APC Tribute: Professor Bhekizizwe Peterson 1961-2021
The Archive and Public Culture (APC) research initiative and its fellows, across South Africa and internationally, mourn the untimely passing of our deeply admired colleague, Bhekizizwe Peterson.
We will miss greatly his wry warmth, his luminous integrity and his scholarly comradeship.
Bheki’s work on Black intellectual traditions has been formative of key aspects of the APC’s trans-disciplinary research focus. In recent years his formulation and ongoing development of the concept of the Black Humanities historically operating outside of South Africa’s racially-configured universities has offered a richly generative framework for scholars engaging with early works by Black writers. For historically-orientated APC scholars this has proven especially productive in developing approaches to reading their works, and recognizing and exploring the kinds of historiographical interventions which they constitute.
In the last few years Bheki began to realize the fruits of deep, long-term scholarly and cultural investments. These were the basis for so much of the intellectual direction and incisive conceptual engagement that is evident in his latest interventions and work. Some of Bheki’s most recent thinking is not readily available in publication. We provide here a link to the abstract of an incisive presentation entitled “African Arts, Archives and the Anteroom of the Academy” given by Bheki in 2018 at the Black Archives and Intellectual Histories Seminar Series. We also provide a link to Bheki’s keynote address to a 2020 APC colloquium.
We thus mourn not only the passing of a valued scholar at the height of his powers, but one whose work was not yet done.
Some of the APC fellows share their memories and the elements of his life’s work which stand out for them.
In addition, we have provided below a Bibliographic resource as part of this tribute. We welcome any further contributions to this resource. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo courtesy of The Conversation
From APC Fellows
besingakulundele lokhu osekuthe kwasehlela.
kushubisa umnkatsha okusehleleyo kulemini yeminjunju,
sithi jubalala juba lamasolokohlo.
Awudinge kucuthwa nakuchukuluzwa muntu mphikeleli kanongqondo.
Nguwe phela othe wathabatha iklwa likaBantu Biko, umfelukholo wenkululeko,
kepha uligcobe ngamafutha,
Angingangabazi sewusemadlelweni acwebileyo.
Nguwe osegida emaphakadeni amaphupho abalele bengalele,
sewusezifubeni ezifudumeleyo zabasihaqa ngamakha nothando olungapheliyo.
Sithi, lempumulo ayibe ngeyiyo-yiyo mfowethu.
I was still living in Lesotho when in the 1980s Bheki Peterson sent me the first draft of the film script of Fools that he and Ramadan Suleman were working on. At first I read it with some disquiet: this was not my story! But then I began to relax as I read on, responding to the logic of the narrative sequencing of the script as it unfolded. I reviewed my first reaction when it became clear in my mind that whereas at first I had naturally imposed on the script the narrative sequencing of the original text, the script itself worked to its own narrative of visual language.
The realisation hit me that the world of film was not only different from that of written fiction, but also that, despite the difference, or perhaps because of it,, a film based on a work of fiction could evoke aesthetic pleasure as resonant as that of the original text. In the film Fools Bheki and Ramadan were able to successfully transfigure literary art into film art: the same story told in different artistic languages and techniques yet retaining the integrity of its aesthetic essence in either medium. Part of the beauty of it all was in the intense discussions I had with Bheki and Ramadan at various stages as they wrote the movie script.
What was happening was that the collaborative intellectual and cinematic integrity that Bheki and Suleman brought to their script and to which I adjusted as I read on, got me to let go of my instinctive possessiveness of the artifact of my creation. They remolded the original narrative into a visual one while retaining and remaining true to its artistic intentions. Storytelling in pictures, I learned, did not have to be a slave to the narrative sequencing of its literary version. What mattered was that the two versions were telling the same story. What also mattered was that their approach made me believe in the authenticity of their project.
They were so successful that any lingering anxieties I naturally had disappeared when I saw the movie for the first time at Aix en Provence in France in 1997 as part of the programme of a writers’ conference. The movie scene in which Mimi, Zani’s younger sister gives birth to the child of her teacher who had raped her was so emotionally wrenching I was grateful for the darkness of the movie theatre when my tears betrayed me.
What reinforced my growing confidence in the Bheki’s and Ramadan’s collaboration was when I became a part of it and how my resulting exposure to the processes of the art of cinematography deepened and extended my own experience of literary art. I believe that the intricate relationship between the literary and film arts in the transfiguration of Fools would be worthy of study in the South African curriculum of literary and film studies. It should never be forgotten though, that in addition to the script, superb directing and acting are an inseparable part of the total cinematographic effect.
