18 April 2010

Jack Simons, short biography

Jack Simons

Obituary by Dr Hugh Macmillan, in Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 21, No. 4, December 1995

The death occurred in Cape Town on 22 July of (Harold) Jack Simons, one of South Africa's first and most influential Marxist intellectuals. He will be remembered as a dedicated teacher, an original thinker, a lucid writer, and as a life-long fighter for non-racialism and for socialism. Jack Simons was born on 1 February 1907 into a large middle-class family at Riversdale in the then Cape Colony. He joined the civil service and worked as a prosecutor in the Ministry of Justice. It was this experience which alerted him to the essential injustice of the South African social system. While he was working in Pretoria he did his first two degrees by correspondence with the University of South Africa. He completed an MA dissertation on penal policy in South Africa in 1932. He then proceeded to the London School of Economics where he wrote a PhD dissertation in which he compared penal policy in South Africa, Kenya and Southern Rhodesia. He studied Social Anthropology with Bronislaw Malinowski, whom in later years he described as reactionary and racist', and African government with Lucy Mair. Fellow students at Malinowksi's seminar included Max Gluckman and Z. K. Matthews. He travelled in Europe in the mid 1930s, observed the rise of fascism at first hand, including Mosley's British Black Shirts, and joined the Communist Party of which he remained a loyal, if often critical, member for the rest of his life.

He returned to South Africa in 1937 to take up a lectureship in Native Law and Government at the University of Cape Town. He immediately became involved, together with his future wife, Ray Alexander, and her then husband, Eli Weinberg, in the revival of the Communist Party of South Africa which had been crippled by factionalism, expulsions and Comintern interventions. They were instrumental in bringing back into the party its veteran leader, Bill Andrews, and its foremost African member, Moses Kotane, who became general secretary in 1939. They also moved the headquarters of the party from Johannesburg to Cape Town, where it remained until its banning in 1950. Jack was also an active member of the Cape Town Joint Council and of the South African Institute of Race Relations, for whom he gave evidence to the Fagan commission on Native Laws in 1946. He was, with other leading communists, detained and charged with sedition in the aftermath of the African Mineworkers' strike of that year. He was one of the majority of the central committee who voted for the dissolution of the party in the face of the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950. This was a decision which he defended on tactical grounds. He quoted Lenin's advice that it was sometimes necessary to 'zigzag'.

For over ten years from 1937 he did intensive anthropological field work in the Langa Township of Cape Town. His invaluable field notes and research materials survive, but he did not write up this work. Political pressure, and the pressure of political work, may be a partial explanation of this apparent failure. It was, however, knowledge derived from this research which underpinned his penetrating analysis of South African society. He produced at this time a vast quantity of political journalism as well as academic articles and a number of substantial chapters in Ralph Linton's Most of the World (1949) and Ellen Hellman's Handbook on Race Relations in South Africa (1949). Meanwhile his meticulously prepared lectures had an influence on students at Cape Town which extended far beyond his own discipline. He maintained that he never taught Marxism, but it was implicit in much of what he said. He was an inspiring teacher and an effective exponent of the Socratic method.

After the banning of the Communist Party Jack played an active behind-the-scenes role in support of Bram Fischer in the Treason Trial defence, was detained after Sharpeville in 1960, and was finally banned from teaching in 1964. He and Ray went into exile in 1965 and, after a period as a Simon Research Fellow at Manchester University, Jack joined the University of Zambia as a professor of Sociology in 1966. His period in Manchester enabled him to complete his classic book, African Women: Their Legal Status in South Africa (1968). This was his most academic work and was a pathbreaking investigation of a then unfashionable field. He and Ray were also able to complete their joint work, Class and Colour in South Africa, 1850-1950 (1969), which appeared in the Penguin African Library. They described this book as 'a work of political sociology on a time-scale', but it was in fact a frankly partisan, though not uncritical, account of the history of working class political movements in South Africa. They were particularly concerned to discover what had happened to the radical white working class. Much of Jack's writing, including a monograph on health and safety on the mines, and a great deal of political writing, remained unpublished at his death.

Jack and Ray remained for twenty-four years (1966-1990) in exile in Lusaka. He made a significant contribution to teaching and research at the University of Zambia. He was also actively involved in Zambian political life, working with little success to shift the United National Independence Party towards 'scientific socialism'. His greatest contribution, which cannot be separated from that of Ray, was to the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party in exile, for whose members they kept an open house. Jack had first been in contact with the ANC when he attended its annual conference, with Ralph Bunche, in 1937. It was only in exile that he became actively involved in its affairs. He played an important role at the Morogoro conference in 1969, which opened the ANC in exile to non-Africans. His greatest contribution was in the field of political education. He spent long periods in the ANC's camps in Angola in 1977-1979, and played a very important role in facilitating the absorption of the post-1976 Soweto 'Black Consciousness' generation into the ANC and the SACP. Among those who were influenced by him at this time were the late 'Comrade Mzala' and Charles Nqakula (Peter Mayibuye), the present general secretary of the SACP. Jack was also deeply involved in the establishment of the ANC's Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College at Mazimbu, Tanzania. In his last years in exile he was the chairman of the ANC's Constitutional committee which drew up the blueprint for a non-racial and democratic post-apartheid South Africa.

Jack was passionately committed to the achievement of a non-racial and socialist society in South Africa. He lived long enough to return from exile in 1990 and to take part in the elections of 1994. He welcomed the Government of National Unity and took a long view of the achievement of socialism in South Africa. He had long realised that there would be no sudden overthrow of apartheid. Those who knew him sometimes found it difficult to understand how such a fiercely independent, critical, and often cantankerous, man could submit for so long to the discipline of the Communist Party. He himself said that he sought to combine absolute scepticism with total loyalty to the party line. Those who did not know him, such as the editors of Africa Confidential, sought to portray him as a 'Stalinist' and a 'party baron'. His defence of the Soviet Union's invasions of Hungary and of Czechoslovakia (though he did not defend the invasion of Afghanistan) may be held against him. He was, however, one of the few people within the ANC who regularly spoke up against the excesses of the security apparatus, a branch of the organisation which he held in contempt. He was capable of being dogmatic and intimidating, but he was far too fond of argument to seek to stifle debate. Jack, with Ray, worked for fifteen hours a day for most of sixty years to help bring about progressive change in South Africa. There can be few people who could claim to have made a more substantial contribution. Those who had the privilege of talking, and walking, with him will never forget the power of his mind, the scope of his knowledge, his astonishing capacity for work, his intellectual generosity, his idiosyncratic and irreverent sense of humour, but above all, the breadth of his humanity.

Hugh Macmillan
University of Zambia