Profile: Professor Adam Habib

Born:    1965, Pietermaritzburg

Marital status:    Married to Fatima Habib, the anchor in his life. They met at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, during their student years (1983?1988). They have two sons, Irfan (10) and Zidaan (6). His sons play an important role in Adam?s life as he focuses his energies on the nature of the future society and the environment they will be living in one day.

Mother tongue:    English

Qualifications:    A PhD and a MPhil in Political Science from the Graduate School, City University of New York, an MA (Political Science) from the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg

Relaxation:    Swimming, playing TV games with his kids, and having lunch with Fatima.
Current reading:    In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, by Christopher de Bellaigue.

Think of Adam Habib as the guy with the loudhailer. With a voice like a foghorn, charismatic vigour and sharp intellect, he could very well have been a rabble-rouser or a revolutionary. Instead, he chose to become an academic; a participant in ?the contest of ideas? with an aptitude for institution building.

?I was always a rebel and to a certain extent still am, but these days only when it?s useful?, he admits. Habib rebelled against his conservative aunts, who formed part of his large extended family and acted as guardians for the three Habib brothers when their mother died and his father, ?a typical middle-class Indian businessman?, left for Botswana to set up businesses there.

He rebelled against a particular brand of exclusive Muslim beliefs, and against traditions and entrenched ideas of right and wrong in society in general, and in politics specifically.

In 1980 Habib entered high school in Pietermaritzburg. It was a year of serious school boycotts in schools in the area and marked the start of interest in politics. With his interests ignited, Habib started asking questions, such as, who was Steve Biko? Who was Mandela? What are the ANC and the Freedom Charter?

This quest sparked a love affair with political science that has lasted up to now. ?I cannot imagine taking this route if it were not for my political conversion during the school boycotts. It forced me to define who I was as an individual, as a member of a group, and as a South African.?

Identity is an important theme to Habib. ?When I went to India for the first time two years ago, I realised how un-Indian I am. I am as much defined by the fact that I was born on African soil, into a home of Indian ancestry that was Muslim, as by the fact that I was a political activist struggling against a racist political dispensation.

?I am also defined by the wide variety of people with different backgrounds, languages and religions with whom I have interacted, as by the fact that I studied and lived in New York. I am a product of the 21st century, a hybrid of humanity, which transcends geographical and cultural boundaries.?
I am also defined by the wide variety of people with different backgrounds, languages and religions with whom I have interacted, as by the fact that I studied and lived in New York.

This view of identity lies at the core of his political scientific endeavours and debates of the last decade. ?Our common humanity can only be truly realised in a more equitable context. Aredress of the inequities of a tragic past is of fundamental importance. The question is how to redress the past without undermining the rights of the common humanity.?

He is concerned that the debate on humanity in South Africa forgets its universal roots and tends to define us as Indian, black, white and against one another. In an article in this publication in 2003, he wrote:

?The post-apartheid government?s transformation agenda, encapsulated in its programmes and policies, is largely based on race transformation, in all sectors, from education and health to the economy, is defined in racial terms?

?The positive side to this is that in sector after sector, the advancement of black interests has become the primary aim of transformative legislation. But the negative side is that the benefits of this redress policy have been monopolised by a small elite minority within the black population.

?Some white, Indian and coloured citizens perceive the redress project as unfair discrimination. The racial character of the redress project has also led to tensions within the black population, and in particular between people of African and Indian ancestry.

?Coupled with the above is the glamorisation of racial identity by a small elite of black politicians, activists and intellectuals ? most with impeccable anti-apartheid credentials. In the new ideology, socially constructed racial identities constitute the cultural blocs of society.

?This is a dangerous phenomenon that will come to haunt this elite. It legitimises playing the ethnic card when it suits them and will inevitably lead to a fractured and politically divided society.?

But then, he believes like Leon Trotsky, who, along with Karl Marx, strongly influenced his political philosophy: ?The historic ascent of humanity, taken as a whole, may be summarised as a succession of victories of consciousness over blind forces ? in nature, in society, in man himself.?

Habib believes history is on our side. ?It is not a linear progression, but in one way or the other, whether we step forward or step back, the struggle to move forward is always there.?

With disarming honesty, he also talks about his ?neurotic personality? and his conversion to Islam after a bout of bacterial infection, which to him suggested a heart attack. But again, in vintage Habib style, his ?liberal orientation to Islam? is inclusive of all other religions and beliefs. ?God appears in multiple guises to multiple peoples and who am I to judge how other people worship??

He joined the HSRC full-time in 2004, because the organisation allowed him to ?play in both worlds?, namely the academic, and his other great passion, institution building.

Over the last year, he partly overhauled the Democracy & Governance (D&G) Research Programme, in the following ways:

    By achieving financial sustainability, which is different from ?commercialism?. ?Financial sustainability is rarely about numbers, but it is about strategy. Get the right plan.?
    By doing research that focuses on the ?Big Issues? and makes an institutional contribution to the intellectual conversation at the national level.
    By doing research that builds institutions, using the HSRC as a lever in raising the entire research system, which is in trouble, to a higher level.
    By focusing on big programmes that span a various research disciplines.

D&G is focusing on several big projects, which examine:

    Race and redress, which looks at redress mechanisms in education, the economy, the public sector and sport.
    South Africa in Africa, investigating the impact of the engagements of the South African government and its corporates, on the continent.
    The rights of rural women and traditional leadership.
    The development of skills capacity.
    The State of the Nation book, which appears annually.