Little did I know that not long after my interactions with Bheki and Ramadan on the film script of Fools I would unexpectedly return home in 1991 to be Chair and Head of Department of African Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand. There, I got to work with Bheki more closely and more intensely. I always warmed, first and foremost, to his civil, respectful, and genuine human presence. It never failed to draw instinctive reciprocity out of me. This kind of ground always laid, enabled us to work robustly and incisively on professional matters that required our attention. An easy transparency about Bheki made the best solutions possible.
And so, what we were able achieve in our artistic collaboration we achieved in our professional setting..
The shock of Bheki Peterson’s sudden and unexpected loss is eased by my remembering one whose abiding humanity was of the kind that sustains among the living, the memory of worthy ancestors.
Njabulo S Ndebele
Emeritus Professor, UCT
When Bheki’s first book, Monarchs, Missionaries and African Intellectuals: African Theatre and the Unmaking of Colonial Marginality was published 2000 it fundamentally shifted my understanding of the historiographical significance of the texts of early African writers.
Amongst many other insights, Bheki noted the way in which the counter-narratives of Vilakazi’s poetry and Dhlomo’s ‘The Black Bulls’ were designed to contest dominant historiography and its effects:
Dhlomo was adamant that ‘time and again our position and future have been prejudiced and made insecure by reference to our past.” … Apart from his delineation of the aesthetics and politics of African drama, there are at least three other concepts that are fundamental to any engagement with Dhlomo’s writings. These are his emphasis on the role of narrative in historiography and discourse in general. Then there is his tortuous striving to construct an African identity predicated on the recognition of the malleability and historicity of tradition and culture; an emphasis that speaks eloquently to writers and scholars in a post-apartheid South Africa still intent on ‘managing diversity’ by reinventing the apartheid boundaries of purity and difference. It also speaks forcefully to recent local studies that while valorizing strategies of appropriation in working-class culture, albeit from a remarkable persistent Euro-centrism, remain blinkered in their knee-jerk association of syncretism in middle-class practices with forms of cultural and ideological contamination. The third salutary feature is the attempt to imagine a form of nationalism that while profoundly local in its form and elaboration, retains an internationalist dimension as an indispensable part of itself.’ (quotes from pp. 225, 227)
In 2000 this approach challenged the very definition of South African historiography.
And those who know Bheki, know the depth of his scholarship. While he had engaged in so many other areas of work since 2000, he continued to think in evermore probing ways about such issues. At the time of his death he was still working on the implications of these early insights and indeed on Dhlomo. I was privileged to have been engaged in continuous conversation with him from then until now. Conversations that were far from exhausted by the time of his death. My sense of loss is impossible to express.
Two days after isanxwe (a thunderous and sharp sound that leaves an echo hanging) caused by the mighty fall of Professor Bhekizizwe Peterson, one of his close colleagues and collaborator, Professor Hugo Canham wrote a sober and poignant tribute to him. In this tribute, Professor Canham lamented that the “last professor has gone”. What stayed with me after reading this tribute is the question that Prof Canham left to all of us to digest: what will we do now that the professor has gone?
Prof BP left so much work (complete and still in progress) for us to meditate on. For example, although my PhD study investigates the concept of umbuso in isiXhosa written texts from as early as the 1830s, I found Professor BP’s concept of Black Public Humanities in which he was still developing, to be useful in framing how I read texts under my study. His notion of Black Public Humanities covers oral, performed, and written forms of ideas in circulation at public consumption.- in and after 1910, when Black thinkers are explicitly racially excluded from the sphere of intellectual life: excluded in universities, and thus from academic Humanities. I found 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.
Prof BP’s work took African intellectuals and artists' work seriously and he weaved them with so much delicacy and care. The transdisciplinary nature of his scholarly work reverberated beyond African literary circles to other ‘fields’ within 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. Our task is to continue building from this legacy that Prof BP painstakingly invested in. Prof BP may have transcended this physical realm, but his ideas will forever live with us: in our scholarship, teaching practise, and activism.
