By Siphiwo Mahala
When I first read Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane's Mzala (1980), a series of comical short stories about misadventures in townships, the short story genre instantly became my favourite. At the time the author was also the vice-chancellor and principal of the university I was attending.
The year was 1995 and I was a first-year student at the University of Fort Hare. Mzamane was the first post-apartheid vice-chancellor. It would paradoxically become the highest and lowest point of his career. In later years he would confess that it was not in his interest to be at the helm of the university. He always saw himself as a teacher: he wanted to teach.
As a vice-chancellor he was one of the most dynamic and cosmopolitan personalities we had ever known. Born in Port Elizabeth in 1948, Mzamane grew up in Brakpan and attended high school in Swaziland before completing a Master's degree at the University of Botswana and receiving a doctorate from the University of Sheffield (England). He had held academic, research and visiting appointments at Sheffield (UK), Vermont (US), Essen (Germany); Ahmadu Bello University (Nigeria), Yale (US), Boston (US), the University of South Australia and the Australian National University, among others. He had won numerous awards for his creative and scholarly works and published several works of fiction, essays and academic articles.
He was loved and respected by the late president Nelson Mandela and other leaders across the continent. Mandela described him as "a visionary leader, (and) one of South Africa's greatest intellectuals". He had been appointed by Mandela and later president Thabo Mbeki to various national positions, including the SABC Board and the Heraldry Council, and served as the director and chairman of several structures in the arts, culture, education and communications sectors. On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the University of Fort Hare in 1996, Mzamane was able to bring to Alice Fort Hare alumni including Mandela, Robert Mugabe, Julius Nyerere and other prominent individuals across the continent. The image of Mandela and Mugabe standing on the university sports field and sharing jokes with students was unforgettable!
As an educationist, Mzamane promoted a culture of reading. He would give impromptu lectures whenever there was a platform. He was a popular choice as a guest speaker on literary, arts and educational matters. In his essay, Continuities and Discontinuities in South African literature, he argues, "Mental dexterity, the love of learning, and the intellectual life of a nation depend on an early obsession for reading." He also opines: "It is widely accepted that history is written by the conquerors. The converse must be equally true that, if previously colonised people have not begun to write their own history, they still have a mental bondage."