On Monday 24 April, academic and liberation struggle poet Prof Mongane Wally Serote will receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Johannesburg (UJ) to recognise his contribution to poetry, literature and philosophy in South Africa.
Spending nine months in solitary confinement in an apartheid prison in 1969, and eighteen years in exile, Serote’s commitment to “intervene and disrupt racism in all fields of human agency” is evident in his widely-celebrated contribution to the literature and poetry of black identity and resistance.
His extensive contributions to the promotion of authentic African cultural expression and his sought-after expertise on Indigenous Knowledge Systems for re-building our society, are based on his broad experiential knowledge, participant observation, decades of organisational involvement and service, and deep intellectual reflection.
Born in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, Dr Mongane Serote’s early poetry is closely linked to Alexandra, a township that gave definition to his 1970s writing. Examples are the poetry collections Yakhal’ Inkomo (1972), Tsetlo (1974), No Baby Must Weep (1978) and Behold Mama, Flowers (1978).
Serote’s early poetry could be said to be about place, in particular the politics of place in South Africa, and the various forms of inhabiting space, of contesting it and, especially for black people in the townships, of remaking it. His best-known poems from this period, “City Johannesburg” and “Alexandra”, for instance, testify to this preoccupation in his writing.
The African-American influence on his poetry, and on the poetry of the 1970s by black poets, testified to the trans-Atlantic linkages that were already shaping what came to be known as the “black aesthetic”.
Dr Serote has continued to write, extending his repertoire to novels, advocacy for Indigenous Knowledge Systems and the promotion of African thought systems more generally.
It is against the background of his work as a cultural activist that one should understand Dr Serote’s contribution to our self-apprehension as a people, in particular our sense of the diverse experiences and talents that we bring to the present. These experiences continue to shape the South African society that we strive for and literature, old and new, continues to hold a mirror up to our realities.
No doubt, in the South African academy anyway, the Humanities are called upon to revisit this work – and writing from the continent – in an effort to plot new ways of identification.
Aside from his academic achievements, including a Master of Fine Arts obtained in 1979 from Columbia University, USA, as a Fulbright Scholar, Prof Serote has been honoured with a number of awards, both for his writing and his stature. These include the Ingrid Jonker Poetry Prize for Yakhal’ Inkomo, his first poetry collection, in 1973; the Noma Award for publishing in Africa, for his 1992 poetry collection, Third World Express, in 1993; The English academy of Southern Africa Medal for his contribution to the English language, in 2003; the Pablo Neruda Medal for Writing, in 2004; and the Order of Ikhamanga for, as the laudation stated, “Excellent contribution to literature, with emphasis on poetry and for putting his artistic talents at the service of democracy in South Africa.”
Prof Serote has received honorary doctorates from the universities of Natal and Transkei, now the universities of KwaZulu-Natal and Walter Sisulu, respectively. The University of South Africa awarded him an Honorary Professorship. He has lectured at universities abroad and in South Africa.
Mongane Serote is a true African intellectual in the tradition of the African philosophic sage: a profoundly wise person. He is the embodiment of philosophy as the love of wisdom, in the context of both traditional and modern Africa.