Greatness rooted in feeling

Write on Mbulelo Mzamane explored the unfolding drama of life. (Supplied)

Write on Mbulelo Mzamane explored the unfolding drama of life. (Supplied)


Part of Mbulelo Mzamane's creative brilliance was his capacity for being nakedly himself. He kept his unique individuality unsmudged and preserved a kind of purity of self even in the most ordinary of occasions. 

Add to this Mzamane's unabashed, indefatigable interest in the self of ordinary men, women and children, and the complexity of that self – rare, anomalous, magnificently interesting, curious, tremendously suggestive – and one sees how Mzamane's creative writing and his public discourses may be one of the great autobiographies of literature.

Moreover, the strict form of the short story, the presence of positive structure or conscious pattern, corresponded closely to Mzamane's disciplined habit of thought and composition and allowed ordered play to be one of the most characteristic qualities of his writing.

His writing, as well as his public discourses, displays as well as anything else I know the quality one could call "intelligent incompleteness", that unfolding, turning, searching quality of the living consciousness. We can apply to Mzamane's writing the words one could use to describe the drama of thought and feeling, and present these as growing, and not merely depicting convictions or principles. This gives Mzamane's writing exactly the effect of offering the thing as it moves, the idea, the feeling, the spectacle, the character, before it has been arrested by time or tedium or frozen into convention.

The effect of movement, of the volatility of action, is everywhere apparent throughout his writing. It is the literary equivalent of nervous energy and its intensity and pervasiveness hardly fit in with the legend of an informal and casual boy next door. It was a legend he himself – as much as his colleagues and childhood friends – was responsible for propagating. 

But, like a mature intelligence, he was profoundly conscious of his own limitations yet never suffered anguish as a result of it. 

The legend of the casual boy next door seems, indeed, almost ludicrous to one who sees in his writing the tough speculation, the intellectual passion, the flowing of good humour, the spurts of frantic activity, the immense quantity of hard work and the daunting constant illness in middle age that made him human. 

Even in recent years, pushing his mid-60s, the virtue of his illness was intensity, an extraordinary concentration of light on a particular point. And they occurred, these Mzamanean moments, with astonishing frequency. They were liable to appear, suddenly and brilliantly, reminiscent of Can Themba at his best, in the most incongruous settings. 

It might have been in the middle of some bull session, or after a dreary round of strategic planning workshops, stoep tattle or some minor crisis. Suddenly, Mzamane's energies would kindle, his ranging capacities combine, and we would be dazzled by the radiance of an understanding profound, comprehensive and tremblingly alive. Wit, irony, humour, gentle sarcasm, scholastic subtlety and profound wisdom – and this strange combination still more strangely coexisted with childhood simplicity, unaffected charity and the very soul of back-patting good humour. 

A similar type of quality was present in Mzamane's academic discourse. A shaft of light is an apt image for a style of great warmth and transparency, for a habit of using words with charming mobility and of moulding them exactly to the figure of the thought and the feeling.

Coherence amid complexity, the necessity for it, the nature of it, consistently concerned him. Perhaps it was this concern that attracted him to the short story and later the encyclopaedia. Nor was the importance he gave it simply an intellectual conviction arrived at by "severe dialectical analysis" and expressed "in explicit and unambiguous language". He spoke of it always in an ardent and feeling way. 

And the more intricate the issues, the more jumbled life's little and tragic ironies, the more passionately he urged the necessity of coherence. 

The habit of drawing thought from feeling surely brought his literary and personal style closer to that of the general run of ordinary human beings. Mzamane's whole ideas did not have a purely intellectual provenance and were derived from the more concrete and inclusive life of feeling.

Moreover, Mzamane's appetite for coherence, in an extremely complex world, though it was, no doubt, characteristically Mzamanean in being so conscious and intense, was also perhaps no more than a Mzamanean version of a general human hunger. 

We all struggle for some degree of coherence, the most intimate kind of coherence there is, in our values and beliefs. It may be only a vague inarticulate anxiety in ourselves but in Mzamane it was an articulated passion, although fundamentally it is the same thing.

There are certain artists who possess, beyond all the boundaries of our admiration for their art, an uncanny power to evoke our affection. We warm with pleasure at the mention of their names; their simplest utterances sing in our hearts like the remembered voices of old, dear friends and, when we are lost within the listening silences of tender memory, their subtlest effects seem meant for us in the intimate space of our own living rooms. And when we encounter the simple dignity of their immediate presence, we suddenly ponder the mystery of human greatness. 

Such was Mzamane.

Perhaps this power sprang from his dedication, his having subjected himself successfully to the demanding discipline necessary to the mastery of his chosen art. Or, perhaps, it is a quality with which he was born as some are born with rich black hair. Perhaps it was a gift, not a technique. But whatever its source, it touches us as a rich abundance of human warmth, sympathy and the miracle of voice. 

He was the sincere one whose humanity dominated the artifices of his art with which he stirred us and, when he spoke in front of his students at Fort Hare or among fellow vice-chancellors at the Association of African Universities or the International Association of University Presidents, we had some notion of our better selves.

May Mzamane rest in peace after a life rich with brilliance and a carnival of laughter, a life of such simplicity and charm.

Muxe Nkondo is vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Venda

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