Interview with Dr Allen Zimbler
For the series “Meet the Team” we spoke to the Captain. Our Chairman Allen Zimbler tells us about his diverse career, interest in the Bushmen and why Save the San is so important to him and should be to everyone in the world.
Question: What is your profession, background?
You can say that I have had four careers: I’ve been a psychotherapist, an academic, a business consultant and a bank executive - which I never thought I would be in my whole life.
I grew up in Johannesburg and I studied at the University of the Witwatersrand. In those days you attended the local university, as no one in my neighbourhood had money for residences, certainly not my family. When I finished my first degree in Psychology I did an Honours degree in Psychology and after that an MBA, which was a two-year business degree, also at Wits. After the MBA I taught at Wits for 15 years, first in the School of Psychology and then, having completed my PhD, at the Business School as a full professor and Head of a Department.
While I was doing my MBA I needed money so I worked nights at a place called ‘Hillbrow Crisis Clinic’; it was a place where people could walk in with troubles of any kind. They didn’t need to book an appointment or even give their name. It was a place for people with all sorts of problems; drugs, relationship, sexual problems, etc. They could walk in and there was no racial discrimination. I worked 40 hours a week or more at night during the second year of my MBA, and when I finished my MBA I carried on with that job while having a full-time job at the University during the day for the next four years.
Through my teaching at the University, I was teaching students about organisational behaviour, organisational development and strategy. When my students started finding jobs they would come back and say; you taught us about changing organisations, now please come and show us how to do it. So,I started a consultancy company on the side and my first client was a small company called Pick 'n Pay [now the second largest supermarket in South Africa Ed]. Soon after that, some young people came asking for help, there were six of them, and they had started a business called Investec, and became my clients for the next 35 years. We stayed together - even after I retired. [Investec is an international specialist banking and asset management group Ed.]
When I retired from Wits after 15 years, I was consulting full time. By then Caryn [Dr Caryn Solomon, Allen’s wife Ed.] was working full time in the consulting business. She came from Boston to join us and we did a lot of work in organisational development and helping South African organisations strategically to prepare for the transition that lay ahead, that we knew was coming. We did a lot of work facilitating understanding between black and white people, getting them to deal with the real world.
Our consultancy business ran for 25 years until we closed it down to enable us to go to London to help Investec - who were still our clients - to build a business in the UK. Both Caryn and I joined Investec in London and spent the last fifteen years of our working lives working full time for them. I joined the Board of the Bank in London, and was a member of the Investec Group Executive.
So that’s the story about my four different careers. We are now based in London, where we will probably stay.
Question: When did your interest in the Bushmen start?
The Bushmen have been a part of my life since I was thirteen years old. I went to a normal government boys' school in Johannesburg - not a very good one. In Form One we had to do a subject called “Race Relations”, which was basically apartheid brain washing, and we did a project about the various tribes of South Africa. My little group was given a project on the Bushmen. I was 13 years old and in those days we didn't have TV or the internet. All we had was a small local public library where we found two little Bushman pamphlets. We also went to the Central News Agency and found three postcards with pictures of Bushmen. We used the pamphlets and postcards for the project, which I still have in my possession, because I had the highest mark. The school project made me fascinated by these people called the Bushmen.
Safaris in Botswana
When I was still a junior lecturer at Wits University, I met an incredible guy called Izak Barnard who ran a small company called Penduka Safaris in Botswana. I went on a trip with them organized by the Institute for the Study of Man in Africa, as they said they were going to meet the Bushmen and I didn’t believe you could do that. This was in the early seventies and for the next 15 years I became a driver for Izak; driving safari vehicles taking tourists into the bush during my university vacations.
So in the bush I would help the tourists put up their tents and beds and make camp. After that Izak would leave me alone to spend time with the Bushmen, taking photographs and listening to their stories. That was the deal that Izak and I had. We became very good friends and he became my mentor in the bush. I learnt a lot about the bush in Botswana and we met almost every Bushman community in Botswana, in those 15 years.
I also learned what was happening with the Bushmen in Botswana in the Central Kalahari Reserve, which had essentially originally been set up as a kind of Bushman reserve; the intrusion of cattle ranching, and mining exploration, had drastic consequences for the Bushmen, who were unfortunate victims of Botswana's stunning transformation and development; they were marginalised and almost de-nationalised by the-then Botswana government. That was a terrible tragedy as far as I was concerned.
During the time I was working for Izak I started collecting books on the Bushmen. Izak had an old trunk full of magnificent antiquarian books on the Bushmen and I had never seen books like that before. When I asked him where the books came from he directed me to a bookshop in Braamfontein close to Wits University. That's how my library started. As a junior lecturer I didn’t earn a lot of money, but I had two jobs. I worked at night, I never smoked or drank, and I never went overseas. But I did spend money on books. So,I started collecting books on the Bushmen 40 years ago and have kept doing till this day.
