Conferment and keynote address by Dr Mandla Langa
Madame/ Master of Ceremonies, Vice Chancellor, Honoured Guests, Graduands, Family and Friends,First, I want to express my gratitude to the University of Fort Hare. I was delighted, and humbled to receive the call from the Vice Chancellor (VC), Prof Sakhela Buhlungu, followed soon by a letter from the Registrar, informing me of the Council’s decision to confer this honour on me. If I think of my life’s trajectory, many things could have altered my path to my literary pursuit. I will share two:
I had harboured big dreams to draw comic strips, telling stories through blocks of images as I had seen in the newspapers – which featured characters like ‘Rip Kirby’, a detective, ‘Big Ben Bolt’, a boxer and that long-running standard, ‘The Heart of Juliet Jones’. Its ok if it doesn’t sound familiar to you- it’s a question of years! I submitted my comics to the publishers of Ilanga LaseNatal. The editor, Obed Kunene, a man of great, abiding dignity, looked through my work with great interest but told me that South African newspapers could only acquire their comic strips from the King Features Syndicate, in the USA. If I still harboured any wish to see my comic strip in print, this was dealt a blow by my two friends, photographer Omar Badsha, and poet and general troublemaker Mafika Pascal Gwala. They put paid to my ambitions by telling me, “Well, your comic strips are not that great. We think you’d make a better writer”.
Fast forward another few years, my brothers Pius and Ben were both studying law; they suggested that, I too should study law. They envisaged a Durban-based law firm of the three brothers, which would be called Langa, Langa and Langa. I’m happy today that idea didn’t see the light of day either.
I chose to write instead.
"In my short stay at this university, I chose courses that would advance my dream to become a writer. And in all the works I have done, except, perhaps for an allegorical novel, the University of Fort Hare features in one way or another. I was inspired by the community and fellowship among the students, the triumphs and the tears, which could have been a representation of our country in miniature. In a word, it prepared me for the next chapters of life after I joined many others who couldn’t continue with their studies after pledging solidarity with the students of the University of Turfloop. They had walked out en masse when Ongopotse Abraham Tiro, a leader of the Black Consciousness movement was expelled for his outspoken condemnation of Bantu Education at a graduation ceremony in 1972. Importantly to state, Tiro was killed by a parcel bomb, in 1974 in Khale, Botswana where he was in exile. Fashioned by Craig Williamson, the bomb was so powerful that, years later, the metal fixtures in the kitchen were still warped from the heat of the blast."
Standing here as a writer, I am still intimidated by the call to speak for 15 minutes to this august assembly, in the presence of the very able academic team led by the VC – comprising some of the most progressive and profound academics and thought leaders in our country, as well as some of the sharpest minds amongst you as doctoral scholars. I have made a few speeches in my life, once to a graduating class some years back at this very university, but – even though all this happened in the recent past – it all feels as if it were inspired by events in another time and in another place altogether.
Today feels like yet another country! A country that is quite different from that which we imagined as I waded through the caking, curdling Angolan mud of the MK camps for South African freedom fighters in the days of my exile. We were deemed unworthy by the apartheid state, and granted refuge by neighbouring countries, whose citizens were as committed to stand in solidarity in the fight for South Africa’s freedom as we were, even when it meant their own citizen’s safety was threatened. I for one am forever grateful to them.
Exile is strangely compelling to think about, but terrible to experience. The late Edward Said, a Palestinian writer said, “It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” And for those who promote the fallacious argument that the freedom fighters who were in exile were on a Sunday picnic, and not really advancing the struggle against apartheid, let me continue with Said’s description of exile… “ while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.”
Our hopes, the dreams of what our freedom would look like is what sustained us in exile… It was the belief that we were walking in lockstep with the millions of our people toward the attainment of our right to self-determination, to be equal and to be human. The British playwright David Hare observed that “an exile walks around the world carrying in their mind the image of a perfect universe”. Whilst nothing can be worse than being deemed illegitimate, or less than, in your own country as it was under the apartheid regime, current day South Africa presents its own conundrum, its own tragedy. We have been so buffeted by ruinous governance in the recent period that it has aged prematurely and found itself in moments of such crisis we didn’t envision, even in our most pessimistic moments. Perhaps we were naïve.
And so it is that at this moment, each generation is called upon to consider what is its mission. Those of my generation sometimes engage in another misleading debate, a pontification about our struggle having been the REAL struggle. This is another waste of time debate. Each generation has their defining call to action. There are continuities involving generations, a baton being passed from one generation to the other. Our forebears fought colonial wars. Their offspring joined battle against apartheid. The latter generations are charged by history to consolidate those victories, incomplete as they might be, and to continue the work.
