A tribute to the late Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane (1948–2014)

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A tribute to the late Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane (1948–2014), General Editor: Encyclopaedia of South African Arts, Culture & Heritage (ESAACH).

Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane (Source: bookslive.co.za)

The future of the race will be saved by its exceptional men. – WEB du Bois, “The Talented Tenth”

When you bury me
read me poetry
let me linger on a line of truth
and exquisite beauty:
poetry’s my passage to the gods ...

Behold the shimmering beads
that pave my way
dissolve beneath my every stride
and then recover when I’ve raised my
foot: that’s the way of poetry! – Es’Kia
Mphahlele, “To You My People”

On Saturday, February 15 the sun set on one of South Africa’s pre-eminent black scholars and writers, Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane. An Anglican priest’s son, Mzamane was born in Port Elizabeth in 1948, but grew up in Brakpan on the East Rand.

He received a BA in English and philosophy, a Concurrent Certificate in Education, and an MA in English literature and linguistics from the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. He held a PhD in English from the University of Sheffield (UK).

Mzamane’s scholarly output and oeuvre are eclectic. He was the author of numerous articles and books, including The Children of Soweto, Children of the Diaspora. He edited several books of poetry and fiction, including Selected poems of Sipho Sepamla; Selected poems of Mongane Wally Serote; and Hungry Flames and other Black South African Short Stories. He was co-editor of several works, including Images of the Voiceless: Essays on Popular Culture and Art; Global Voices: Non-Western World Literature; Contemporary Writing from the Non-Western World; Multicultural Education in Colleges and Universities (with Howard Ball and David Berkowitz); Revisioning Africa. Human Righting Apartheid; Bernard Magubane: My Life and Times (with Bernard Magubane); Race Between the Turtles and the Cheetahs; and more recently Children of Paradise, The Early Mbeki Years and The Challenge of Transition in South Africa. He was founder chairman of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism and chairman of the African Arts Fund (under the auspices of the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid).

He was appointed by President Nelson Mandela and President Thabo Mbeki to serve on the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) Board and the Heraldry Council. He was also appointed by President Jacob Zuma to serve on the Presidential Review Committee on State-Owned Enterprises.

It was perhaps his collection of short stories, Mzala, that inaugurated his illustrious literary career and also catapulted him to prominence – for which he won the Mofolo-Plomer Literary Prize in 1977. It is a collection that revisits the well-known “Jim goes to Jo’burg” theme or motif in the South African literary landscape. Mzamane took this theme to another level in his skilful and innovative deployment of humour – but underneath that humour he explored the paradoxes of the urban black experience in race-conscious and polarised South Africa.

The Fort Hare years

As soon as Mzamane assumed duties as head of department at the university of Fort Hare towards the end of 1993, he hit the ground running and led the department in an exciting renewal trajectory. The English Department was named the Department of English Studies and Comparative Literature. He led a series of stimulating workshops and round-table discussions which culminated in a master’s degree in Pan African letters – a first in South Africa. He thereafter used his wide network and influence by inviting world-renowned scholars from the United States, the Caribbean as well as the African continent to lecture in the university’s new flagship programme in Pan African letters. World-renowned poet laureate Willie Kgositsile is one of those luminaries who joined the reconfigured MA programme in Pan African letters. This was certainly a golden era at the transforming university of Fort Hare.

Once a teacher, always a teacher

Because of his visionary leadership and scholarship, the university of Fort Hare wasted no time in appointing Mzamane as its first post-apartheid vice-chancellor in 1995, following the appointment of his predecessor, Sibusiso Bhengu by President Nelson Mandela as National Minister of Education.

