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Ethics and scholarship: revisiting why I withdrew a thesis 49 years ago


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Ethics and scholarship: revisiting why I withdrew a thesis 49 years ago

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Chris Snelling
Raymond Suttner

6th November 2018

By: Raymond Suttner


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On 14 December I will be awarded a Master of Laws (LLM) degree by UCT.  This, as many media reports have noted, is 49 years after I first submitted a draft.  That it has taken so long is not due to laziness or “writer’s block”, but a range of political factors that prevailed at the time when I first presented this work around June/ July 1969, when I was 23 years of age.  It also related to how I believed I had to act in the circumstances.

When I was growing up my grandparents owned a hotel in Onrust, near Hermanus and the grandchildren would spend weekends and holidays there.  The Simons family owned a cottage there and I used to play or meet with the children of Jack Simons and his famous trade unionist wife, Ray Alexander. I did not know or pay attention to the parents at that time.  But I remember periodically that I heard that the police were looking for Professor Simons.  I somehow visualised a stereotypical bespectacled frail professor who was not at all like the fit, well-built and mischievous Jack Simons I was later to meet.


Before I became his student, I had spent one month as an articled clerk en route to becoming a chartered accountant.  How this came about was that some parents sent their children for vocational guidance, to be advised on their future career. Although I was a fairly serious person, I had no idea about what future career to follow. I had heard about accountancy and mentioned this to the person I saw.  He then concluded that accountancy should be my career.

It was not very pleasant spending one’s days ticking and adding and re-adding and subtracting and dividing and correcting wrong calculations, in the days before calculators. It did not take long for me to realise that this was not for me and I had a vague idea of doing a BA, LLB. I had studied Latin at school, because my father advised that it was necessary, should I ever want to study law.


In order to make this change my mother-who was studying social work at UCT at the time- had to see various UCT staff members and ask them to sign consent for me to attend their courses and this was taking very long. She was given the “run around” till she went to Jack Simons.  He first upbraided her, asking: “why do you force your son to study what he does not want to do?’  She protested that she had not forced me.  He dismissed the protest but just got on with assembling all the signatures that were needed and then I became one of his students.

Jack Simons was an exceptional teacher, Albie Sachs said at his memorial service at St Georges Cathedral in 1995 that he was one of the great teachers of the 20th century. I never heard his lectures in the MK camps that are famous, some of which are captured in the book Comrade Jack. (Comrade Jack. The political lectures and diary of Jack Simons, Novo Catengue, ed Marion Sparg, Jenny Schreiner and Gwen Ansell, (STE Publishers and ANC, Johannesburg 2001). I never related to Jack on a political basis until he was very old.  I was purely his student and later mentored by him as a young scholar

As a teacher he held us spellbound, not with oratory. He would not have wanted to impress in that way. He would lead you to the answers through probing questions.  I later learnt that a blind student, Herb Levin, who was my close friend, used to receive “extra lessons” with Jack and Herb later let me listen to the tapes.  He would take Levin carefully through the course and sometimes ask him questions.  One exchange I remember went like this: “What is custom, Mr Levin?” [silence] “Come on, man, you know it, you know it.”.  No time was too much for Jack to spend on teaching and nurturing others.

Simons had been a leading Communist, as was Ray Alexander, but when the party was banned, unlike Ray, he did not join the underground, some say because he did not want both parents risking arrest with no one to look after the children. (Raymond Suttner, The ANC Underground, Jacana Media and Lynne Rienner, 2008, pp 41-2).  He was nevertheless listed and banned. This meant he was placed under various restrictions and these could be made more or less stringent.

In 1964 then Minister of Justice BJ Vorster changed the restrictions and forced him out of the university.  As a young liberal in the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), I protested and shamefully, the University Council had very little to say. There was one fairly tame official protest in Jameson Hall. 

I carried on with my university studies and student politics and only reconnected with Simons around 1968, when I became a temporary junior lecturer in Comparative African Government and Law, which fell under the Social Anthropology Department, headed by Professor Monica Wilson.  Simons was the leading authority in customary law, which I taught and, in that year, his classic work, African Women. Their Legal Status in South Africa, was published.  I wrote to him and we corresponded for some years, with him giving me continued encouragement. When I first wrote I asked if he remembered me and he answered “of course”.  And he invited me to come to Zambia to visit, saying: “come whenever you like, stay as long as you like”.

