Charles Simkins remembered

RW Johnson writes on the life of a great South African liberal

I first heard of Charles Simkins at Oxford. I was friendly with the two Politics tutors at Balliol College, Steven Lukes and Bill Weinstein and often used to lunch with them there. Thanks to its stellar reputation in PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics), Balliol always attracted a record number of often wonderful PPE applicants. (The phrase most associated with Balliol has always been “effortless superiority”.)

Sometimes at lunch Bill and Steven would mention a particularly outstanding student. I remember them mentioning Charles Simkins in that regard. Like my own college, Magdalen, Balliol attracted many Rhodes Scholars and Charles had arrived on that ticket, having graduated from Wits where he’d also served on the SRC.

Like another Balliol South African, Martin Legassick, Charles had initially started as a physicist but had then been captivated by the social sciences. I use that phrase deliberately because Charles was a true PPE man, fascinated by all three subjects. He could as easily have been a sociologist, a philosopher or a political scientist as the economist he became. He was, too, no slouch as a demographer.

I only got to know Charles later and was immediately struck by the subtlety and complexity of his intelligence. In analysing any subject he would juggle a large number of factors which were very different in kind, showing the same sort of subtle appreciation as would have been employed by specialists in any one of half a dozen disciplines. In my experience people with such minds are rare birds indeed.

I had known academics at Oxbridge, Harvard and Stanford who were clearly Charles’s intellectual inferior and I was struck by the fact that Charles had not ventured into those pastures, as he undoubtedly could have. Instead, he never seems to have hesitated about returning to South Africa where he spent his life struggling for the liberal cause against the tide.

Under apartheid Charles’s work for black trade unions earned him a banning order and restriction to a small geographic area but he never spoke of this or laid claim to any role in the struggle. He was a quiet, modest and very gentle man, entirely without personal political ambition. It was something of a surprise to learn that he was a High Church Anglican and I suspect that, like many South African liberals, he was influenced by the missionary tradition and saw opposition to apartheid as a moral imperative rather than a political act.

Charles passed through Oxford in early 1995 and dined with me in Magdalen. I told him I was thinking of coming back out to South Africa to re-found the Helen Suzman Foundation. He encouraged me but warned me that I would face an ideologically hostile climate – “The ANC and the Nats both hate liberals. You may not last long.” This was indeed the truth and I often thought of that conversation in the six years that followed.

Having taught in a number of South African universities, Charles ended up as the Helen Suzman professor of economics at Wits. But in the New South Africa the English-speaking universities had become tricky ground.

Charles’s department included a non-South African black lecturer who neglected his teaching so that Charles frequently had to step in to fill the gaps with extra lectures. This man then put in for promotion. Charles understandably turned this down but was then accused of racism by the angry lecturer.

The vice-chancellor then summoned Charles, prejudged the case by threatening Charles with dire reprisals – and then set up an enquiry. The enquiry found that Charles, though not a racist, had “missed opportunities for transformation”. As so often in such cases, the incident was a huge cause of nervous strain for Charles and permanently cast a shadow over him in the eyes of many students. It was an absurd inversion of justice.

I talked to Charles not long after this. He told me he had responded by ensuring that he taught only technical economics at Wits, avoiding all exploration of any wider issues. In this way he could avoid all mention of anything that might be deemed political or, worse still, “controversial”.

Instead, he worked on the real debates, controversies and interesting questions purely for off-campus organizations like the SAIRR, the Helen Suzman Foundation and other NGOs. This meant, of course, that Wits had become a complete negation of what a university ought to be. “On every corridor there is someone acting as an ideological commissar”, Charles said.

For this reason Charles soon resigned from Wits in order to teach at St Augustine’s (Roman Catholic) college. That a leading scholar should give up a prestigious chair at Wits for a post at a much smaller and less prestigious college speaks volumes. The point was that at St Augustine’s there was still academic freedom. Happily, Charles was then able to devote himself to his research post at the Helen Suzman Foundation, which he found highly congenial.

For the last decade of his life Charles devoted himself to the care of his seriously ill wife, Rae. He was a completely unselfish man and never complained. Then, in the last year, he became seriously ill himself, emerging from the ICU only in time to see Rae die. In his last few weeks he was prone to hallucinations. Once he told a friend that he had just been enjoying “a wonderful conversation with Bill Johnson”.

I wish that had indeed been the case but even so, I treasure the thought and the story. Charles not only had a magnificent intellect. He was a lovely man with almost all the virtues and, as far as I could see, none of the vices at all. While I live, I shall miss him.