Mzamane was no slave to routine and was first and foremost a teacher. Not even the rigours and demands of his office as vice-chancellor would make him abrogate his calling – teaching. Being the creative spirit that he was, he arranged evening seminars for his honours and masters students. Former colleagues Msi Silinga, Nzwaki Nguna and I never missed an opportunity to attend these intellectually stimulating seminars and we were bowled over by Mzamane’s innovativeness and mastery of the subject matter. He used words we were accustomed to, but he used them in a way only he could. Such was the nature and magnitude of Mzamane’s magnetism, appeal and presence. He always argued and cautioned against confusing imitation of thought with thought, for in his view, imitation of thought is not thought.

This man was neither an ascetic nor a killjoy. During his term of office, Fort Hare was transformed overnight into a vibrant and exciting place in which we enjoyed live performances by world-renowned artists and cultural ambassadors such as Bra Hugh Masekela and the late Mirriam Makeba. That great and gentle giant of African letters, the late Es’Kia Mphahlele, also came to visit and spent a memorable week interacting with staff and students, signing autographs and reading excerpts from his impressive body of works.

Mzamane was an eloquent speaker who was also blessed with a fertile sense of humour, and he was no ivory-tower type of intellectual. One Saturday evening he was invited to deliver a speech at a function that was organised by the Student Christian Movement (SCM) at Fort Hare. As he was going through his speech, the students kept chanting: “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” and he responded, “Don’t hallelujah me. I am not spiritual. I am spirituous.” That was quintessential Mzamane!

Mzamane was a very warm, humane, accessible and humorous person who loved his students – and they reciprocated by addressing him as Bra Mbu – the only vice-chancellor in the country who was addressed by his students in that way!

Young and inexperienced academics like me, who had just joined the academy, were sent to universities in the UK and USA for further training in their respective disciplines. This was perfectly in sync with his university-wide renewal trajectory.

He also held the view that our teachers and academics should understand at all times that you cannot educate others effectively if you are yourself afraid of being educated. Research educates and sets you on a partnership with your students as fellow enquirers, fellow students. In the final analysis, this means contesting the very frontiers of knowledge; it means cultivating a new epistemological pedagogy in our land, he argued.

An indefatigable man, Mzamane was also involved in the setting up of the Fort Hare Institute of Governance (FHIG), an ambitious initiative whose mission was the retaining of the Eastern Cape’s Civil Service for the challenges of a new South Africa. Derrick Swartz, his successor and currently the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s vice-chancellor, became the Institute’s founding director.

Conclusion

As we bid you farewell, “Bra Mbu”, you leave behind a society that is fraught with paradoxes: a society that valorises mainly the politician, the bureaucratisation and corporatisation of the academy, and the marginalisation of humanistic values.

What follows below are fragments from a poem titled “The Passing of Douglass”, which was written by WEB du Bois – that towering giant and leading black scholar of the 20th century after the passing on of Frederick Douglass – that sublime orator and abolitionist. It is a poem that perhaps best captures and mirrors the national mood after the departure of our own Bra Mbu.1

Then Douglass Passed – his massive form
Still quivering at unrighted Wrong;
His soul aflame, and on his lips
A tale of prophecy and waiting Work.
Low he chanted, and his hot accents,
Full in rich melodious cadence
Before God’s altar. Then-O, Christ!

Live, warm and wondrous memory, My Douglass
Live, all men do love thee
Amen!

My Douglass on, o’er earth and sea –
Strength of the Strong sweep round us
Allelujah!

Rest, dark and tired soul, My Douglass,
Thy God Receive thee
Amen
and
Amen!

It was the same Du Bois who wrote in his magnum opus, The Souls of Black Folk: “If living does not give value, wisdom and meaning to life, then there is no sense in living at all.”

HAMBA KAKUHLE NYANA WESIZWE!

Bibliography

Du Bois, WEB. 1996. The Talented Tenth. The Future of the Race. New York: Knopf.

Mphahlele, Es’Kia. 1984. To You My People. The Classic (3:1), November.

Note
1 This information appears at the bottom of the poem “The Passing of Douglass”: Manuscript damaged, words only partially legible. This elegy, along with several other versions, can be found in The Papers of WEB du Bois, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Microfilm, reel 88.

 

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