In Lusaka Jack would work on his typewriter the whole day and after we had supper, I would help him with the dishes and we would talk.  In discussing some issues, at one point he said to me.  “Why don’t you publish it, in Acta Juridica?  Keep up the tradition!”  Now Simons had published a series of classic articles in Acta Juridica, and here he was suggesting that I could pick up from where he had left off.  That was a type of generosity, that I believe ought to characterise the conduct of all scholars, but especially those committed to social change and justice.  I may never have published anything without this encouragement from Simons.

There were obstacles that I did not really confront immediately.  When African women was published, I used it in my classes until Monica Wilson told me that I could not. She was correct because that was the law and I was not then engaged in active defiance. But it was a problem in that this was my most important source.  When I submitted an article, published in the South African Law Journal in December 1968, Professor H.R. Hahlo, the co-editor, insisted that I remove the acknowledgment to Jack Simons, i.e. that he had read and commented on the work.  Hahlo believed this could constitute an infringement of the law in that his ideas would then implicitly be part of what I produced.

I decided to try to bring the articles I wrote together into a Master of Laws. I was registered with Professor Donald Molteno QC as the supervisor. He did not know much about customary law, but he was a person whom I respected, and I set about my work.  When I presented a draft of the thesis to him, it went much further than the articles, but what alarmed him was that I quoted Jack Simons.  I should perhaps have anticipated this, but I did not.  He said that he was a representative of the UCT Senate and could not allow a work to be examined which quoted someone who was a “listed” Communist. That was illegal at the time.

I did not argue and said I would then withdraw the thesis.  Molteno was shocked and upset and said he thought that all I was going to do was put together the 2-3 articles I had previously published.  I do not mean this to be read as attacking Molteno. He and I were very close, and he acted out his own ethics as a liberal and an advocate, which meant he could not be complicit in breaking the law.

Molteno was a fine human being. He had been an advocate in the famous Native Voters and Coloured Voters cases contesting the removal of Africans and Coloureds from the common voters’ roll in 1936 and the 1950s.  He had also been asked by the ANC to be available as a “Natives Representative” in parliament, which he did with distinction, earning him the name Dilizintaba, which means “he who moves mountains”.

I was myself, like Molteno, a liberal then, although I was soon to become a revolutionary en route to imprisonment.  My position was very clear to me.  I was reliant on the writings of Jack Simons. His work inspired much of what I wrote, even though I did something different from his work. I could not simply appropriate his quotations as if they were my own work.

Jack Simons is a name that possibly few people in South Africa know today, yet he was famous in his own way. He was an early Communist who grew up in Riversdale and gradually made his way up as a scholar, completing a PhD under Bronislaw Malinowski viewed by some as the founder of the discipline of social anthropology, at the London School of Economics (LSE). During that period Jack joined the British Communist Party and was at one point expelled.  One of the key factors in his return to the campus, was a very South African irony- the intervention of the LSE rugby club.

When Jack returned to South Africa, he lectured at UCT and joined the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA).  He married Ray Alexander, who from the moment she set foot in the country engaged in trade union and Communist organising, for which she became famous. (See Ray Alexander Simons, All my life and all my strength, ed Raymond Suttner, STE publishers, Johannesburg 2004.) 

Jack became a leader in the CPSA and made an important contribution to its thinking.  At the same time, he pursued scholarship and writing on questions of government, sociology, social anthropology and African customary law.  With the banning of the Communist Party in 1950 his voice was officially silenced, though he continued lecturing at UCT until 1975

Simons was a very serious and meticulous scholar and teacher.  His students at UCT and University of Zambia know this, but MK soldiers also experienced this from his teaching in the camps, when he was over 70 and lived with the same hardships as the young soldiers.  No one who knew Jack would miss his mischievous streak, his humour and his willingness to question even established policies of the ANC and SACP.  This also imbued his academic writing.  In the beginning of African women, he distils the thinking that emerged from various colonial commissions:

“White South Africans of the last century resented the tribesman’s way of life. They complained that he had too much land, leisure and sex.  Instead of working for an employer, as was his proper destiny, he battened in ease on the labour of his wives.  African women, said the colonists, were hardly better off than slaves.  Tribal marriage and self-sufficiency were blamed for a scarcity of wage workers that impeded the growth of the colonial economy and disappointed hopes of a quick prosperity.”

