Thursday, June 14, 2012

R.I.P. x 2

I’ve met hundreds, perhaps thousands of people in my life.  I’ve listened to or watched at least as many.  Very few made an impression on me as deeply as that of a man who died last week in South Africa.
Philip Tobias was a true mensch and also a brilliant scientist and humanitarian. 
He graduated as a medical doctor in 1950 at the University of the Witwatersrand (affectionately known as Wits) in Johannesburg.  He received a PhD in Anatomy in 1953 and a D.SC. in palaeo-anthropology for his work on hominid evolution in 1967.  He held three concurrent professorships at Wits, and was Dean of Medicine.
In the world of science, he was best known as one of the world’s leading paleo-anthropologists, following the footsteps of the legendary Raymond Dart, and was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize.  His passion was to understand the origins of contemporary humankind through the study of hominid fossils.  He was largely responsible for the Sterkfontein caves near Johannesburg being one of the most thoroughly researched and important sites on the planet when it comes to understanding our ancestors.
I could go on for pages about his scientific contributions, but I won’t.  
In a recent article written after his death, the South African Sunday Times wrote: "He was a brilliant, unforgettable teacher who brooked no sloppy thinking or writing. His PhD students, in particular, feared nothing more than his blue fountain pen.

'You'd thank God it wasn't a red pen, because your thesis draft would have looked like a murder scene,' remembered a survivor."

Tobias was also an amazing humanitarian, and it was in this context that I first got to know about him.  While a student I was involved in the efforts to rid South Africa of the scourge of apartheid and the draconian laws that had been enacted to silence its detractors.  Tobias was one of the most articulate opponents of the status quo in South Africa, choosing to stay in South Africa when he could have accepted a professorship anywhere he wanted in the world.   
To this day, I do not think I have ever heard a better speaker, whether it was in a living room or in front of a packed auditorium.  And this is what had such an impact on me.  He was not an orator who inflamed passions by appealing to emotions; he galvanized people by appealing to their intellect.  His speeches were withering demolitions of the underpinnings of apartheid, leaving every stone of its foundation turned and destroyed.  His erudition was extraordinary, his language simple, and his message unassailable.  The only thing left for proponents of apartheid to oppose what he said was blatant racism – he had taken away every pseudo-rational argument they had.
It is also appropriate, as he is being laid to rest, to recount the role he had in laying someone else to rest.

Saartjie (SAAR-ki) Baartman was what was known as a Hottentot in the Cape – a woman of Khoi Khoi (Bushman) descent.  Probably born around 1789, she was a slave on a farm near Cape Town.  Because of her unusually pronounced physical Khoi characteristics – large backside (steatopygia) and an elongated labia, she was taken to England in 1810, apparently by an English doctor, William Dunlop, to be exhibited (as a freak, of course, and for profit, of course, of which she was promised half – which she never received).  She became known as the Hottentot Venus.
Her exhibition caused a scandal but, despite attempts by various organizations to have her freed, she remained as an attraction.  In 1814, she was sold to a Frenchman and performed for an animal trainer called Regu.  She was also examined by scientists and painted.  When the French lost interest in looking at her, she turned to prostitution and died in late 1815, probably of syphilis or smallpox.  Her brain and genitals were kept by scientist Georges Cuvier, who pickled them and displayed them in bottles at the Musee de l’Homme in Paris.  They were there until 1974.
In the 1980s. American scientist, Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and science historian, and one of the best-known writers of popular science, wrote an article called The Hottentot Venus, which gave some prominence to this sordid story.  This gave impetus to calls for the repatriation of her remains.
When Nelson Mandela took office in 1994, he initiated contact with the French Government to have Baartman’s remains returned to South Africa.  Philip Tobias was the main negotiator for Mandela.
After protracted negotiations, Saartjie Baartman’s remains were returned in January 2002 and buried on August 9, 2002, on South Africa's Women's Day, at Hankey in the Eastern Cape province.  Her grave is now a national heritage site.
R.I.P. Phillip Vallentine Tobias – you made the world a better place.
R.I.P. Saartjie Baartman – the world let you down.

Saartjie Baartman's grave
Stan - Thursday


  1. This was wonderful, enlightening, and disturbing. I'm sorry for the loss of such a good man, and great intellect. I'm also sorry for the maltreatment of a human being, one of many.

  2. Thank you for posting this, Stan. I am now in tears thinking of what was done -- in the name of "science" to that poor woman. Colonial thinking sure does distort human relations in so many ways.

    And seeing that Nelson Mandela initiated the successful return of Saartje Baartman's remains is quite something. And that it was done on South African Women's Day is even more meaningful and respectful to the women of that nation.

    Never having heard of Tobias, I now must learn more about this principled man.

  3. kathy d: as I'm sure you've picked up from some of my posts, I find the post-colonial attitudes towards Africa and Africans very disturbing. One does not have to have finely tuned antennae to detect the pervasive racism in Western thinking.

  4. As an avid reader of Stephen Jay Gould, I remember, from all those years ago, his account of Saartjie Baartman's suffering. Gould wrote often about evolution and his account of her life made me think that the human race has not evolved enough. Philip Tobias's life story, on the other hand, gives one hope that at least some of us achieve the heights to which we ought to aspire--to truly call ourselves human. Mandela is a case apart. He looks to me like an archangel.

  5. "He was not an orator who inflamed passions by appealing to emotions; he galvanized people by appealing to their intellect."

    Tobias would be proud of you, my friend.

  6. Yes, Stan. Racism is still pervasive in many countries, including in the U.S., as the election of our first African-American president has shown and the terrible attitude toward immigrants who just want to work and feed their families.