What does it mean to be African in a post-apartheid academy?

The Nigerian scholar and poet, Harry Garuba, who died in February 2020, was a key figure in African Studies and teaching literature in South Africa.

Harry Garuba. Image supplied by authors.

Is South Africa a place that stifles African writers? As former students of Harry Garuba, who passed away in February 2020, the best lesson we learned from him was to understand the politics of inclusion and exclusion in the reading publics located in post-apartheid universities in South Africa. These problems were both exposed and debated among students and faculty during the #RhodesMustFall and #FreesMustFall movements that animated South African campuses, including the University of Cape Town where Harry taught, in 2015.

Harry addressed this problem head on in his classes, using the African novel as a pedagogical and political tool to forge more inclusive reading publics, one where the reader could approach the novelist as an interlocutor. In both departments where he taught (African Studies and English), Harry prescribed literature of East African writers to help students understand and articulate the boundaries that exist in and outside the classroom. For example, first year students in the African Studies course were introduced to the work of late Kenyan author, Binyavanga Wainaina. Like Garuba, Wainaina also reflected on being “African” in South Africa when he attended the University of Transkei in 1991. In his memoir, Binyavanga writes about South Africa: “This is not Africa. We are told that every day by people here. Are you from Africa? South Africa is not Africa.”

Harry Oludare Garuba was born in 1958 in Akure, southeast Nigeria. He began his career as a playwright, producing and publishing a one-act play entitled Pantomime for Saint Apartheid’s Day (1977) while an undergraduate student at the University of Ibadan. After completing his MA in 1981, Harry taught at the University of Ibadan for 15 years and during his time there, published his first, highly acclaimed collection of poems, Shadow and Dream and Other Poems (1982). He received his PhD in 1988 from the same university and edited the collection Voices from the Fringe: An ANA Anthology of New Nigerian Poetry (1988) introducing us to a new generation of Nigerian poets. In 1998, Harry assumed a post as senior lecturer at the University of Zululand from where he moved in 2001 to the University of Cape Town, holding joint appointments in the Department of English and the Centre for African Studies. It is at the University of Cape Town where our paths crossed.

As to the question of whether South Africa is a place that stifles African writers, Harry confronts this problem to some extent in his second collection of poetry. In 2017, he emerged from a 35-year hiatus from poetry and released Animist Chants and Memorials: Poems. In “The Running Poem,” Harry openly addresses his longstanding struggle to find inspiration “on windy winter mornings” and “in the season of rains.” There, he realized that he has long been “running, running away from poetry, from lines, verses, and songs.” His return to poetry was welcomed by the literary community who praised his use of “pidgin” English and the recurring motifs of Nigeria.

This honesty also played out in his classroom practice where he encouraged students to open themselves to texts written in other languages and to express themselves in their vernacular. For instance, for the second-year African Studies course, Harry recommended the celebrated Acholi epic poem, “Song of Lawino,” by Ugandan poet, Okot p’Bitek. In this poem, p’Bitek articulates the lament of the protagonist, Lawino, who decries her husband’s loss of tradition and language to “Westernization.” It was for most students their first literary encounter with Ugandan literature and with a text that is so radically “outside” of their context but communicated their reality so eloquently. The students invited Harry to participate as a guest speaker in their seminar and commanded the seminar through “translanguing,” analyzing an Acholi poem in their isiXhosa, isiZulu, Ndebele and Afrikaans vernaculars. Because Harry’s pedagogy collapsed the boundary between “professor” and “student,” he tasked us with an incomplete duty as young lectures to allow students to engage the African novel and novelist from the grammars of their discourse. This encounter produces more inclusive reading publics that is receptive to others and otherness.

It is from this background that we (continue to) honor Harry, take inspiration from his literary charisma and guidance from his mentorship as we enter the academy as young scholars. “More South African than the xenophobes,” Harry was preternaturally gifted at softening our disposition to others. His kindness and generosity, penchant for smoking and throaty chuckle, will be missed.

Further Reading