In Ayi Kwei Armah’s novel, Why Are We So Blest an amputee, injured in the Algerian War asks a question “Who won the war?” Sometimes in post struggle or post conflict analysis, it is less about who won the war, than about how society knits together under a brittle peace!
It is in this brittle peace that the current generation finds itself. You are graduands here. It is not just a gown and a cap. This moment forth demands a new state of your humanity, of your mind, of your souls and a different way of our being in the world. A world of brittle peace where we have got to make a decision about what our consciousness is, and what it yields. Kwame Nkrumah propounded the ideology of “consciencism”. He argued that education [open quote] reclaims the psychology of the people, erasing the ‘colonial mentality’ from it; and it resolutely defends the independence and security of the people [close quote]’(Nkrumah, 1964).
I want to propose, or perhaps impose an additional responsibility on us – yes I mean us: (I, like you, are now graduates and graduands of this institution) and that is to consider who are our people? This is an institution that has been the wellspring, the creative crucible for some of a great cohort of leaders and thinkers across this country and continent.
Some of the leading black consciousness activists cut their teeth at this institution – of course under the Rector then, it was in fact 50 years ago exactly that Barney Pityana and others were expelled for their activism.
Oliver Tambo, one of the greatest examples of leadership had his foundations laid here in the rolling hills of this province.
Albertina Sisulu whose centenary is being celebrated this year, was a professional, and whom I would argue was one of the foremost and formidable feminists of her time.
The landscape of the Eastern Cape, the furrowed, windswept fields… Could it be THAT they ask? A question that has exercised the minds of sociologists, historians and political scientists. Was it its geography, its vastness, the different ecosystems, the progressive wetness from west to east, the rainforest in the Tsitsikama, the rugged coast interspersed with sandy beaches, the mountains, the lush grassland on rolling hills. Is it this, which inspired poets that simultaneously praised the beauty of the land while decrying the spinelessness of leadership that allowed the land to be wrested from the hands of the people? Why was the region the biggest contributor to the struggle against apartheid? I remember that the ANC camps in Angola and those of the PAC were populated with significant numbers of people from the Eastern Cape. It’s a region that was the birthplace of innumerable luminaries in the arts, science, and education and, of course, politics. I want to indulge in this, which others may call exceptionalism, not for essentialising you, but as a reminder of the intellectual legacy of this region and institution. It is a proud legacy that must serve as a creative thrust. Sitting among us are some birthed by this region who are tapping into that creativity in their intellectual work - our VC has authored some of the most incisive and critical analysis on the state of the labour movement amongst his other academic pursuits; a leading light in feminist and literary thought right here in the person of Prof Gqola helped deepen my conceptual understanding of hypermasculinity, violence and patriarchy, and somewhere in the gathering today is Dr Siphiwo Mahala, a writer who has completed his innovative doctoral research on the philosopher, writer and intellectual, Can Themba.
And I imagine that amongst you too, in your doctoral theses, resides a wealth of knowledge and research, which can deepen our understanding of some of the challenges that beset our people and possible solutions. Challenges of deep enduring inequality, unequal participation in the economy, a legacy of land dispossession and epidemic proportions of gender based violence.
See this moment not as the start or the end, but rather as having equipped ourselves along the journey, with deeper insights regarding the task of raising the debate, thinking critically about how we shape a country where our people can achieve their full potential. In the words of Madiba, [Open quote] ‘The time has come to hand over the baton in a relay that started more than 85 years ago in Mangaung; nay, more, centuries ago, when the warriors of Autshumayo, Makanda, Mzilikazi, Moshoeshoe, Kgama, Sekhukhune, Lobatsibeni, Cetshwayo, Nghunghunyane, Uithalder and Ramabulana, laid down their lives to defend the dignity and integrity of their being as a people.”
We need to hold one another to account, including our learned friends. We must lead the charge against those bullies who use their professional jargon as a sword to cut down women like Cheryl Zondi in courtrooms, where they battle the worst forms of patriarchy mingled with toxic religiosity. Thankfully those women are fearless.
Our consciencism must manifest in an act of love – love of self and for our people – the temerity to demand a full life for ourselves. In making this call to all of us, I want to close by citing an extract of a poem from our late national poet laureate Professor Kgositsile, who was first recruited by this great university. In his poem The Gods Wrote, he exhorts us all to this act of revolutionary love when he said:
We are breath of drop of rain
Grain of sea sand in the wind
We are root of boabob
Fresh of this soil
Blood of Congo brush elegant
The choice is ours
So is the life
The music of our laughter reborn
Tyitimba or boogaloo passion
Of the sun-eyed gods of our blood..
And across America vicious cities
Clatter to the ground. Was it not
All written by the gods!
Turn the things! I said
Let them things roll
To the rhythm of our movement
Don’t you know this is a love supreme.
I thank you!