By Siphiwo Mahala
When I first read Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane's Mzala (1980), a series of comical short stories about misadventures in townships, the short story genre instantly became my favourite. At the time the author was also the vice-chancellor and principal of the university I was attending.
The year was 1995 and I was a first-year student at the University of Fort Hare. Mzamane was the first post-apartheid vice-chancellor. It would paradoxically become the highest and lowest point of his career. In later years he would confess that it was not in his interest to be at the helm of the university. He always saw himself as a teacher: he wanted to teach.
As a vice-chancellor he was one of the most dynamic and cosmopolitan personalities we had ever known. Born in Port Elizabeth in 1948, Mzamane grew up in Brakpan and attended high school in Swaziland before completing a Master's degree at the University of Botswana and receiving a doctorate from the University of Sheffield (England). He had held academic, research and visiting appointments at Sheffield (UK), Vermont (US), Essen (Germany); Ahmadu Bello University (Nigeria), Yale (US), Boston (US), the University of South Australia and the Australian National University, among others. He had won numerous awards for his creative and scholarly works and published several works of fiction, essays and academic articles.
He was loved and respected by the late president Nelson Mandela and other leaders across the continent. Mandela described him as "a visionary leader, (and) one of South Africa's greatest intellectuals". He had been appointed by Mandela and later president Thabo Mbeki to various national positions, including the SABC Board and the Heraldry Council, and served as the director and chairman of several structures in the arts, culture, education and communications sectors. On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the University of Fort Hare in 1996, Mzamane was able to bring to Alice Fort Hare alumni including Mandela, Robert Mugabe, Julius Nyerere and other prominent individuals across the continent. The image of Mandela and Mugabe standing on the university sports field and sharing jokes with students was unforgettable!
As an educationist, Mzamane promoted a culture of reading. He would give impromptu lectures whenever there was a platform. He was a popular choice as a guest speaker on literary, arts and educational matters. In his essay, Continuities and Discontinuities in South African literature, he argues, "Mental dexterity, the love of learning, and the intellectual life of a nation depend on an early obsession for reading." He also opines: "It is widely accepted that history is written by the conquerors. The converse must be equally true that, if previously colonised people have not begun to write their own history, they still have a mental bondage."
Given his experience of having taught at various universities across the world as well as his cosmopolitan outlook, Mzamane was best-placed to benchmark the level of South African education against world standards. His views on the state of South African education at the time were: "Then I returned to a South Africa on the eve of Freedom, when opportunities should have been opening up, to find a state of under-preparedness and miseducation of crippling magnitude."
This was the first year of our democratic dispensation. The University of Fort Hare was flooded with students eager to attain an education but either unwilling or unable to pay the university fees. I was one of them. We fought for the reduction of fees and in the end students could pay R503 for registration. Many of us never bothered to pay anything more than this and this scenario replicated itself during the next three years. The university was soon in dire financial crisis and the vice-chancellor would be called to engage the angry students in candid debate.
Mzamane had no match in his eloquence. The meetings always ended as Mzamane's public speaking shows, where he would speak highbrow English to mesmerised students who would sit with their mouths agape, marvelling at the beauty of his oration. By the end of our meetings the student leaders would often be heard saying, "Let's pay the fees, comrades!"
It was in 2003 that I got to reconnect with my former principal. He was visiting Wits University as a guest speaker alongside the late Neville Alexander. On hearing that I had completed my Master's degree in African Literature, he was quick to tell me that I should continue with my studies. This was a conversation we would have every time we spoke for the following 10 years. It was also a conversation that was beginning to get under my skin.
Mzamane was always eager to dish out abundant doses of Can Themba "propaganda" to those who imbibed from his mind. I was one of the victims of his indoctrination. My admiration of Themba's work is now well-documented, having experimented with his classic short story, The Suit. What is less known is that Mzamane was the first to experiment with Themba's work in this manner, having published The Dube Train Revisited, appropriated from Themba's The Dube Train, back in 1978.
Mzamane was a natural choice to deliver the inaugural Can Themba Lecture alongside Nadine Gordimer and Joe Thloloe last year. At the lecture he once again brought up the nauseating subject - when am I doing my PhD? He went further to say that I should take Can Themba as the subject for my research, seeing that I had already done a|substantial amount of work in that area. Later in the year I would go back to him and boast that I had finally applied for my PhD. After congratulating me, he quipped, "You might find that you are more knowledgeable than your supposed supervisors!"
Mzamane also edited my all-time favourite short story anthology, Hungry Flames and other Black South African Short Stories (1986). The anthology includes an impressive selection of stories by luminaries such as Can Themba, James Matthews, Arthur Maimane and Njabulo S Ndebele.
I later worked with him in producing Words Gone Two Soon (2005), a publication that pays tribute to K Sello Duiker and Phaswane Mpe. In 2011 he launched his latest collection of stories, Children of Paradise, published by UKZN Press.
Despite his glittering international profile, Mzamane's works are barely available in South Africa. Many of his books are out of print, and most of his recent works were either published online or in some obscure outlets.
I was privileged to be among a circle of friends to whom he often sent some of his unpublished works. He had grown despondent with the South African publishing industry and resorted to vanity publishing, something that I was vehemently opposed to. I see vanity publishing as nothing more than a print-on-demand scheme where a publisher plays the role of a book merchant.
Mzamane's generosity had no bounds. In his book of memoirs, Sometimes there is a Void (2011), Zakes Mda alludes to Mzamane's generous spirit: "In no time, I heard from Mbulelo Mzamane informing me that my alma mater, Ohio University, was looking for a Visiting Professor in Anglophone African Literature for one academic year. Mbulelo, ever so resourceful, had come to our rescue again just as he did when I had completed my contract at Yale University and had nowhere else to go. Remember, he had recruited me then for his old position at the University of Vermont."
Mda also indicates that Mzamane was instrumental in the formation of The Anti-Antiques, the predecessor of Uhuru, later to be known as the popular music band Sankomota.
It would appear that Mzamane had remained in touch with many of his former students. On my first day in the office when I joined the Department of Arts and Culture in 2004, I found a proposal for the establishment of an Encyclopaedia for the Arts. In the proposal, Mzamane had listed a number of young people he would like to work with, and my name was featured alongside many of his former students, including Brown Maaba, Vuyani Green, and several others. The Encyclopaedia of South African Arts, Culture and Heritage remained one of the projects that he cherished until his last breath.
Mzamane will most probably be remembered as a humble intellectual with a generous heart and a great sense of humour. He could joke about anything, including his family and friends.
He once referred to his friend and fellow scribe Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile as "a very short man who is never short of words!" Addressing a graduation ceremony at the University of Venda in 2003, he quipped: "I had a father and an uncle who were men of the cloth? I had a guaranteed seat in the next world. Front row!"
We can only hope that in that front row he will be in company of Can Themba, Chinua Achebe, Lewis Nkosi, Dennis Brutus, and other literary giants who departed before him. Otherwise, to paraphrase Can Themba, "the son of his mother had no business to die!" - published February 23, 2014.