The Narrative Enquiry for Social Transformation (Nest) research network was launched in 2015 at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. At this first conference, we screened the acclaimed documentary, Zwelidumile, which Bhekizizwe Peterson made together with his life-long collaborator and friend, Ramadan Suleman. The work celebrates Dumile Feni’s extraordinary artistic vision of the world, of black life traumatically exiled from home. Through the particularities of this exceptional life, the film traces the ways in which art is knitted into intergenerational family life and in living relations between people. It represents the quintessential texture and tone of Bheki Peterson’s unique form of narrative scholarship, traversing the disciplines of film, visual art and music, never flinching in the face of contradictions and complexities, and raising questions without offering any neat answers for closure in the ongoing quest for meaning-making about the past and potential futures.
This was the beginning of a remarkable interdisciplinary partnership and close collaboration that shaped the contours of Nest. The subsequent Nest conferences were always multimodal, exploring vibrant alternative narrative resources for interpreting the world through dance, music, visual art and poetry. These events were deliberately egalitarian in design, providing space for young scholars and students to present their work alongside renowned international keynote speakers. They were forums characterised by vociferous debate, sometimes bitter disagreements about critical political and intellectual positions. Prof Peterson was always the quiet authoritative voice that insisted on respectful attention to one another, enabling possibilities for deep learning and change.
Interdisciplinary work, if it is conducted with the serious intent of generating new intersectional spaces of knowledge, is difficult and risky. We spent a lot of time in conversation and in writing, undoing and unravelling the knotty confluences between our home disciplines of literature and psychology to release new threads of meaning-making. As we worked together, he would sometimes (quite often!) discover lacunae in my knowledge. He would look at me with admonishing disappointment, and then generously and patiently proceed to open yet another door to new vistas on the world, new pathways for reading, thinking, looking and listening.
Professor Peterson was that rare scholar who was a much-loved teacher. He never saw teaching as secondary to the more prestigious domain of research and his scholarship was always active in the seminar room. He was intolerant of trending fads or short cuts that skimmed over long, expansive histories of thought. He expected wholehearted engagement from students, a willingness to commit themselves with integrity the way he himself did, and coaxing them to find their unique voices and cultivate their own research niches. He was increasingly saddened, disillusioned and infuriated by the ways in which the commodification of higher education, petty institutional politicking and strangling bureaucratic procedures are eroding the possibilities for these forms of praxis.
Bheki embodied collegiality, collaboration and comradeship. He had an extraordinary capacity for giving of his time and himself — conversations with Bheki were always longer than anticipated. Some of our most generative discussions unfolded while walking across campus or stopping to sit in the sun on the steps of the great hall or on a bench somewhere between our offices. And typically, talking happened over shared food — lunch at the Wits Arts Museum, where every second person needed to catch him for a quick chat, or more leisurely at the Wits club, where the waitrons knew to find him a table in the sun, always bring extra chillies and, when he was able to indulge, red wine. These lunches might have had a work agenda, but they were always convivial, fun and peppered with Bheki’s wicked sense of humour. In the past year with campus closed, we have met for long, zooming conversations ranging across theoretical ideas to mundane organisational matters, dissecting the news — horrifying, hilarious or of the head-shaking Eish! variety — and always caring talk about students and families.
Bheki constantly reminded us that, as important and serious as our commitments to intellectual work might be, this is only one domain of meaningful action in the world, and he was animated by the ongoing practices of culture as resistance in everyday life. Even in the throes of desperate, despairing life in the wake of traumatic histories and in the enraging violent inequalities of the present, people have a remarkable capacity for imagination, for interpretation, critical hopeful action, joy and beauty. Nest work happens beyond the academy, in collaboration with Youth of the South in Dobsonville, Soweto — a project initiated and run by Nest affiliates
Hayley Haynes-Rolando and Phethile Zitha. Here, narrative provides the muscle for psychosocial work and participatory action research, enabling young people to read the world and themselves in new ways. Bheki’s passion for the invigoration of the black public humanities and intergenerational storytelling is articulated in this project, and in the complementary focus on the narratives of the older generation in the “grandparents project” co-ordinated by Professor Hugo Canham. Bheki was enthusiastically embarking on the consolidation of this work in a documentary film project with the Greater Dobsonville Heritage Foundation — one of many future gifts that we have lost.
The Nest logo was Bheki’s design, replacing somewhat concrete earlier versions that did not meet his exacting aesthetic standards. The giant baobab speaks to us of Bheki’s life and work, rooted in the ancient soil of Africa, with wide-spreading branches reaching towards the blue skies, holding many nesting spots for nurturing young scholars and incubating beautiful creative ideas. Bheki’s life story may have come to an end, but his narrative breath flows in all of us who are willing to do the work to create meaningful lives for ourselves and others. He would want us to continue to wrestle with questions that matter: How can we engage the long history and broad terrain of the African continent in making forms of knowledge for the future? What does it mean to be human in dehumanising and inhumane conditions?