An American Pioneer in South Africa
For more than 15 years, architect and entrepreneur Kenneth Harlan Simmons was the role model for African Americans who wanted to live in South Africa.
Dr. Wally Serote, executive chairman of the Freedom Park Trust, South Africa's premier cultural, history and heritage institution, also met Simmons in the United States, but their relationship began in earnest once they were both in South Africa. Serote credits Simmons with helping prepare him for his present position. ''As our friendship developed, he was teaching architecture at Wits (Witwatersrand) University, and we started talking architecture,'' he said. ''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 the Freedom Park.''
Not long after Serote arrived to oversee the construction of Freedom Park, he asked Simmons to join him as a technical adviser. ''Ken took that very seriously. He always made constructive, positive interventions coming from technical aspects of architecture to the extent that we relied heavily on him. Many times he unraveled things which could have easily mystified us.''
Trevor Fowler, former CEO in the Office of the President of South Africa, shared many friends 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 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.''
These passions were on display during Simmons' last public presentation. He spoke at an education workshop at a Symposium of the South African American Partnership Forum -- a new organization founded by South Africans and Americans to recapture the unprecedented people-to-people exchanges and support that reached their zenith during the anti-apartheid era.
Simmons spoke of trying to help young black South African students at the University of Witwatersrand adjust to a mostly white environment that was hostile to them. ''They were often made to feel marginalized,'' Simmons told the crowd at the University of Johannesburg. ''They sometimes felt they had no right to be there.
''I did two things,'' Simmons said. ''First, I gave my students actual academic credit if they could demonstrate they were helping other students who were having problems. And then I would try to address their feelings of inadequacy. 'How many languages do you speak?' I would ask them. Almost always the black kids would say five, six or eight or nine.'
''Some of your teachers and fellow students who may try to make you feel like you are stupid -- at the very most -- speak two,'' he continued. ''Now tell me who is the bright one here, and who is not? To a person,'' Simmons concluded, "the students wound up responding: 'I never thought of it like that.' "
To which Simmons would respond: ''Exactly!''
Kenneth Walker is an independent journalist from the United States who has made South Africa his home since 1999.