Change the world


Author and cultural activist was among the first in South Africa to draw on the arts to advance the liberation struggle. He is receiving an Honorary Doctorate from Nelson Mandela University (13 December 2023).


“Receiving this honorary doctorate is far more than an accolade for me, it is for all the people in South Africa who do not have the voice to express themselves, who need to feel a sense of self and country, and that life is worth living,” says Langa.

The enemy is the internalised virus of excess

Quoting the late American novelist Toni Morrison, he explains that when things are bleak and when people feel there is little hope, “it is essential for people in the arts and humanities to come forth and reflect on where society is…”.

In South Africa today, he posits the biggest problem we are facing is that too many people have no regard for others.

“It’s me and my family first, and never mind the rest. This kind of thinking is very destructive and the enemy that has to be fought is the internalised virus of excess and the cult of the personality.”

Langa says when people are seduced by money and power, it blinds them to the poverty and pain of others. “It whittles away the capacity for empathy, and once this happens, society as a whole starts to suffer.”

He believes that South Africa needs “to get back to thinking about what we want as a people collectively, what stirred us, inspired us to achieve democracy and left the world wondering in awe at the capacity to change our reality.”

Who better than the university’s namesake to remind us of this than Nelson Mandela, whom Langa met and got to know in a profound way through Mandela’s handwritten notes and a draft Mandela left unfinished when he passed away in 2013. The book that resulted was Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years, published in 2017 with Mandela and Langa as co-authors.

“What struck me was his discipline and what he was capable of,” says Langa. “In 1952 he led the Defiance Campaign against apartheid laws just four years after the National Party came to power and racism was at its highest. It took unspeakable courage, determination and leadership.”

He adds: “Too often we forget the details of our history and I urge all those in the arts and humanities to deeply probe what actually happened in our past, and what is happening in society now.”

Through his researching and writing skills, Langa has, throughout his life, reflected on society and what equality, freedom and liberation means. From the early 1970s as a student at the University of Fort Hare and leader in the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) he was actively part of the anti-apartheid movement and arrested in 1976.

After 101 days in prison, he fled to Botswana, starting his life in exile in Africa, taking part in Umkhonto we Sizwe military training camps and serving as the ANC’s cultural attaché in the UK. Returning to South Africa in 1992 he led pioneering work in the post-apartheid framework for telecommunications, media and broadcasting that could serve the interests of a democratic South Africa.

Langa has authored several books and in 2020 he graduated with a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from Wits University. Among his many honours is South Africa’s National Order of Ikhamanga (Silver) for his literary, journalistic and cultural achievements.

He is currently serving as South Africa’s High Commissioner in Yaounde, Cameroon, and writing his latest novel titled A Special Kind of Darkness about growing up in KwaMashu township, where, during the forced removals in Durban his family was dislocated from their home in the mixed suburb of Mayville to a bleak four-roomed house in KwaMashu.

“I have a strong memory of my father looking at the truck that brought us and all our worldly goods there, of him looking at this house and looking at us and he was trying to hide the depth of his feelings. When the truck pulled away so many of our possessions had been broken. In time, we moved to another section of KwaMashu which was far more livable. It was a vibrant, colourful neighbourhood, with everyone playing on the streets, the fights, the boozing, the music; it was another side of that bleak coin.

“Today, new generations, including the 2023 class of graduates, have a new struggle to champion, of battling against ignorance and self-defeating excesses and impulses; to expose that which thrives in the dark. Let us shine a light on it and banish it from our midst. Let us cherish hope, reward hard work and remember the unremembered.”

Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057