Postcolonial scholar visits UCT

24 Mar 2017 - 16:00

On March 3rd, the Institute for Creative Arts (ICA) launched its 2017 Great Texts/Big Questions Lecture Series with a lecture by internationally renowned writer and postcolonial theorist Professor Ngugi wa Thiong'o. The event was hosted in association with the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS) and was moderated by Professor Xolela Mangcu from the University of Cape Town’s Department of Sociology.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine and, one of the most significant, prolific and influential thinkers of our time. Among other literary successes, his novel Weep Not Child was published to critical acclaim in 1964 followed by a second novel, The River Between (1965). His third, A Grain of Wheat (1967), was a turning point in the formal and ideological direction of his works. During his tenure at the University of Nairobi, beginning in 1967, Ngugi was at the centre of the politics of English departments in Africa, championing the change of name from English to Literature to reflect world literature with African and third world literatures at the centre. He co-authored the polemical declaration, “On the Abolition of the English Department”, setting in motion a continental and global debate as well as practices that later became the heart of postcolonial theories. Sharply critical of the inequalities and injustices of Kenyan society, Ngugi was arrested and imprisoned without charge at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison at the end of 1977. His memoir, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1982), is an account of his prison experiences. In 1992 he became Professor of Comparative Literature and Performance Studies at New York University and from there moved to his present position at the University of California. Ngugi has continued to write prolifically. He is the recipient of numerous accolades, including the 2001 Nonino International Prize for Literature. He has the singular distinction of being awarded ten Honorary Doctorates.

Professor Xolela Mangcu introduced distinguished scholar Professor Ngugi wa Thiong'o at the ICA's Great Texts/Big Questions Lecture Series held at the Baxter Concert Hall on 3 March 2017.

The March 2017 Great Texts/ Big Questions lecture was presented to a packed audience of staff and students at the Baxter Concert Hall. Using personal anecdotes, Ngugi’s decolonisation lecture focused on the huge inequalities between Africa and Europe. He said that in order to counter these, Africans needed to focus their efforts on building unity across the continent and on prioritizing African languages. He noted that most postcolonial societies had a tendency of de-valuing their own mother tongues. “If you know all the languages of the world but not your mother tongue, that is enslavement. But if you know the language of your culture and add to that, all the languages of the world, that is empowerment and I think in Africa we ought to choose empowerment over enslavement,” said Wa Thiong’o.

He was in the country to conduct similar public lectures at two other universities: the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Fort Hare. Speaking at the ICA event, Professor Mangcu said that the NIHSS and ICA had enabled him to fulfill a promise he had made to UCT students back in 2015. He said that the reason Ngugi had come, was in order to ‘give power’ to what they (the students) had been doing over the past several years. “If you want to talk decolonisation, Ngugi is the father of decolonisation on the African continent. It was Ngugi and his colleagues at the University of Nairobi who launched this movement in Higher Education in 1968 when they wrote a famous memo calling for the abolition of the English department. That memo changed not only what was happening at the University of Nairobi but also the way we study ourselves as Africans. It also changed the face of African literature and of course our self-image,” said Mangcu.

This was the second visit to the University of Cape Town for the 79-year old scholar. In 2003, he was invited to present the  fourth annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture in Jameson Hall. His topic then: “Recovering our memory: South Africa in the Black imagination”. UCT student activist Athabile Nonxuba was given an opportunity to respond to Ngugi’s lecture and this was followed by a brief Q&A session, which was interrupted by members of the audience. Access this ICA lecture on Youtube

About the Great Text/Big Questions Lecture Series: ICA’s Great Texts/Big Questions Lecture Series is one of the Institute’s most widely known public projects. In keeping with the series' emphasis on questioning and interaction, each lecture focuses on an encounter with a ‘great text’ or ‘big question’, and offers members of the public and UCT staff and students opportunities to engage with prominent national and international writers, artists, scientists, public figures, researchers and activists. From 14 March to 12 April the Great Texts/Big Questions Lecture Series will focus on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – its vision, successes, failures and public perceptions then and now. The next lecture will be presented by award-winning journalist Lwandile Fikeni and chaired by Professor Nomusa Makhubu on 29 March at 6pm in the Commerce Building, UCT Hiddingh campus. Please visit the ICA website for updates.