Another Tribute to Lawrence Schlemmer - 3rd November 2011.

Professor Hermann Giliomee, one of Professor Lawrence Schlemmer’s fellow Vice Presidents of the Institute, delivered this tribute at Lawrence Schlemmer’s funeral service in Hout Bay on 31st October 2011.

For me Lawrie Schlemmer was first and above all a close and treasured friend en `n baie besondere mens. We co-authored or co-edited six books. He was a wonderful travelling companion.

Throughout his life Lawrie worked at a murderous pace, but it was only possible because his family sustained him. He told me how much becoming a father again fairly late in his life meant to him and how he tried to see things through Lucia’s eyes and how supportive Monica’s companionship was.

I want to speak on Lawrie as an academic living in a time of trouble in a country that poses great moral challenges.

As an academic he was truly committed to the highest principles and standards of academic life. He was on top of the latest academic literature on an amazing range of subjects. He remained fiercely independent in the analyses he made and the conclusions to which he came. Once he had made up his mind he stood firm, very firm.

For Lawrie it was not simply a question of participating in the public debate and expressing his view as a free-floating academic or as a pollster. About virtually everything he did there was the notion of duty – his duty as an academic, his duty as a co-director of MarkData, but above all his duty as a South African.
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It is so true of the man that the last words he spoke, about two minutes before he died, was: ‘I did my duty to my family and my country.’ He was someone of whom one could truly say that he lived in order to do his duty.

He was a pioneer in the use and refinement of opinion surveys and had a far better grasp than anyone else of the survey data that have been produced over the past forty years. Even more importantly, he had a better understanding than anyone else of how these data should be interpreted. He had what the Germans call “fingertips feeling”.

I would for instance make a general statement like this one: ‘Afrikaners in their mid-career are more likely to sacrifice Afrikaans in public and in educational institutions than other generations.’ He would respond: ‘No it differs from city to city.’ And, he would continue, ‘Afrikaners in Pretoria North differ from Afrikaners in Pretoria East.’

I recently read again through the transcripts of the interviews Lawrie gave to the Irish journalist Padraig O’Malley who every year between 1988 and 1998 interviewed the same 40 or 50 people.

What is interesting is how he challenged the views of political leaders in the 1980s and early 1990s. Surveys, he said, show that:

• few blacks supported the view of the ANC leadership that there should be simple majority rule with only the majority being represented in cabinet.
• most blacks wanted a form of mixed government rule in which the NP represented the minorities.
• most blacks did not abhor the NP, in fact most felt closer to the NP than the SACP.
• most blacks did not want sanctions.
• most blacks did not want affirmative action.
• there was among blacks much more support than among the educated elite for balancing the numerical principle with more substantial provisions for the inclusion of minority interests -- a second house, entrenched clauses, etc.

Uniquely Lawrie married an academic understanding of complex subjects with the hard realities transmitted by the results of opinion-surveys. He would quietly observe that, in actual fact, the volk or the workers or the masses did not quite want what the politicians or the gatekeepers said they wanted. If there was a conflict of opinion he would say: let’s find out, the data may well produce unexpected results.

Lawrie was happiest in analysing the data of a fresh survey. Flip Smit, vice chancellor of the University of Pretoria, told me this week that Lawrie gave him the best lesson in interpreting a survey. “Go sit in your room and just stare at the printouts. Some pattern will emerge in three days’ time.”

As Rhoda Kadalie asked last week: ‘Where shall we now get our data from?’

South Africa lost its most astute analyst when Lawrie died. The guild of commentators, opinion formers, and analysts is infinitely poorer. He was par excellence the man that punctured our glib certainties, our all-knowingness.

As a strategic thinker he was in a league of his own. When it came to reform he never confused what looked good with what was possible and necessary.

He was determined to retain his individuality, but he had one true institutional home: the South African Institute of Race Relations. It espoused its kind of tough-minded liberalism. His support for the Institute and his endorsement of the leadership role of John Kane-Berman was rotsvas.

His greatest scorn was reserved for those liberals who would rather not take a stand on issues that are vital for the construction of a South Africa in which people of different origins and with different heritages can feel at home.

Lawrie was a very rational man who fell hopelessly in love with South Africa both as messy reality but also as a land of hope and one with infinite possibilities. He believed in the idea of South Africa and in the ability of people and institutions to transcend their limitations.

Lawrie was rational, but, alas, the only thing he was not rational about was his own health and the damage his exhausting work discipline inflicted on his body.

The quality that separated Lawrie from his peers was his judgement, and particular his political judgment. What do we mean when we say Lawrie had judgement? Isaiah Berlin remarked that it was best to understand the nature of political judgement by asking what we mean when we say someone is lacking in political judgement. We usually mean that a person lacks knowledge of the rules or laws or principles on which society rests. Such knowledge cannot simply be assumed. One must go out and acquire it.

Lawrie knew that the beginning of wisdom is to seek the facts as they are. A biographer of Lenin once summed him up in a lapidary phrase: “Lenin did not know that he believes, Lenin believes that he knows.”

Lawrie Schlemmer possessed a critical faculty: unlike Lenin he did not believe that he knew, he knew he first had to find out about any topic on which he had been asked to pass judgement. He was no unquestioning believer or know-all academic.

