Michael O'Dowd: A Tribute to a Great Man

There are few people for whom it would be simultaneously easier and more difficult to write a tribute than Michael O’Dowd (27 February 1930 – 15 March 2006). Easy because there is so much to write about one of our world’s truly extraordinary human beings – amongst the best of the best in a multiplicity of contexts – and difficult, not just because it is hard to know what to omit, but because, for once, overworked superlatives are appropriate.

When I mentioned Michael O’Dowd the economist and the author of The Problem of Government Failure published in the Journal of Economics to members of the English Academy, they said I must have his name wrong because he was probably the brother of the Michael O’Dowd known in literary circles. Later, my mother referred to another Michael O’Dowd in the Historical Association. It turned out there were many Michael O’Dowds. There was the scientist published in the Journal of Science, the Sunday Times Business Man of the Year, and the social worker, known to social workers throughout the country, who would give guest lectures for Professor Cecile Muller in the Wits University Social Work department.

The best-known Michael O’Dowd was the political scientist famed for the controversial Rostowian “O’Dowd Thesis” vindicated by the role economic growth played in ending apartheid. But there were others: the jurist writing authoritatively on constitutional law and the meaning of an “open society”; the author of books on diverse topics from Dickensian literature to Marxism and the history of the industrial revolution to strategies for the new millennium; the NGO activist; the educationalist on the Councils of Universities and recipient of honorary doctorates; the social scientist chairing the HSRC, and so on. They were all, of course, one remarkable man.

The full measure of this man is hard to conceive. When confronted with the view that Chinese people conceptualise things differently because of their language, he learnt Chinese to see if it was true, and concluded it wasn’t. He had no other need for Chinese, so, apart from reading some Chinese books, he moved on. Amongst the voluminous notes and papers he left, daughter Cathy found that O’Dowd had invented an entire new language along the lines of what Tolkien conceived, with rules of grammar and a dictionary, and the genealogy and customs of the imaginary people who spoke it. Sadly, he never wrote a story to accompany it because he did not regard himself as a creative writer.

He had such incredible recall of everything that entered his mind, he could not understand how others could forget the substance of what they had read or discussed many years ago. He would frequently remind someone that they were the source of information he cited and expect them to remember everything he discussed with them.

Those of us privileged enough to spend many hours in his edifying company have seen him engage in discourse at the highest level with physicists on physics, accountants on accounting, and environmentalists on ecology. He seemed to know a lot about everything: particle spin physics; the microbiology of AIDS; anomalies in demography; how best to calculate development indicators, and why race cannot be defined scientifically. He engaged scientists on whether the obtuse angle at which rays passed through the stratosphere over the poles meant that there was no need to worry about ozone depletion; artists on the meaning of art, and educationalists on didactic philosophies.

The O’Dowd legend lives on in the memories of colleagues at Anglo American where they would take turns researching obscure subjects to casually drop into conversations to see if they could find something on which he could not contribute authoritatively. They never did.

It is humbling to contemplate the encyclopaedic knowledge, the analytical ability and the wisdom this great man takes with him from this earth. Mindful of his unique intellect, I asked him if he would do an IQ test, not to test his IQ but to test the test – to see if it identified, as a good test would do, that he was in the top percentile. He had no objection and pointed out that he had been tested before, starting in early schooling, always with the same result, “off the charts”.

Most people who knew him experienced him as a detached intellectual, an introvert awkward in the company of all except a few close friends, seldom revealing emotion and incapable of small talk. Friends and colleagues experienced a different Michael O’Dowd when his daughter, Cathy, became the first African to summit Everest, the first woman to do so from both sides, and the first person to attempt the North face. Those around him saw for the first time an emotional and proud daddy, happy to explain in characteristic detail what she was doing and had achieved, embellished with everything there was to know about the history of Everest and mountaineering generally, from the physiology of mountain sickness though the geography of ice falls to the statistical chances of casualties on the world’s most challenging summits.

Despite an intellect that towered above those around him, he was a good listener. He would not only listen attentively to almost any person, however misinformed, but would seek the views of, and be enriched by, street vendors and tribal peasants, typists and messengers. A retired parking lot attendant from Anglo American told me in the remote Mathanjana tribal village about long conversations he’d had with his friend Michael O’Dowd, who always had “many questions”.

For most of our history as one of Africa’s leading independent think tanks he was our Chairman (1978-2005). More that that, he was a father figure and mentor. He became head of the Foundation after he and Dirk Hertzog reconstituted the Foundation with the support of Harry Oppenheimer and Anton Rupert thirty years ago to combat the interventionism that characterised the 1970s and caused South Africa’s declining economic fortunes. He always seemed willing to devote limitless time and energy to the affairs of all the organisations with which he was associated. We asked when he found time for his considerable Anglo American responsibilities. “On Thursdays,” he quipped.

He was a devoted South African, always optimistic about his country and its future. Peaceful transition was to be expected rather than a “miracle of transition” in his view. One of his great contributions was that he co-authored the influential “high-road, low-road” scenarios popularised by Clem Sunter, which many regard as having played a decisive role in getting the government to replace confrontation with negotiation. In that process, as in so much of his life, he never sought and seldom got recognition.

Author: Leon Louw is Executive Director of the Free Market Foundation and the Law Review Project, organisations in which Michael O’Dowd played an influential and defining role for decades. This tribute may be published without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author.

FMF Feature Article/ 21 March 2006
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