148 - 250609 Prof Phillip Tobias talks about the Taung Skull's journey in different boxes. Picture: Karen Sandison

Johannesburg - Leading South African palaeo-anthropologist Professor Phillip Tobias demystified complex science with a tinge of humour, President Jacob Zuma said as he paid tribute to the academic on Thursday.

“We have lost a renowned scientist, a scholar and a unique human being. Our country remains eternally proud of his work,” Zuma said in a statement.

Tobias, who was born on October 14, 1925, died at the Wits University Donald Gordon Medical Centre on Thursday, said Gauteng Tourism Authority spokesperson Anthony Paton.

“On behalf of the government and the people of South Africa, we extend our deepest condolences and may his soul rest in peace,” said Zuma.

He said South Africa owed a debt of gratitude to Tobias for his successful efforts to have the remains of Saartjie Bartman returned to South Africa from Paris, where they were exhibited as ethnological and sexual curiosities in the 19th century.

Tobias led negotiations with France on behalf of the South African government and the remains of Bartman were returned in May 2002, said Zuma.

Tobias was “one of Johannesburg's finest and most-revered citizens” said Johannesburg Mayor Parks Tau.

“He was a world-class scientist; a pioneering researcher and a passionate campaigner for human rights, equality and dignity throughout his illustrious life,” he said.

“Although Professor Tobias is best known for his scientific achievements, he was also a passionate and outspoken critic of the apartheid regime.”

Tau said Tobias was an outstanding leader in the field of physical anthropology and his study of human fossils significantly enriched the scientific knowledge of the development of humankind.

“He is a worthy example of a true South African whose life and work serves as an example of the kind of society that we are striving to build in Johannesburg,” he said.

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor and Deputy Minister Derek Hanekom said Tobias would be revered for his profound research in palaeo-anthropology.

His contribution to research in the fields of genetics, from anatomical studies to palaeo-anthropology was well known, they said.

“It is this contribution that led the department of science and technology to establish an annual Professor Philip Tobias Lecture and Award in honour of his contribution.”

They conveyed their condolences to his family.

Tobias’s death was the end of a distinguished era in the annals of South African scholarship, said the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).

“Philip Tobias was truly a scholar and a gentleman, someone who was as loved for his kindness and humility as he was respected for his myriad academic achievements,” said spokesperson Mary Kluk.

She described him as a courageous, deeply principled campaigner for human rights, particularly in the area of academic freedom.

Tobias was involved in the Jewish community throughout his life, and was chosen to receive the SAJBD's Human Rights Award in 2001.

The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) expressed its sadness at his death and paid him tribute as a “stalwart of the university and a world-renowned scientist”.

Spokesperson Shirona Patel said he had received many awards and honours, including honorary degrees from the universities of Pennsylvania, Cambridge, California, Natal, Cape Town, South Africa, Durban-Westville, Western Ontario, Alta, Guelph, and the Witwatersrand.

“We extend our deepest sympathies to the friends and family of Professor Tobias, and those him knew him well,” she said.

The deep impact he had on his colleagues and students, and the significant role he played in building South Africa's most important capital - human capital - would be sorely missed,” said Democratic Alliance spokesperson Junita Kloppers-Lourens.

Tobias was the only person to simultaneously hold three professorships at Wits, and was known as a friendly, outgoing man, eloquent and able to explain his science to anyone.

In 2002, he had his own popular television series, “Tobias' Bodies”.

The series, which he presented and narrated, consisted of six stand-alone episodes exploring themes around genetics, anatomy and primatology. He also successfully campaigned for the Sterkfontein Caves to be proclaimed a World Heritage site.

The caves form part of the Fossil Hominid Sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai, and their environs, which were declared a cultural World Heritage site in 1999. - Sapa