Prof. Phillip Tobias
(PROFESSOR EMERITUS) PHILLIP VALLENTINE TOBIAS
About Prof. Phillip Tobias
As a young medical doctor and an aspiring biological anthropologist, Phillip V Tobias, became acutely aware of his responsibility to inform his fellow university students, his teachers and the wider South African public about the issue of race. He courageously warned South African political leaders of the dangerous path they were taking by resorting to classifying the population into racial categories, and to entrench such categories in law. It must be assumed, he argued, that their actions were based on a grave misunderstanding of the meaning of race. Tobias went to great lengths to proclaim this message to all “who had ears to hear”. His dedication and perseverance are evident from the numerous letters to newspapers, open letters to, among others, University Councils and Senates as well as to Academic Staff Associations, Members of Parliament, as well as other public figures and bodies. This he did in his personal capacity and also as President of NUSAS (the National Union of South African Students), beginning in 1948, but continuing throughout his academic life – until, in fact, a new political dispensation was being negotiated, apartheid abolished and the country had a new Constitution. This campaign, spanning over 40 years, is a remarkable effort by a single individual, demonstrating the values and ideals which Tobias cherishes and the tenacity and dedication which sustained him during a long and distinguished career.
One of Tobias’ earliest, substantial public lectures on ‘The Meaning of Race’ was delivered on 8 May 1961, to inaugurate a Seminar on Race organized by the Union of Jewish women of Southern Africa (Tobias, 1961). He indicated in his introductory comments to this lecture, as well as in the Introduction to an expanded version of it, also published by the South African Institute of Race Relations in 1972, that:
- [i]n a society in which the question of race has come to loom as largely as it does in South Africa, there is, I believe, a positive duty on a scientist who has made a special study of race to make known the facts and the most highly confirmed hypotheses about race, whenever a suitable opportunity presents itself. I should be failing, therefore, in my academic duty, if I were to hold my peace and say nothing about race, simply because the scientific truth about race runs counter to some or all of the assumptions underlying or influencing the race policies of this country. In no field is the need of guidance from qualified scientists more imperative than in this very subject of race”. (Tobais, 1972).
His sincerity was never doubted by fellow scientists and his scholarship remained (and, indeed, remains) of the highest order, bringing him recognition by professional bodies in this country and throughout the world. He brought the same dedication and commitment to opposing the total academic boycott of south Africa which was advocated, and implemented, by the Executive Committee of the British national organizing committee of the World Archaeological Congress scheduled to be held in Southampton in 1986 (Ucko, 1987, pp. 64-65). This latter stand could not have endeared him to more radical bodies and critics of the race policies of the South African Government of the time. Tobias argued cogently for “the universality of science and scholarship and freedom of participation by all bona fide scientists”, (Ucko, 1987), p.65). He never lost the admiration of colleagues in South Africa and elsewhere, particularly in the UK, USA and France, for the stand he took on this issue.
Into the Past: A Memoir
‘Never lose your sense of wonderment,’ I have repeatedly said [to my students]. On the other side of the coin, how sad I have felt, and how sympathetic, when I have been confronted, happily not often, with a student who is blasé, uninterested, beset with a closed mind. Such people are a challenge to the teacher and to the idealist, and when both are combined, as in myself, when the mentor is brimming with an overwhelming sense of wonder, it is doubly challenging. … The retention of my personal sense of wonderment and of enthusiasm has, I feel sure, played a big part throughout my life.’
Phillip Vallentine Tobias is arguably South Africa’s most honoured and decorated scientist. He is best known for his pioneering work at South Africa’s famous hominid fossil sites, and in the course of his career he has developed the reputation of being one of the world’s leading authorities on the evolution of humankind. He is also justly proud of his ‘10 000 children’, the medical and dental students he has taught at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Into the Past focusses on the first 40 years of Tobias’s life: from his troubled childhood in Durban and Bloemfontein to his intense student days at Wits University (where he also taught from 1945 until his retirement in 1993) and the prolific research, correspondence and travels of his early career. He vividly recounts his interactions with some of the great names in twentieth century science – such as Raymond Dart, Robert Broom, Wilfrid LeGros Clark and Theodosius Dobzhansky – as well as their impact on him.
Through his dedication to the people of Africa, Tobias opens windows on the San (or Bushmen) of Botswana, the Tonga of Zambia, and he recounts his role in the fight against racism during the harrowing decades of South Africa’s apartheid regime. The anecdotes, experiences and philosophies Tobias reveals portray a many-sided scholar and humanist, whose scientific achievements are matched by his love of people, teaching, books, theatre, music, travel – and tea and cricket.
With Pan Macmillan / Picador Africa 234 x 153mm, 320pp Publication: October 2005
Paperback ISBN: 1 77010 015 6 Price: R159.00