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A great family man, educator and mentor known for his love and passion for African culture and tradition, which fed into his life’s work of developing and nurturing indigenous language and literature.

That is how Prof Bench Buyile Mkhonto – popularly known as Prof BB Mkhonto – was described by the colleagues and former students who were present at a public lecture in his honour, held at Nelson Mandela University’s South Campus Council Chambers on 24 July.

The lecture was delivered by Professor of African Language Studies and NRF SARChI Chair: Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education, Prof Russell Kaschula, and hosted by the Faculty of Arts’ School of Applied Languages.

It forms part of the institution’s commemoration of the International Year for Indigenous Languages, as proclaimed by the United Nations (UN) in 2016 to raise awareness of the consequences of dying indigenous languages while also foregrounding the link between language, development, peace and reconciliation.

Prof Kaschula, switching seamlessly between isiXhosa and English, described how, as a young lecturer at the then University of Transkei, he met and was greatly influenced by Prof BB Mkhonto.

“He was a much respected man and we looked up to him as somebody who was highly educated when I was working towards my doctorate, under the supervision of Prof Peter Mtuze,” he said.

“They were both professors we looked up to in this field and would later get to interact with during conferences of the African languages Association of South Africa (ALASA). They supported us a lot, as emerging African language scholars, so it has been a long, intellectual journey of sharing and of him also trying to work with African languages in a dynamic way, to make it exciting for students and to also inform the philosophical and intellectual underpinnings of the humanities.”

Prof Kaschula’s lecture delved into the importance of language with regards social cohesion and for one’s identity, while also highlighting the fluidity of identity. He spoke to the significance of the work of Prof BB Mkhonto and his ilk in developing and nurturing indigenous languages, in particular.

In the opening, Executive of the faculty of Arts, Prof Rose Boswell, spoke to how people live in a multilingual society.

“The sheer cultural richness that languages bring to our personal and community identities cannot be underestimated,” she said.

“This year is important because we underestimate the value of language to our core identity, social cohesion, knowledge and knowledge forms. Speaking multiple languages gives an added advantage in learning.”

The University’s isiXhosa department is among the first in the country to have a doctoral dissertation written fully in Xhosa, in 2009. Ten years later, a total seven such dissertations were produced at the institution.

“We are hoping to extend that to our other national languages as the necessary resources become available,” said prof Boswell.

The venue was overflowing with members of Prof Mkhonto's family and many others who have worked with him and have been influenced by his literary and other prowess, all giving moving tributes to a man who has made an indelible mark in the field of African languages.

Attendees – which also included local chiefs and people from such institutions as Fort Hare, Walter Sisulu, Rhodes and North West universities – were mainly dressed in traditional garb, with praise singing and ululations filling the venue in celebration of the literary doyen.

A very emotional Prof Linda Kwatsha, senior Language and Literature lecturer at Mandela University and a former student and mentee of Prof Mkhonto, said the lecture was meant to honour the esteemed professor for his contribution towards the development of African languages and literature.

“He also made strides in the development and pioneering the isiXhosa creative writing. Prof Mkonto supported and initiated many projects on multilingualism, hence his involvement in the language policy committee of Nelson Mandela University,” she said.

“This is just as Prof Mkhonto would have liked it. This was him – all-embracing and acknowledging those who have touched and influenced him.”

Prof Mkhonto was born on 26 July 1950 in Balfour, a small village in Fort Beaufort, and married to Mam’ uNokuzola, and blessed with three sons – Babalo, Bayanda and Bulelani Mkhonto. He is a full member of the Congregational Church of Southern Africa and has served as a deacon. He has had an illustrious career as a high school teacher, before moving on to the higher education space.

He was a senior lecturer and later deputy Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Fort Hare University, a professor and HOD at the former Port Elizabeth Vista University, and an associate professor and subject coordinator at Mandela University.

His nephew, Zola Yeye, accompanied by the professor’s sons and older brother Mr Doc Mkhonto, thanked the University on behalf of Prof Mkhonto, who could not be present at the celebration.

“Driving here, I had the song ‘Zange kube nje aph’ ekhaya’ because inkulu into eniyenzileyo for umalume.

“I liked how my uncle was described. He was a man of culture and tradition. Yintsika yekhaya kooTshezi bonke. He guided us in the way in which things are done in the African tradition.

“On behalf of my uncle and aunt, I say nangamso.

“He is grateful that he was honoured while still alive. Many do not get to enjoy that privilege. He was not one for self-aggrandisement, but is honoured by this as he did not know just valued he was by the University and other institutions and individuals who graced the event.”

The celebration of Prof BB Mkhonto, who is celebrating his 69th birthday tomorrow, takes place during a month that carries great symbolism as it is also SEK Mqhayi month, in celebration of the well-known isiXhosa poet, as well as Mandela month.  

The lecture aligns with Mandela University’s value of diversity, with the university also one that promotes multilingualism to accommodate the linguistic diversity of is community. It is also part of our commemoratory celebration of the International Year for Indigenous Languages.