I first met Bheki in 2009 during my Honours year at the Eskia Mphahlele Postgraduate Colloquium at Wits. Thulani Mkhize had insisted I submit an abstract and we traveled together to Johannesburg. The colloquium introduced me to the kind of scholarly environment I didn't know was possible. Prof Njabulo Ndebele gave the keynote, Prof Pumla Gqola chaired the panel I was in, and Prof Liz Gunner commented on my paper on Nontsizi Mgqwetho's poetry. I was starstruck but given enough room to feel like my ideas mattered. It was daunting and inspiring to be in an environment that took scholarship and black intellectual thought so seriously in an environment that was generous and unlike the academic posturing that had made the university an unfriendly place. That was the foundation I needed for the scholarship I have since circled back to in recent years. In 2019 I began working with him, Makhosazana Xaba and Khwezi Mkhize as a contributor towards the book The Meaning of Foundational Writers Across a Century: Peter Abrahams, Noni Jabavu, Sibusiso Nyembezi, Es’kia Mphahlele. This meant being part of a panel at the African Literature Association in Ohio as well as doing the keynote for the Rereading and Remapping Foundational Texts and Genealogies Colloquium. He was generous in his feedback to the keynote which informed the chapter I eventually submitted. He availed himself to be a reference whenever I asked. On a random Saturday I bumped into him at the Black Aesthetic Exhibition that was showing at the Standard Bank Gallery and we chatted briefly. He asked me about the PhD and I bemoaned the usual: I was distracted by other writing commitments (much to my supervisor's frustration) and nje ngomntu omdala, in his gentle way, he told me to buckle down and finish: all these other distractions will be there when you're done with the PhD he said. It was one of the many nudges I needed to get me to the finish line. While I was never a student in his class, it is the meaningful and simple interactions with him that have made all the difference. I could say more about his scholarship but that would need more space. Umthi omkhulu uwile.
Graduating with a degree in English Literature in which FR Leavis’s canon still more or less held sway, literature was considered to have gone into decline at the beginning of the twentieth century and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart had only recently been introduced and was still the only novel by an African writer in the curriculum, I have always regretted missing the establishment of the Department of African Literature at Wits. Bheki’s role in developing and quietly defending this little oasis of progressive and extraordinarily exciting scholarship was indispensable. I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity of working with him for a couple of years in the Narrative Enquiry for Social Transformation (NEST) research project. I thought I would have another conversation with him some time in which he would regard me kindly with his sparkling eyes and then reprove me gently for my naivete and unreconstructed ideas about history.
Bheki was so many beautiful things to many of us his former students, friends, colleagues and even those who did not know him personally. He was larger than life and seemed to be destined to always be around. We...(from the early 90s Wits Department of African Literature cohort of students) jokingly annointed him with the chiefly honorific “The Oba” after a character from Wole Soyinka's play “The Road”. For he was indeed a true leader.
A generous and humble man. A fierce intellectual yet deeply caring teacher. Huge loss...no words can describe.
Bhekizizwe Peterson Bibliography
(ongoing compilation by APC fellows)
Bhekizizwe Peterson, Benjy Francis and Essop Patel, Fragments in the Sun: Poems and Performance Text (Johannesburg: Afrika Cultural Centre, 1985).
Bhekizizwe Peterson & Benjy Francis, The Creative Act: A Notebook on Community Playmaking, (Johannesburg: Afrika Cultural Centre, 1990).
Bhekizizwe Peterson (ed), Fools by Njabulo S. Ndebele (Cape Town: Francolin Publishers, 1997).
Bhekizizwe Peterson, Monarchs, Missionaries and African Intellectuals: African Theatre and the Unmaking of Colonial Marginality (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2000 / New York: Africa World Press, 2000).
Bhekizizwe Peterson, Ramadan Suleman, Zulu Love Letter (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2009).
Bhekizizwe Peterson, Janet Remmington & Brian Willan (eds) Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa: Past and Present (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2016).
Journal Special Issues
Bhekizizwe Peterson & Anette Horn, “Es’kia Mphahlele: Teacher and Mentor”, Special Issue of English in Africa 32 (2), August 2011 (co-edited with Anette Horn)
Bhekizizwe Peterson, “Texts, Modes and Repertoires of Living In and Beyond the Shadows of Apartheid”, Special Issue, Journal of the African Literature Association, 10 (1), 2016.
Bhekizizwe Peterson & Jill Bradbury, “Narrative Articulations in Africa”, Special Issue, Social Dynamics 45 (3), 2019.
Bhekizizwe Peterson, “Apartheid and the Political Imagination in Black South African Theatre” in Journal of Southern African Studies, 16, 2,1990.
Bhekizizwe Peterson, “Kwaito, ‘dawgs’ and the antimonies of hustling” in African Identities,1, 2003.
Bhekizizwe Peterson, “The Problem with ‘Coconuttiness’” in Shakespeare in Southern Africa, 25, 2013, 111-113.
Bhekizizwe Peterson, “Otelo Burning” in Journal of African Cultural Studies 26 (3), 2014, 341-344.
Bhekizizwe Peterson ,Review article of Mark Fleishman (ed) Performing Migrancy and Mobility in Africa in Journal of Contemporary Drama in Africa, 5 (1), 2017.
