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Ideas & Debate

Curtain falls on a man devoted to social equality

social injustices
Eric Krystall live a life dedicated to ending some of the gravest social injustices of our age. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Eric Krystall passed away last month, just a couple of weeks before his 92nd birthday. He had been living in Kenya since 1971, just a few years before I arrived, and I have known this wonderful man for nearly 40 years. He has been a dear friend, and I feel so badly that I will no longer be able to chat with him.

Nine years ago he published his autobiography, Swimming through Life, which I read immediately it appeared and had intended to write a review of but never did. So now I read the book it again, deeply regretting that I am not able to sit with him so he can elaborate on all those fascinating episodes of his life.

Here’s how Eric’s son Paul opened his foreword to the book: “Eric Krystall has lived an extraordinary life – a life dedicated to ending some of the gravest social injustices of our age.” So true, and so good that Paul and Eric persuaded Eric’s other son Nathan to work with their father to take us through his rich and meaningful journey.

Eric was born in South Africa, to where his Jewish father had migrated from Lithuania in 1899, and he lived there for the first 28 year of his life. It was the time of the rise of apartheid, and as the country moved further and further towards segregation his stance moved further leftward. When he joined Wits University it was one of only two not to be segregated, but while he was there the government moved to bring exclusion of blacks to Wits too.

As a result of being active in the protests against segregation he became the first student to be denied a passport. But despite his anti-apartheid activities he managed to leave the country for England, to study at the London School of Economics, where several South African professors were already faculty members (and where I also studied a few years later). There he heard Tom Mboya speak about the desire for Kenya’s independence, and studying with him was Mwai Kibaki – with whom he organised a joint forum comparing the situation in South Africa to that in colonial Kenya.

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During part of his time in London Eric lived close to Baker Street, at the time I was just starting at my high school very close by. To help him pay for his education he took a job at John Bell and Croyden, the pharmacists to the British royal family, and I can’t resist adding that when I was a student I took a vacation job at Fortnum & Mason, grocers to the British aristocracy.

In 1960, on graduating from LSE, Eric – now married to American Abigail – moved across the Atlantic, and while undertaking his post-graduate studies there became deeply engaged in the civil rights movement that struggled to improve the condition of African-Americans, listening to among others Malcolm X and getting to know Martin Luther King, while also organising fora decrying apartheid in South Africa.

On completing his Master’s he immediately went on to his PhD studies and then to the deep South for his post-doctoral fellowship. During his days in America he prepared the arguments that successfully petitioned John F. Kennedy to allow African Americans into the Peace Corps, and he helped train Peace Corps volunteers before they set off for Africa.

Eric was exposed to so many emerging disciplines, from behavioural science to conflict resolution to population studies – all of which were to provide the base for his amazing contributions to the social development of Kenya when he moved here nearly half a century ago.

The opportunity arose when he contributed to a proposal for an East African population programme. He was selected to lead the Kenya element, which became the first to be funded by the recently formed United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA).

He wrote in his autobiography that he was heading back to Africa to share the knowledge and skills he had acquired, “to help a new country to grow”. So what did he become immersed in once he arrived? You’ll have to wait till my next article to find out about his impact on population development, on the fight against Aids and on so many other related issues.

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