/ 25 June 2021

Great heart of African literature: Bheki Peterson’s expansive vision of the world

Peterson 2
Bhekizizwe Peterson pictured with National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS) awards judge Professor Hlonipha Mokoena in 2018, after a book he co-edited won a prize. (Image courtesy of NIHSS)

The last word that Professor Bheki Peterson wrote in an email to me was “Welcome!”. That was six weeks ago. It was in relation to being appointed a research associate in African literature at the University of the Witwatersrand, the department to which I owe such an intellectual debt.  

I could not be more honoured. Although I had not officially passed through its doors as a student, the scholarship and creative practice emanating from this department, founded by Es’kia Mphahlele and shaped by so many brilliant thinkers in his wake, not least by Bheki, met me at every turn and effectively changed my life course. 

I first met Bheki in 2009 when I was working on my MSc dissertation in African studies at the University of Oxford during a career break from publishing. I was researching Sol Plaatje’s intensive decade of travel and writing, 1912 to 1922, supervised by Professor Elleke Boehmer, and had been inspired by Bheki’s 2008 article in the Journal of Commonwealth Literature on the petitionary mode in Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa. 

He generously opened his door to me at Wits when I was back in my hometown Johannesburg ahead of my research trips to Mahikeng and Kimberley. It was good to be back in Solomon Mahlangu (then Senate) House, where his office was based. It was no coincidence that the department of African literature, in the abiding presence of Bheki Peterson and others, had been the intellectual home of Phaswane Mpe (b. 1970, d. 2004), a scholar and friend gone far too soon. It was Phaswane who had first introduced me to Plaatje, for which I remain ever grateful. In interconnecting circles of influence and patterns of transcontinental flow, I had first corresponded with Phaswane in 1997 when he was undertaking postgraduate study in publishing at Oxford Brookes University and I was about to do the same. In the unfamiliar early days of email and with changing institutions, I lost much of my correspondence with Phaswane, which I still mourn. Now with the passing of Bheki, nearly two decades since Phaswane’s transition, I save all his words and savour their rereading.

I kept coming into contact with Bheki through publishing and African Literature Association (ALA) circuits, but it was in 2014 that I took the leap to approach he and Dr Brian Willan about co-editing an interdisciplinary, multi-authored volume to commemorate the 2016 centenary of Native Life in South Africa and its relevance today. I could not have been more delighted and humbled, nor could I have imagined what full two-year period that would be — and the extent to which it would be so life-altering.

Bheki Peterson with members of the jury of the NIHSS awards in 2018 after accepting the 2018 award for best non-fiction edited book for Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa: Past and Present. Pictured with him, from left to right, are Jyoti Mistry, Pumla Dineo Gqola and director of the NIHSS, Sarah Mosoetsa. (Image courtesy of NIHSS)

Exceeding all our expectations, the book co-won the 2018 National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences best edited collection prize and Bheki represented the editors at the awards ceremony at the Market Theatre, dedicating it to Plaatje. In his characteristically modest and generous way, Bheki wrote to Brian and I: “I’m not a great fan of ‘awards’ but appreciate the opportunities that they represent in the life of the project. [This occasion does], however, offer me the opportunity to thank you again for the vision and graciousness with which we were able to work together.”

Bheki and I last met in person at ALA’s 2019 conference in Columbus, Ohio. Under the conference theme, “Institutions of African Literature: Future, Present, Past”, he convened outstanding panels on the meaning of Peter Abrahams, Noni Jabavu, and Es’kia Mphahlele across a century. His expansive vision provided the impetus for searching out resonances across space and time, and asking provocative questions today. As he wrote in a lively African Identities article entitled Kwaito, ‘Dawgs’ and the Antimonies of Hustling, the “view of the past as inheritance and resource is one that still needs to be inculcated … Part of the challenge that faces South African artists lies not only in how to be innovative but also in how to capture the past in the present.” 

Over coffee at ALA 2019, we got to talking about the University of York, where I was completing my PhD, and where he’d done his MA. Records show that he joined York’s Centre for Southern African Studies in October 1987 and shone on the course. He wrote his dissertation, Black Performance and Politics in South Africa, 1970-1986, against the insistent backdrop of the state of emergency at the time.

In April 2021, I had written to Bheki about discussing his time at York further. I was interested in his experience at the Centre for Southern African Studies, which attracted many black students from South Africa and elsewhere, many of whom went on to become notable political figures. The centre had closed down in the early 1990s during the time of South Africa’s political transition, which I could not help thinking was a great loss.     

Fortunately, a rich collection of materials and specialist publications from the centre remained, curated by the Borthwick Institute for Archives, which aided my literary-historical research on black traveller-writers from the mid-19th century to the present day. In 1974, at the instigation of exiled poet and anti-apartheid activist Dennis Brutus, the centre spearheaded a project to curate publications and archives relating to Southern Africa. In that same year, Jabavu deposited copies of family photographs and the text of her 1953 testimony to the UN Commission on the racial situation in South Africa.

Jabavu was one of the people covered in our last series of emails. Bheki was lead editor of the forthcoming book, Foundational African Writers: Peter Abrahams, Noni Jabavu, Sibusiso Nyembezi, Es’kia Mphahlele, and I was convening a York Festival of Ideas event on Jabavu’s life on the go and traces of her schoolgirl years in 1930s York. We were both working closely with Makhosazana Xaba and Athambile Masola. 

More than ever, I could not wait to meet up and I was bursting with items to discuss. The horizon of projects seemed brighter than ever. At the same time, it was all too apparent that the clouds were building, with Covid on the rise again. We could not imagine that illness would claim one of South Africa’s — and the world’s — best scholars and humans. 

Bheki Peterson lived through some of the harshest times in high to late apartheid followed by the painful complexities of the post-1994 period, informing much of his life’s work. I wish I could have learnt more about the textures of his own personal history. I will find comfort, guidance, and provocation in his writings and creations, in the legacies of his extraordinary mentorship, and in his prompts to always see the bigger picture.