particularly resisted the notion of apartheid's being dismissed as some form of Afrikaner disease. He felt the idea had to be challenged at the level of ideas, and not simply through mockery of the Afrikaner community. He demanded that the students think about all of the alternatives.

How could South Africans of varied cultures and backgrounds live together in one country? The answer could not be found in slogans. He forced us to examine all major systems of government to be found in different parts of the world and to look at the principles on which they were based. He invited supporters of apartheid to stand up in class and articulate as scientifically and logically as possible their position. He then called upon opponents to criticise with equal scientific rigour. He refused to allow slogans and platitudes to be used. He pushed us into examining every belief we had, not necessarily with a view to refuting it but often to be able to substantiate it with solid arguments.

At the same time many of us were attending study classes at his home. For those who feel that the rainbow nation somehow emerged miraculously after 27 April last year, they should have been at the house of Jack and Ray Simons 40 years ago. There they would have seen the nascent rainbow, people of all backgrounds, talking, arguing, discussing, dreaming into the future. He forced us to prepare presentations and to criticise each other.

Knowledge to him was not established information laboriously imbibed. Knowledge was combat, dialogue, interaction. He was as interested in the knowledge of a poor petrol-pump attendant who had worked his way, garage by garage, from the Transkei to Cape Town, as he was in the path-breaking anthropology of his close colleague Professor Monica Wilson. His ideas deserved to reach a much wider audience, yet their main benefit accrued to those who slipped comfortably into white society, remembering fondly their days at UCT and especially their classes with Jack Simons.

In appropriate fashion, the story turned on its head some decades later. Banned and jailed at home for his association with the South African Communist Party and African National Congress politics in Cape Town, he went into exile in 1965, and was able to publish pioneering work on the legal status of African women, and, with his wife Ray Alexander, Class and Colour in South Africa 1850-1950 (1969), the story of the making of the resistance movement in South Africa.

Then, after a short stay at Manchester University, and many years lecturing on and off the campus as Professor at the University of Zambia, the ageing and experienced Simons began a series of lectures in the ANC military camps in Angola, and was placed in the middle of the fiery young Black Consciousness generation, who had left South Africa after the uprising of 1976 to acquire the means of liberating their country.

Through Simons and others, these young people discovered that the key to liberation lay more in books and ideas that reached the intuitions and life experiences of ordinary people than in guns that were trained on the enemy. The combination of his brilliant teaching technique and their ardour produced one of the strongest ingredients of the growing democracy that we have in South Africa today. His style of seeking truth through debate fitted well both into the African oral tradition and into the fierce arguments that characterised the youth upsurge of the late 1970s.

Simons's deep respect for and knowledge of African history and culture, fused with his vast understanding of human societies all over the globe, helped the youthful combatants to break out of the intellectual isolation in which they had grown up, and to see themselves as part of the quest of all humankind for a more moral, decent and fair life. It need not have been so. We could have ended up with a generation of tunnel- visioned fanatics, blindly loyal to whoever commanded them, obedient only to slogans and incapable of the independent thought so vital in this phase of transition.

His classes in the bush became so legendary that the South African military gave him the highest award any professor could ever receive, a special bomber to blast the camp where his seminars were given: an honour, I am happy to say, that he and his students received in absentia.

Why do many of us insist he was one of the greatest teachers of the 20th century? He would have derided the idea as meaningless and incapable of substantiation.

It is not just the way he influenced so many individuals. It was the impact he had on the culture of a people. The new South African Constitution requires that the values of an open and democratic society should be nurtured. Simons fought all his life both for openness and democracy. His intellectual rigour, the honesty of his person, the sweep of his information, the humanity of his vision and interactiveness and the vitality of his ideas, imprinted themselves on the generation that fought hardest for liberty and made the most direct contribution to achieving the new constitutional order.

The Jack Simons method has become part of the dialogue and truth-seeking of the whole South African nation. The so-called miracle that we are all living through in South Africa is really the product of the multiple efforts of reason, will and belief of millions of people. Right at the heart of it all, unafraid of rationalism and unembarrassed by altruism, urging us to discover the truth of our lives and of the world we live in, was Jack Simons.

Albie Sachs

Harold Jack Simons, scholar and activist: born Riversdaal, Cape Province, South Africa 1 February 1907; married 1941 Ray Alexander (one son, two daughters); died 22 July 1995.