Renowned academic and teacher turns 80

By Jack Hoffmann

Renowned academic and teacher, Dr Leonard Suransky turns 80 on 2 December this year.

I first met Leonard in 1955 on our first day at King David High School in Johannesburg. We were two pimply youths plagued by the hormones of Mars and the vagaries of Venus. It was a time of self-doubt, introspection, physical challenge, and intellectual searching. We became close friends. Using pompous phrases, we had interminable discussions on the meaning of life, the fate of the universe, the dilemmas of religion, the intrigues of politics, and the mysteries of love and of lust. It was a time of yearning for identity, of clambering for a foothold on a sheer rock face that led we knew not where.

We have spent most of the following 63 years on different continents but we had exchanged electrons and left fingerprints on each other’s souls.

Leonard left South Africa immediately after matriculation in 1960. He studied languages in Lausanne and graduated BA in political science and English literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He furthered his studies in England at Bradford University and the London School of Economics where he earned an MSc in international relations and subsequently a PhD.

Leonard returned to Johannesburg in 1969 to take up a teaching post at the University of the Witwatersrand. His first assignment in apartheid South Africa was to teach a course on Marxism! During his tenure as lecturer in political studies at Wits, Leonard encouraged the intermingling of black and white students at places like the Anglican Ecumenical Cente at Wilgespruit. This oasis of brotherhood and enlightenment was branded by the then prime minister B.J. Vorster, as a “den of iniquity’’. These iconoclastic actions put Leonard under the scrutiny of the Special Branch. They were hot on his trail when he managed to sneak out of the country in the nick of time.

The following years were spent at the University of Ann Arbor, Michigan where his research and teaching focused on the Middle East and Southern Africa. He designed and executed simulation games around the conflicts in both of these areas. He won the Outstanding Lecturer award for the simulation game he had developed for his course on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Simulation Gaming was to become the keystone of his career.

In 1986, Leonard spent the summer contributing his ideas and expertise at Neve Shalom, a village in the foothills of Jerusalem where Israeli Jews and Arabs lived together in a unique experiment to promote peace, reconciliation and co-existence.

In January 1988, Leonard was offered a job at the University of Durban-Westville (UDW). His initial task was to separate the political science section from the department of philosophy. In his years at UDW he helped expand the department from 400 to 1300 students.

In 1994, Leonard spent a six-month sabbatical at the Institute of Social Studies in the Hague. Because of political unrest at UDW, Leonard decided to leave Durban and return to the Netherlands in 1999. He landed a job at Webster University in Leiden as head of the department of international relations. 

He received the Des Lee Visiting Lectureship in Global Awareness. Here, his use of simulation gaming as a tool for learning expanded and blossomed. In this field, Leonard achieved international fame. 

Leonard has continued to be academically active throughout his eighth decade. Although he retired to Sea Point in 2012, he was thrust back into action in 2014 when Webster asked him to establish an international relations department at their university in Accra, Ghana. This he accomplished with great success. He continued to teach there physically until 2019 and still does so on Zoom. 

He is currently the co-Chair of the University of the Third Age (U3a) in Cape Town, and the Chair of the Camps Bay U3a branch.

Leonard is honoured and respected by his colleagues. He is loved and admired by generations of students on four continents. His booming bass voice has taught them political science and international relations. His soul has taught them tolerance, compassion and humanity. But beyond that, his visionary spirit has given them an inkling of how the world could be if blessed with peace.

Across the geographic divide, we have remained friends for 68 years. Our phrases are now less pompous and we no longer discuss the mysteries of love and of lust, but we still have interminable discussions on the meaning of life, the fate of the universe, the dilemmas of religion and the intrigues of politics.

Dear Leonard, ad me’ah ve’esrim

You have long since scaled the rockface. Enjoy the view from the summit.

• Published in the October 2022 Digital Edition – Click here to read it.

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