Feisty professor ‘took life on the chin’

OBITUARY

Margaret Lenta

Margaret Mary Lenta was born and grew up in Northumberland, North England, and taught in Nigeria and Kenya before settling in South Africa in 1966.

From 1973 until her retirement in 1999 she worked as a lecturer in English studies at the University of Natal, now the University of KwaZulu-Natal, rising steadily until she attained the rank of full professor in 1994. From 1999 she was emeritus professor and a very active senior research associate of the university.

My first experience of Dr Lenta, as she was then, did not give me any sense of how our relationship would develop later. She taught me Richardson, Austen and Chaucer, none of whom I was particularly receptive to in those heady days of high apartheid, what with the intoxicating effects of literary theory and the political and intellectual ferment that were so characteristic of the time.


She terrified me with her formidable knowledge, forthright manner and highly articulate, occasionally cutting verbal style. She was not someone to be trifled with and she had no difficulty in maintaining discipline in a lecture theatre of any size, her small stature notwithstanding.

A senior University of KwaZulu-Natal colleague, who was both a student and a colleague of Lenta for many years, recently told me of her experience of negotiating over an honours special essay. It was due on Monday and the colleague had a boyfriend down from the army over the weekend. Might she perhaps have an extension? She was met with an appalled silence and a look of utter incredulity. "No. A woman must get her priorities right" was Lenta's sharp retort. The honours essay was in on time and the boyfriend duly lost.

In response to changing times, Lenta shifted her research focus decisively and very effectively to South African literature, especially the novels of JM Coetzee, the journals of Lady Anne Barnard and the stories of Herman Charles Bosman.

The last were the subject of a master's degree by a student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The student had been struggling with his topic and I, as external examiner, had had occasion to see a very inadequate earlier version of the dissertation. He was placed in her able hands and a year or so later I readily awarded the study a distinction. She was a tough supervisor, but she had the ability to get the best from her students.

Three notable University of KwaZulu-Natal colleagues — Michael Chapman, Margaret Daymond and Johan Jacobs — must be made mention of here. I came to think of them, together with Lenta, as the "gang of four".

Academic life is so often characterised by petty squabbles and divisions. These four have shown what can be achieved if the opposite tendency — warm collegiality and collaboration — is adopted. The four were instrumental in launching and sustaining a very fine and influential contemporary literary studies journal, Current Writing, and in producing scores of books and hundreds of articles and book chapters.

Their effect on South African literary studies, individually and collectively, has been immense. Over the past decade or more Lenta and I were peer evaluators of each other's articles (I as editor of English in Africa and she as associate editor of Current Writing). I always welcomed contributions from her because they were topical, well researched and immaculately written. On occasion, though, changes to her articles were requested by readers. She, unlike so many other prickly academics, took all valid suggestions in good part and invariably bounced back with a stronger article at the end of this process.

At a conference a few years ago, I complimented her on her equanimity in this respect. She fixed me with her sharp blue eyes and said: "Well, you see, we editors know how to take it on the chin."

Lenta took life on the chin. She had been battling with cancer for some years, but to the last refused to give in. She and Chapman co-edited the important SA Lit: Beyond 2000 (UKZN Press, 2011) and she travelled to Johannesburg this year for the M&G Literary Festival to speak on a panel that featured the book. I was a panellist and was struck by how well she looked. Moreover, she was her usual feisty self — sharp, incisive and entertaining.

It was all a courageous front. A little more than two months later she would be gone. I have no doubt that fighting to the last was the path she chose for herself. 

Subscribe to the M&G for R2 a month

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

And for this weekend only, you can become a subscriber by paying just R2 a month for your first three months.

Related stories

Obituary: Literary allrounder Stephen Gray was a scholar, critic, novelist and poet

Stephen Gray made an immense, long contribution to the South African literary landscape across many genres, but it was poetry that he described as ‘the main activity of my life’

Myesha Jenkins: A sister who always said it with feeling

Poet and activist Myesha Jenkins (1948-2020) took her craft, including her teaching, extremely seriously

Obituary: The pointillist detail and zen brush strokes of Jürgen Schadeberg

‘Drum’ photographer Jürgen Schadenberg, who died on Sunday, displayed a profound humanism, writes his friend and sometime collaborator Hazel Friedman

George Hallett: Nomad, raconteur and photographer who ‘became the camera’

The renowned South African photographer understood how to look for the tucked-away spaces that were the sources of both light and dark

Review: A masterful look at five decades of African development

‘Know The Beginning Well’ is an insightful peek into the life of KY Amoako and the fascinating work he has done on the continent

Inside the circle: A review of Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

Saidiya Hartmanilluminates the perspectives of young Black women through a vividly cinematic narrative where we are positioned to view the world through their eyes.
Advertising

Subscribers only

Q&A Sessions: Frank Chikane on the rainbow where colours never...

Reverend Frank Chikane has just completed six years as the chairperson of the Kagiso Trust. He speaks about corruption, his children’s views and how churches can be mobilised

ANC: ‘We’re operating under conditions of anarchy’

In its latest policy documents, the ANC is self-critical and wants ‘consequence management’, yet it’s letting its members off the hook again

More top stories

‘Where the governments see statistics, I see the faces of...

Yvette Raphael describes herself as a ‘professional protester, sjambok feminist and hater of trash’. Government officials would likely refer to her as ‘a rebel’. She’s fought for equality her entire life, she says. And she’s scared of no one

Covid-19 stems ‘white’ gold rush

The pandemic hit abalone farmers fast and hard. Prices have dropped and backers appear to be losing their appetite for investing in the delicacy

Al-Shabab’s terror in Mozambique

Amid reports of brutal, indiscriminate slaughter, civilians bear the brunt as villages are abandoned and the number of refugees nears half a million

South Africa’s cities opt for clean energy

Efforts to reduce carbon emissions will hinge on the transport sector
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…