Photographer David Bruce
When I was living in London, I met David [David Bruce, photographer and founder of Ju/’hoansi Development Fund Ed.] and bought his portrait series on the Ju’/hoan Bushmen of Namibia. When I saw David’s photographs I recognized that this person had a good relationship with the Bushmen, I could see it from the photographs - from the trust that was obvious in the photographs and the way these people were happy to have their pictures taken - because I had taken thousands of pictures of Bushmen myself. I never was a photographer and I started with a borrowed camera, but I did recognize it when I saw David’s pictures. The meeting with David was important for me, because I recognized a kindred spirit: someone who loved the Bushmen and wanted to do something for them. And that is why I got involved. It’s been my motivation from first meeting them, and buying David’s photographs many years ago gave me an opportunity to help the Bushmen in a meaningful way.
Question: So that is how you eventually became involved with the Ju/’hoansi Development Fund and you are now the Chairman. Why did you choose the slogan Save the San?
Save the San
I think all of us are of the view that the San - or the Bushmen - are about to disappear. They have almost been destroyed in Botswana, they certainly have been destroyed in South Africa, they don’t appear much in Angola, and in Zambia there is a tiny group that are difficult to contact. So, for me this group in Namibia is the only viable group left in the whole of Southern Africa. Because of the Nyae Nyae Conservancy and the fact that the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen are still allowed to hunt, means there is hope for the last frontier of this very important culture.
I feel strongly about this, because of all my years of travelling and listening, I know how much we can learn from them and if we are not careful we will lose all of these remarkable people. The Bushmen have lived in harmony within their environment for tens of thousands of years without damaging or destroying anything – there is much we can still learn from this unique group of people about how best to preserve our planet. That is why the Save the San initiative is fundamental and the Village Schools are the vehicle for that. It has to be done: this culture has to be saved.
Question: You explained why preserving this culture is important. Can you explain why education is important for that, as the Save the San initiative will focus on lower primary schools first?
I think what destroyed the culture in Botswana, is that young children were removed from their families and taken into the educational system, which by law they had to do. Countries pass laws that children have to be educated; in itself this is the correct thing to do, but if you take young Bushman children away from home, first of all they are at the bottom of the pecking-order of the different cultural groups, both in Botswana and Namibia. When the children go to bigger places, which are foreign and even dangerous environments for them, they are easily damaged or they run away, because it is just so unpleasant for them. I saw that in Botswana where young Bushman children were living in mud huts and in rags in the far corner of the school grounds, while the rest of the children stayed in properly-built buildings and were dressed in proper uniforms. This immediately set the Bushman children up for marginalization and failure.
The only way to do this right, is to take education closer to their communities - to preserve what is left of their heritage. In the Nyae Nyae Conservancy in Namibia, Ju/’hoansi communities have repeatedly requested education closer to their home communities, which means supporting lower primary village schools in the Conservancy. It is an expensive thing to do which is why we are doing it in such a way that they will become more than just schools and hostels; we hope they will become community centres, where the adults themselves will be proud to be with their the children and embrace mother-tongue education.
Mother tongue education is the only way you get a child into education with any predictable success. You have to start in the first few years with mother-tongue where the child feels comfortable and is held in such a way that they are not immediately put at the disadvantage of being taught in a language they don’t understand. I think it is fine that in Grades 4 and 5 English is introduced, because it is the lingua franca, but they need to start in mother-tongue, so they become familiar with being at school; literacy and numeracy are more accessible and attainable in mother-tongue. If we can do that, I think we will get more children to go to school and more children will be able to cope with different environments later on.
This would be a great start in helping to retain the culture and support the communities. Starting with schools in this way anchors the community, leading to the development of community centres, craft centres and other small business activities that will exploit in a positive and gentle way the incredible heritage of the Nyae Nyae Conservancy and its remarkable inhabitants.
That is why I think Save the San is THE most important initiative that can help the Bushmen, of all potential initiatives. This is the one we should be focussing on, this is the one that should be attracting funding, and this is the one that will work, because it has the support of the Ministry of Education, the support of the Bushmen, and it will find the support of people from outside that care about this extraordinary culture and heritage and wish to save its wisdom for posterity.
Question: Ending with the last question we have asked every one of the team that was interviewed thus far: What is your wish for the future? And in your case - as a proud grandfather of four grandsons - what is your wish for your grandchildren?
My wish for my grandsons and any other grandchildren that we might be blessed by, would be that there is an Earth still intact, where they can still enjoy its magnificence and get to learn about the many species of plants, animals and insects that have not yet been destroyed. Seriously, that is my wish for my grandchildren - that the planet survives and that they can learn its mystery and its magic in the environment that the Bushmen have learned to understand, which is their natural environment. Let us not destroy everything we have been given and damage this planet to such an extent that we deplete its natural resources. That is my biggest concern and I hope we are able to do that.