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Bheki Peterson: Pursuing radical epistemological thought with an understated erudition

Since we have learned of the untimely death of Professor Bhekizizwe Peterson, his presence has been growing even stronger, stubbornly so. This feeling is perhaps largely a result of shock, but also because his legacy will endure. Bra Bheki, as we came to call him over the years, without stripping him of any of the many titles he so rightly deserved as a scholar and artist, was undoubtedly a towering, yet ever-gentle giant across several disciplines in the humanities.

Possibly one of his most remarkable qualities was his mastery of pursuing radical epistemological thought with an understated erudition. If you did not care to read and engage with him, you might have mistaken him for an indolent ivory-tower paper pusher. He was far from that. Our dear brother, friend and teacher was stoical in his quest for theoretical rigour and committed praxis. 

As a result, Bra Bheki was not everyone’s cup of tea, especially in the academy that promotes self-aggrandisation, stardom and the easy recycling of old ideas and concepts into trendy language and discourse. Ideas, Bra Bheki knew, take a great deal of time, investment, and meaningful collaborations for them to flourish and feed the soul. 

Publishing premature ideas was not his style. He invested in laying a fertile ground for intellectual thought, and when it germinated after many years of cultivation and care, no one could deny isongo (life-giving taste) in the work. Bra Bheki produced artistic and academic work that spoke to the heart as much as it did to the mind. 

What is also impossible to forget, is how, like a benevolent fisherman rowing forward, prof always sought to embrace others towards the light, ensuring that the gift he bestowed on you would endure. 

I remember the first time I had contact with Prof Bheki in February 2018 at the psychology department for one of the  Narrative Enquiry for Social Transformation projects: the grandparents project, on which I was a research assistant. That encounter left me excited and challenged by this quiet, short and funny professor with curious eyes. The first agenda item on the table was to introduce ourselves and our research interest areas. I was the first one to go. Prof Bheki picked something controversial on the republished archive I was studying.     

The contentious issue was around the politics of ownership and ethics of naming. This, I sensed, was an extension of a “controversial” question that was asked by a fellow academic in a colloquium that was held at Rhodes University the previous year. 

In my head, I asked myself, “With the direction in which he is pushing, is the prof playing devil’s advocate in this conversation? How should I respond to this?” I was so confused.  “Honesty and intellectual humility,” I resolved. The exchange went on for 10 minutes or so, with the prof pressing me further. Professor Hugo Canham, his collaborator and colleague, had to intervene and remind us that other collaborators had not introduced themselves and we needed to move on to other important items. That was Prof Bheki for you: pushing thinking to the limits, finding joy in engaging and challenging young people’s thinking.

One did not have to be a student in his classroom in a narrow sense to enjoy the many delights of his expansive and critical knowledge. One could find those in ordinary engagements and, of course, in the body of work he so carefully produced. The transdisciplinary nature of his scholarly work reverberated beyond African literary circles to other fields within the humanities and beyond. Everyone with vested interest in African intellectual life and ideas could pick up prof’s work and immediately relate to it. It’s a rare model of scholarship, and it takes lots of investment and time to master.

Monarchs, Missionaries, and African Intellectuals: African Theatre and the Unamking of Colonial Marginality (Wits University Press, 2000/Africa World Press, 2000)

His grasp of history, literature, colonialism and the legacy of Africans in subverting Christianity for self-emancipatory vocabularies was impossible to miss for any student of modernism and its many footprints of violence and resistance, particularly in Africa and the African diaspora. His first book, Monarchs, Missionaries and African Intellectuals: African Theatre and the Unmaking of Colonial Marginality, published in 2000, carefully pieced these themes together and shifted many scholars’ understanding of history.  

Bra Bheki’s indebtedness to many exemplary ancestors in African letters such as SEK Mqhayi, Sol Plaatje, BW Vilakazi, Herbert Dhlomo, Noni Jabavu, Chinua Achebe and the ’50s Drum writers highlighted the importance of young African scholars beginning their intellectual charity at home. In his borderless and generous classroom, he assured many of us that we, too, have distinguished knowledge producers in the modernist tradition whose contributions matter in outlining the socioeconomic injustices of the modern world. 

Together with colleagues and fellow arts activists such as Miriam Tlali, Benjy Francis, Don Mattera, Ramadan Suleman,Strini Moodley and Matsemela Manaka, Bra Bheki always kept the spirit of Steve Biko alive. In Biko’s Black Consciousness ideology, he saw critical liberatory theory and praxis that remains relevant even in a democratic South Africa. 

Prof BP leaves so much work behind — complete and still in progress — for us to take up and meditate on. One of the works he leaves unpublished is the paper titled, African Arts, Archives and the Anteroom of the Academy in South Africa, which he delivered in 2018 in the Black Archives series that was hosted by the University of Cape Town. 

In this paper, he advances the importance of a critical appraisal of Black public humanities. This notion covers oral, performed, and written forms of ideas in circulation at public consumption — in and after 1910, when Black thinkers were explicitly racially excluded from the sphere of intellectual life: excluded from universities, and thus from academic humanities. Professor Peterson’s proposition is that these texts were not just “literary” texts, but sites where historiographic, philosophic, and cultural knowledge is deposited. We find this framework so useful in thinking about how Black discourse was registered, and tactically manoeuvred under those times, even if it meant using externally derived technologies of literacy, such as newspapers.

One of young scholars’ most direct engagements with him in person, before Covid-19 and its movement restrictions, was at the Decolonial Aesthesis Creative Lab at Rhodes University in 2018 organised by Sharlene Khan and Fouad Asfour. Calmly and with his quintessential smile, Bra Bheki challenged the often-limiting hierarchical understanding of knowledge production, suggesting that we needed to look deeper into indigenous knowledge philosophies and not buy into old colonial lies that rendered African ancestors incapable of profound insights and systematic thought and aesthetics.

A private discussion with him regarding the trope of cows in South African indigenous literature, such as Walter Rubusana’s Zemk’ Inkomo Magwalandini and Sibusiso Nyembezi’s Inkinsela YaseMgungundlovu, is yet another dearly treasured memory. Even as we have lost Prof Bheki Peterson in his bodily manifestation, there is no doubt that he continues to be among us, especially because of the dazzling mix of literary scholars he has produced in South Africa and many parts of the world. His teachings and ideas will forever live with us: in our scholarship, artistic work, teaching practice, and activism. So long gqala le-Afrika. — Sandile Ngidi also contributed to this article

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