Coming home to Africa

2009-04-15 00:00

THERE is a gem hidden away on the local campus of the University of KZN — the Centre for African Literary Studies (Cals). It opened in 2004, initially set up to house the Bernth Lindfors Collection, a priceless archive of African Literature, collected over 40 years by Lindfors, a professor at the University of Austin in Texas, and donated to the university.

It includes what Cals director, Professor Mbulelo Mzamane, describes as the only complete set of Nigerian market literature in the world. This is the popular writing produced in Nigeria in the fifties and sixties and sold in markets in the form of pamphlet-style books. Never intended to last, the books, offering a valuable insight into the world in which they were written, are increasingly rare.

Although Cals is used by researchers from all over the world, not a great deal is heard about it locally, although recently Minister of Arts and Culture Pallo Jordan visited Cals to launch the Encyclopaedia of South African Arts, Culture and Heritage (ESSACH). Mzamane is the general editor of the encyclopaedia which is therefore housed at Cals. “I suppose it’s my baby rather than Cals’s,” says Mzamane. “But there’s a point of convergence on the literary side of ESSACH, and it makes sense to share the infrastructure.”

As long as Mzamane stays at Cals, so does his encyclopaedia project. But it is difficult to guess how long that will be because Mzamane says that in his adult life, he has never stayed in one place for longer than four years. He returned from his years of exile — which saw him live, study and teach in Britain, the United States, Australia and other parts of Africa — to be the first post-apartheid vice chancellor of Fort Hare. He has also served on the SABC Board and was the first chair of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism.

He has little time for people who complain about the disrupted lifestyle that goes along with exile. “For too long, the exile story was Psalm 137 — ‘By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept’.” I’m not going to sit by any river and weep. One day I want to write a book about the children of the diaspora. I don’t like military metaphors, but sometimes you have to choose your trenches, burrow in and shoot from there.”

Mzamane talks about the strengths that come from a consciousness of exile. He sees South Africans living abroad, whether in New York, Tanzania or Australia, taking on the local culture but always with something essentially South African adhering to them. “Storytelling finds those commonalities,” he says, wearing his hat as an author. He has written short stories and poetry, a children’s book and academic books.

Changing back to his director of Cals hat, Mzamane talks about African literary studies, which mostly seem to take place in the northern hemisphere, away from Africa. “In the sixties and seventies, a great many African students went overseas to study, while a few Africanists from the north came to teach in African universities. But in the last 20 years of the 20th century, that dynamism was reversed, and a brain drain began — there were various reasons, including politics and economics.

“Cals has to find a way to reverse the trend and make African institutions first choice in African studies. The simplest and most direct way is the repatriation of learning resources —and many people who have made their careers out of the study of Africa are now ready to give back. We can hit them in the liberal conscience,” he jokes. Besides Lindfors, others are making generous donations of material and Mzamane is in contact with several benefactors, hoping his persuasive powers will see the holdings at Cals expanding under his stewardship. The next step will be the digitisation of the collections, making them accessible to researchers who will not have to travel to Pietermaritzburg. And, of course, this will preserve the originals from harm.

Besides ESAACH, Mzamane has another project on the go. He is trying to set up translations fellowships, for intra-African translation. He can write in Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho besides English, and refutes suggestions that Africa is some kind of Tower of Babel. “There are just four or five linguistic patterns on the continent. Think about it — the English of Chaucer and Hardy is further apart than Zulu and Xhosa.”

He sees it as vital to give people something to read in their own language. “What book does everyone read?” he asks. “The Bible — the one book that exists in all languages. Give people what they want to read, and they will.” It is a case of ensuring that would-be readers can have access to something that will speak to their own experience.

• For more information on Cals, visit; for more on ESAACH, visit

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