|Johannesburg has an "outgoing personality" and a "stridency and toughness" about it. So says respected palaeontologist Phillip Tobias, professor emeritus of anatomy and human biology at Wits University, prolific author and researcher, and one of South Africa's most distinguished scientists.|
Although born in Durban, Tobias, 77, has spent 60 years in the city and thinks of himself as a Joburger, and is still "thrilled by the vibe of the city". For him Joburg is nothing like Durban or Cape Town where people are "laid back because they have the sea to help them feel laid back".
He describes Johannesburg as "not necessarily the most attractive city" but for him it has been a "tremendously stimulating centre" and Wits is a "veritable intellectual ferment for science, language and arts".
Phillip Tobias passed away on 7 June 2012.
Tobias's major focus as an academic has been on human evolution and fossil hominids. He has been in charge of excavations at the Sterkfontein Cave since 1966, where some of the world's major fossils, like Little Foot and Mrs Ples, have been found, and he has participated in almost all other major digs in southern Africa since 1945. He is the recipient of numerous international academic honours and professorships. He is the only person to hold three professorships simultaneously at Wits University - anatomy, human biology and palaeoanthropology.
In 2002 Tobias's Bodies, a six-part series on evolution and genetics, was aired on TV.
Being retired doesn't mean he's not busy. He heads up the Sterkfontein Research Unit, and says he is "busier now than ever before". He mentors post graduate students, several from China and Australia, and gets requests for conferences and lectures from around the world - last year he made six overseas trips and so far has seven lined up this year. And he's still publishing - 20 articles last year - and co-editing a major book.
Tobias came to Johannesburg to study medicine at the Wits Medical School -"there was no medical school in Durban" - and has never left the city. "I have chosen to stay here despite wonderful offers from around the world. I elected to stay here to fight apartheid," he says. And he's happy he's lived long enough to see the new democratic regime put in place.
He enjoys going to the theatre and music concerts, and occasionally going to the cinema. He's an ardent cricket fan, and managed to catch one of the World Cup matches at Wanderers in March.
On the subject of his autobiography, he says he's signed a contract to write it, but he simply doesn't get time. Besides, "I have a block talking about myself".
Tobias is excited by the Constitutional Hill development and new goings on in Newtown, but he laments the migration of people out of the city, which has become less people-friendly over the decades. "People have had to make way for flyovers and bridges," he adds.
Where does he get the energy to just keep going? "I have plenty of vital spirit," he says, with a chuckle