Bhekizizwe Peterson, “Imagining and Appreciating “the long eye of history”: Race, Form and Representation in
Drum Magazine’s Serialisation of Wild Conquest” in Social Dynamics 45 (1), 2019.
Bhekizizwe Peterson & Jill Bradbury “Introduction: Narrative Articulation in Africa”, Social Dynamics 45 (3), 2019.
Bhekizizwe Peterson, “Spectrality and inter-generational black narratives in South Africa”, Social Dynamics 45 (3), 2019.
Bhekizizwe Peterson, Review of Frieda Ekotto and Kenneth W. Harrow, eds, Rethinking African Cultural Production in African Studies Review 63 (3), 2020.
Bhekizizwe Peterson, “The Archives and the Political Imaginary” in Carolyn Hamilton et al (eds.), Refiguring the Archive (David Philip Publishers, Cape Town and Kluwer, Dordrecht, 2002.
Bhekizizwe Peterson, “The Bantu World and the World of the Book: Reading, Writing and Enlightenment”, in Karin Barber (ed.) Africa's Hidden Histories: Everyday Literacy and Making the Self, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2006.
Bhekizizwe Peterson, “The Arts in the Eighties: Between States of Emergency of Transcendence?” in South African Democracy Education Trust, The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Volume 4 (1980-1990), (Pretoria, Unisa Press, 2010), 943-973.
Bhekizizwe Peterson, “The Language Question in Africa” in Ato Quayson (ed) The Cambridge History of Postcolonial Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
Bhekizizwe Peterson, “Black Writers and the Historical Novel: 1907-1948” in Derek Attridge and David Atwell (eds) The Cambridge History of South African Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
Bhekizizwe Peterson, “Dignity, Memory and the Future under Siege: Nation-building and Reconciliation in the new South Africa” in Samson K.O. Opondo and Michael J. Shapiro (eds) New Violent Cartographies: Geo-Analysis After the Aesthetic Turn (London: Routledge, 2012)
Bhekizizwe Peterson, “We Remember Differently and the intimacies of our separateness” in Jyoti Mistry and Jordache A. Ellapen (eds) ‘We remember differently’: Race, Memory, Imagination(Pretoria:mUnisa Press, 2012).
Bhekizizwe Peterson, “The Arts in the aftermath of Democracy: Old bottles, New Wine and the Discontents of the Nation” in South African Democracy Education Trust, The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Volume 6 [1990 -1996] (Pretoria, Unisa Press, 2013).
Bhekizizwe Peterson “Afrika Cultural Centre: Phoenix under Apartheid and Burnt Ember under Democracy?” in Isidore Diala (ed) Syncretic Arenas: Essays on Postcolonial African Drama and Theatre for Esiaba Irobi (Amsterdam: Brill / Rodopi, 2014)
Bhekizizwe Peterson, “‘The Ties that Bind’:Weaving International Cultural Fraternities” in South African Democracy Education Trust, The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Volume 5 Part 2 (Pretoria, Unisa Press, 2014).
Bhekizizwe Peterson, “Achebe, Art and Critical Consciousness” in James Ogude (ed) Chinua Achebe’s Legacy: Illuminations from Africa (Pretoria: Africa Institute of South Africa, 2015)
Bhekizizwe Peterson “Youth and Student Culture: Riding resistance and Imagining the Future” in Anne Heffernan and Noor Nieftagodien (eds) Students Must Rise: Youth Struggle in South Africa Before and Beyond Soweto ’76 (Johannesburg: Wits Press, 2016).
Bhekizizwe Peterson, “Modernist At Large: The Aesthetics of Native Life in South Africa” in Peterson, Janet Remmington and Brian Willan (eds) Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa: Past andPresent (Johannesburg: Wits Press, 2016).
Bhekizizwe Peterson “The Art of Personhood: Kinship and Its Social Challenges” in James Ogude (ed) Ubuntu and the Reconstitution of Community (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2019)
Bhekizizwe Peterson, "Reasoning creatively in Mhudi" in Sabata-mpho Mokae and Brian Willan (eds) Sol Plaatje's Mhudi: History, Criticism, Celebration (Johannesburg, Jacana, 2020)
Fools (1997, Writer, Producer)
Zulu Love Letter (2004, Writer, Associate Producer)
Rights of Passage (2015, Producer)
The Innovation of Loneliness (2017, Producer)
Born into Struggle (2004, Producer)
Zwelidumile (2010, Writer, Producer)
The Battle for Johannesburg (2010, Writer, Producer)
Miners Shot Down (2014, Consulting Producer)
By Any Means Necessary (2019, Writer, Producer)