His humour went with him to the afterlife, leaving instructions for his memorial that was held at St Georges Cathedral where Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika, the Internationale and Onward Christian soldiers were played to the gathering.

The thesis resurrected

After withdrawing the thesis, I did use some parts in teaching and in one or two publications, in Durban in the 1970s, where I was teaching as well as working underground. This was before I was first imprisoned. But generally, the thesis remained somewhere amongst my disorganised papers.  When my prison memoir, Inside Apartheid’s prison (Jacana Media, revised edition, 2017) was republished last year, Professor Dee Smythe saw a reference to this episode and asked whether I would re-submit the thesis. I did not have strong feelings and also was not sure where the thesis was. I was ambivalent because the thesis belonged to another phase of my life.  My wife, Nomboniso Gasa, encouraged me to look for it and submit it.

We agreed but it took some time to find, what was not the original but a photocopy of what had been laboriously typed in 1969, with three pages missing. They were prepared to submit it for examination despite the missing pages, though they wanted me to write some attempted reconstruction of what was in those pages. 

I did this in a new introduction locating the thesis in the present, asking whether it stood the test of time, which I believed (and the examiners believe) it does, though there have been important advances in the field, which were not within my understanding in 1969. 

What is the significance of this outcome?  I think it was very good that Dee Smythe, the co-supervisor, former dean, Professor Penny Andrews and the other supervisor, Professor Hugh Corder, undertook this process that has remedied an outcome that was caused, ultimately, by the impact of apartheid on scholarship.

Some people have said on social media that acting ethically is ultimately rewarded, even if it takes very long. I do not think that is correct. A lot of people act ethically and are “rewarded” with various disadvantages and hardships.  I believe we must act with integrity, wherever we are, not with the expectation that we will ultimately reap some reward.  We may, and we may not have the injustices we experience remedied some time later in our lives.  Many went into the liberation struggle with no thought of the rewards that preoccupy so many politicians today.  Many died in this cause.

In interviews with media and engagements on social media people have asked me why I had not simply used Simons’s work unacknowledged, as many others would have done or have done. This returns me to a question that I raised last year when I probed why some people had taken decisions, over Nkandla and similar issues, that amounted to a betrayal of the struggle to which they had committed themselves.(See Inside Apartheid’s Prison, introduction to new edition and  amongst others,  I argued that they had ruptured a connection with the oppressed, which had been formed in joining the struggle and making many sacrifices

But my argument has also been that ethics and acting out ethics does not necessarily attach to any specific political affiliation.  The same ethical principles that had led me to be a liberal, took me to the ANC and SACP, although in both of these cases their understanding of the condition of South Africa and strategies and tactics to remove apartheid were very different from that of liberalism

When I decided that I had to withdraw the LLM rather than use the work of Jack Simons without acknowledgement, I was not yet a revolutionary. It was not an act of defiance in a political sense. I just acted out what I believed was right, as a human being.  I think that this way of understanding ethical actions is important, where it is not necessarily linked to Christianity or Marxism or any other doctrine or affiliation to a political party.  No matter how “advanced” one’s ideology may be one may still act in a manner that is callous or lacks integrity.  That is why I fell out with the SACP and then the ANC. 

How one finds the resources to act ethically in every case, is not something to which I have an answer. But I think it’s important to burst the bubble that assumes that being a revolutionary in one’s understanding necessarily means one acts ethically (even if that is what one pledges to do).  One has to find the resources, in every case, and that usually means preparation, in order to act out what is right. I had not prepared to withdraw my thesis but there must have been something in my ethical development that readied me for that moment and enabled me to do what I still believe was right.

Resurfacing Jack Simons

I hope that my receiving this degree, withheld because of the former status of Jack Simons, will contribute towards a resurfacing of his work and it receiving the serious study it deserves. All too often it is ignored by scholars, despite his writing some very significant contributions, in many cases with Ray Alexander, on the history of the liberation struggle, African nationalism and communism.

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic advisor to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg and emeritus professor at UNISA. He has published widely in a variety of disciplines. Suttner served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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