A builder of bridges

2010-07-19 08:25

For many, Professor Kenneth Simmons had become the father of the African- American community in South Africa – not only ­because he was 77 years old, or ­because he had been coming here longer than just about every other member of that group.

By the time Simmons passed away on July 6 after a two-year battle with cancer, he had become the essence and the example for African-Americans adopting South Africa as their homeland.

He would firmly but affectionately chide African- Americans – and black South ­African professionals – who foreswore the hiring of South ­African domestics. Simmons was also jealously protective of his adopted country. During increasingly infrequent visits to the US, he noticed that three weeks was about his limit before he began feeling “homesick” for South Africa.

He would also recall trying to dissuade some African-Americans from coming here. “Those bloods would be up to no good in South Africa,” he said. “So when they would ask, how was life here? I would lie and say, ‘No, Brother, you don’t want to live there. It’s awful, really bad’.”Although he came to South Africa to stay in 1996, he had visited many times over the previous years. The seeds for uprooting a full life in the US to move to South Africa had been planted many years before.

His appetite was first whetted by a staunchly Pan-Africanist family.Simmons’ father, Jacob, was virtually the only successful African-American oil company owner in the US during the early Twentieth Century. Jacob Simmons made several trips to West Africa to facilitate the entry of American oil companies there.

South Africa has overtaken Ghana as the preferred point of return for African-Americans living on the continent. An estimated 3?000 now call South Africa home. African-Americans have been coming to South Africa for more than 150 years – first as missionaries, then sailors, educators and later as persons of business and the professions.

In recent decades, they come for a variety of reasons, but most feel the pull of Africa as well as the push from America.Kenneth Simmons II, a prominent businessman of more than 15 years in South Africa, says this applied to himself and his father.

“We felt the attraction of wanting to contribute to a young, African democracy,” he said. “There was also the diminishing appeal of African-American life in the US.”Simmons first came to learn about South Africa from several expatriates living in exile in the US during the apartheid years.Willie Kgositsile, South Africa’s Poet Laureate, was one of the first South Africans Simmons met.

“I met Ken in the 60s, when he was a Professor of Architecture at the University of California at Berkeley,” said Kgositsile, adding, “He was seriously involved in progressive politics, especially those of Africans and the diaspora. He also was seriously involved in community development and establishing affirmative action for minority business in California. Involvement in the struggle was what brought us together. He saw the South African struggle as part of his struggle and I saw the struggle of African-Americans as part of my struggle.

“When I came back to South Africa on a temporary indemnity in 1990,” Kgositsile continued, “he was already here working on a community development project in the Eastern Cape. He told me he was going back to UC Berkeley to take an early retirement and come back to live in South Africa.”Wally Serote, chairperson of the Freedom Park Trust, also first met Simmons in the US, but their relationship began in earnest once they were both back in South Africa.

Serote credits Simmons with helping prepare him for his present position.“As our friendship developed, he was teaching architecture at Wits University, and we started talking architecture. Ken made me become extremely interested in architecture.

I didn’t know it at the time but he was preparing me for my new job at Freedom Park, South Africa’s premier ­cultural, history and heritage ­institution.”Not long after Serote arrived to oversee the construction of Freedom Park, he asked Simmons to join him as a technical adviser.

Trevor Fowler, former chief operating officer in the Office of the President, shared many friends in common with Simmons during his time in exile but only came to know him once he moved to South Africa.

“There were many things I came to respect and admire about Ken,” Fowler said. “He was a consummate professional who brought creative abilities to his understanding of architecture. “He had two overarching principles,” Fowler continued. “One was that he had a very passionate commitment about developing the potential of young black children in architecture and education generally.

And secondly, Ken was passionate about bringing South Africans, Africans and African-Americans together.”All three of those passions were on display during Simmons’ last public presentation earlier this year.

He spoke before an education workshop at a Symposium of the South African American Partnership Forum – a new organisation founded by South Africans and Americans dedicated to recapturing the unprecedented people-to-people exchanges and support that reached its zenith during the ­anti-apartheid era.

Simmons spoke of trying to help young black South African students at the University of Witwatersrand to adjust to what some felt was a mostly white environment that was hostile to them. “They were often made to feel marginalised,” Simmons recalled during his speech.

» Kenneth Walker is an independent journalist from the US who has made South Africa his home since 1996

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