He also knew that to replace one system imposed by ideologues with another is to embark on the march of folly. His advice was to establish what ordinary people wanted and what their reasonable demands were and to act accordingly.

In his last year or two he became increasingly gloomy about the prospects of South Africa. He was not cynical, bitter or alienated, but spoke more like a man whose love went unrequited.

I tried to comfort him with the remark of Jan Smuts after his electoral defeat in 1948 in a letter to his regular correspondents, the Gillett sisters in England. ‘In South Africa’, Smuts wrote, ‘the best or the worst never happens”.

But Lawrie was not persuaded. He felt South Africa had taken a fatally wrong turning. The potential to become a successful post-colonial state like Brazil was being squandered through reckless politicking, through greed, through the neglect or destruction of vitally important institutions, through wrong policies, and through the absence of any discernible political or business leadership.

For the first time Lawrie had no suggestions or ideas how to address our daunting challenges. There was an infinite sadness that I had not detected before. In the end Lawrie was not defeated mentally but his body was giving in.

Yet a few days after our penultimate conversation, he phoned to tell me about an assignment he had received from an institution, to develop a strategy for restoring organisational unity between the black and the white business leadership. He was interested and asked for suggestions about whom he should be speaking to.

Lawrie consciously lived a bi-lingual, bi-ethnic life. His treasured his different heritages. His mother was Afrikaans and there were Afrikaans ooms and tantes on the Transvaal platteland -- some were family, and some were not -- whom he often quoted for their wisdom.

The person whose leadership probably impressed him most spoke Afrikaans at home. He was E.G. Malherbe, vice chancellor of the University of Natal. We had endless arguments over the question of whether a young Jan Smuts after the Second World War could have put South Africa on a quite different trajectory.

He had strong convictions and loyalties of his own. He had three quaint traits: to seek the truth without blinkers, not only to have principles but also to stick to them, and the idea of duty.

His family and in particular Monica and Lucia, his pleasures in and around his home in Houtbaai, pottering in the garden, tinkering in his museum of cars, were the foundation, the focus of his life. Home and family sustained him.

He made an impression on almost any person that met him. The last time we had one of our extended lunches we invited the philosopher Johan Degenaar along to a restaurant overlooking Melkbaai in the Strand.

Johan Degenaar remembers three things: sy ruimheid van gees, his generosity of spirit, his intense interest in life and people, and his sociological approach even to mundane things.

The next day I asked Lawrie how he enjoyed the lunch. His reply was that while he enjoyed the conversation, the food was not very good. He added a sociological observation: ‘Never go to a restaurant with a sea view if you want a quality meal.’

Watching from somewhere above, Lawrie would probably deplore it if I were to speak no Afrikaans on this very sad occasion. We always spoke Afrikaans to each other. In 1983, when I decided to make the transition from the University of Stellenbosch to UCT he gave me the firm advice, almost in the form of an instruction: “Continue to be an academic who is an Afrikaner.’

Lawrie se vernaamste akademiese belangstelling was waarskynlik die Afrikaners en die kulturele manifestasies van Afrikaanssprekendes. In die middel van die jare negentig, toe ek aan die Universiteit van Kaapstad professor was, het hy my versoek om as sy studieleier op te tree vir sy doktorale verhandeling oor die houdings van Afrikaners tussen 1970 en 1998, soos gemeet deur meningsopname waarvan hy verskeie uitgevoer het.

Ek was oorbluf, want ek is `n historikus met geen kennis van die metodologie van meningopnames nie, maar hy het volhard, en ek het op die ou end ingewillig. Ek het baie keer hom gevra waarom hy besluit het om sy doktorsgraad te behaal nadat hy vir sestig jaar so goed daarsonder kon kortkom. Die antwoord was dat hy altyd iets wat hy begin het wil voltooi, ongeag die ander eise wat daar is. Ek het hom een keer gevra of daar ooit `n projek was wat hy nie afgehandel het nie. Sy antwoord was: Een oor vryetyd besteding in Pietermaritzburg. Lawrie het baie sperdatums gemis maar nooit versuim om `n projek te voltooi nie.

Hy het die studie teen my verwagtinge in enkele jare voltooi en ‘n doktorsgraad van die Universiteit van Kaapstad ontvang. In die teoretiese besinning het hom op die hoogte gestel van die jongste literatuur oor nasionalisme, etnisiteit en kommunisme. In die empiriese deel het hy gebruik gemaak van `n magdom van data waarvan die meeste uit meningsopnames gekom het. Ons kry `n meer volledige prentjie van die veranderings van Afrikaner-waardes, houdings en opvattings tussen 1970 en 1998 as in enige ander werk.

Wat my opgeval het in hierdie werk is die vernaamste kenmerk van al Lawrie se werk.. Ek sal dit noem: die nugter oordeel en akademiese besinning.

Lawrie se heengaan is `n ontsaglike verlies, heel eerste vir familie. As vriende treur ons oor `n onvergeetlike maat. Almal wat sy werk ken weet ons as land en samelewing is veel armer sonder sy insigte en warm menslikheid. *
 

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