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Change the world


The role of literature in addressing issues of racism and democracy in South Africa today was the theme at the recent Dennis Brutus Institutional Public Lecture hosted by Nelson Mandela University’s Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD). 


From left, the audience, Dr Nomathamsanqa Tisani, Fortunate Jwara and Vice-Chancellor Prof Sibongile Muthwa. 

The role of literature in addressing issues of racism and democracy in South Africa today was the theme at the recent Dennis Brutus Institutional Public Lecture hosted by Nelson Mandela University’s Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD).

The lecture at the South End Museum on 18 March, reflected on the work of the anti-Apartheid activist, educator, and poet, who was often defined within the movement of ‘protest literature’, by literary scholars.

Keynote speaker, Dr Nomathamsanqa Tisani, whose research in history covers 18th and 19th century writings on African historiography, responded to the critical question.

“Racism is the division of humanity into two: a group that is fair complexioned, with straightish hair, that regards itself as superior”.

“And another group that has melanin hair that coils, that is considered inferior”, she said.

The mentality of the colonisers has also seeped into the DNA of the Westerners, as well as those who racism affects.

“Racism refuses to acknowledge the humanity of indigenous people; what we see in Gaza is in the DNA of the European,” said Dr Tisani.

On the point of democracy, Dr Tisani advanced that South Africa hurried to a Westminster democracy, which is partly reason to the conundrum we are facing today.

“Racism and democracy are a complex issue of contradictions that is a big muddle, but literature can ameliorate the issues facing our country, as literature has played a major role in our struggle for change”.

She then provided a historical overview, beginning as early as the 18th century, on how Africans used literature to fight the colonisers instead of violence.

She used the example of Reverend Isaac Wauchophe/Citashe, a pastor, writer, and teacher, and a leading African intelligentsia, who used the pen to fight for the rights of Africans.

She extracted a poem by Citashe where he exclaims that “zemka iinkomo magwala ndini”, which translates into ‘the cows are being stolen you cowards’. Citashe used cattle figuratively to refer to the resources of Africans as well as human rights, which have been seized by the colonisers.

Citashe then proposed a different response with the pen, “Phutuma ngosiba” ~ or fetch your treasure with your pen, she said.

Dr Tisani said that people who believe in the word have a resolve, and Prof Brutus was one of them.

She then used more examples of other prominent African leaders and writers who ‘fetched their treasure with a pen’, “they discovered the Western secret of reading and writing, and they picked it up,” said Dr Tisani.

Mandela Uni PhD candidate, Fortunate Jwara, whose research interests are eroticism and experimental writing, responded to the keynote speaker.

She said according to John Nkengasong, Prof Brutus’ work was crucial in negotiating social change in South Africa, and through the arts, defined as creative activism.

Writers in the post-Apartheid landscape have taken new directions, challenging violence, xenophobia, homosexuality, Gender-Based Violence, and critiquing the failures of the state.

“Where certain linguistic expressions were restrained by apartheid censorship, Prof Brutus managed to articulate the same thing using language”.

“Words can both build and destroy. Hence, writing requires that one is disciplined and intentional even in experimentation. We see this in Brutus strategically using language to get the message across under circumstances that deny the language of protest”.

Mandela University Vice-Chancellor Prof Sibongile Muthwa remarked on Prof Brutus, who was conferred an honorary doctorate by the University in 2009.

“The Doyen whom we gathered to memorialise this evening, Prof Brutus, is ordinary man, who committed himself to public service and the improvement of the human condition”.

“He valued emotion and feeling as an important component that locates his literary work. Prof Brutus’ focus and insistence on emotion, on feeling, and sensibility resonates with our own philosophy of humanisation, in a very fundamental way”.

“We are hugely honoured as Nelson Mandela University to be associated with Prof Brutus’ memory and work, and we are proud to use the IPL series to immortalise his work and contribution”.

The audience included the University staff, students, high school learners, chiefs from the Griqua and Nama ethnic groups, as well as family and friends of the late Professor Dennis Brutus.

Contact information
Ms Elma de Koker
Internal Communication Practitioner
Tel: 041-504 2160