Clearing a Path to Academia

A Tribute to Lungisile Ntsebeza


Light heart and strong commitment


Lungisile Ntsebeza’s commitment to his chosen path of intellectual enquiry came at a turning point in his life, while he was facing trial in Umtata (now Mthatha) on charges under the Suppression of Communism Act in 1977.[1]


Many obstacles were put in the way of this commitment in the years that followed: imprisonment; then banishment to his home town of Cala; the murder of his cousin-brother Batandwa Ndondo by an apartheid death squad, followed by extended cover-up of the murder, including Lungisile’s detention without trial and further banishment to a remote area, cutting him off from the outside world; obstruction and hostility from the humanitarian agency meant to support victims of apartheid repression; then a return to the conventional banishment of before, now driven by the anger of a dictatorial president, and seemingly extended into the indefinite future.


By the time Lungisile was able to become part of collective academic life, ten years had passed since his initial commitment to this path in life. I want to provide a short history of the winding road he travelled, from 1977, when he decided to apply himself to the study of philosophical questions, to 1987, when he began his postgraduate studies at UCT.


It’s not only that Lungisile stuck to his decision. What stands out for me, is the light heart and strong commitment with which he confronted the obstacles in his way. Imprisonment and persecution may have changed him, but not in the way that his persecutors would have hoped. Even when their lives and freedom were in imminent danger, Lungisile (and his brother Dumisa) were still able to laugh out loud, with the whole of their generous being.


My thanks to Horman Chitonge and the UCT Centre for African Studies for inviting me to contribute a (much shorter) version of this essay to the seminar held in July 2021 to mark Lungisile Ntsebeza’s retirement from academic life. Listening to other contributors brought back lost memories, or put my own memories into somewhat different, mostly clearer, perspective, and reminded me how much the events recounted here enriched my own life.


I include reflections that arose from the seminar in italics at relevant points of this text—as in these two paragraphs—to distinguish these thoughts from the text I prepared for the seminar.


Accountant/revolutionary/philosopher


Lungisile achieved outstanding results in accountancy at St John’s College, the prestigious high school he attended in Umtata, and his first career plan was to become a chartered accountant. He had already begun his accountancy studies by the time he was arrested in 1976, just before the Soweto uprising began. Together with his elder brother Dumisa Ntsebeza, Matthew Goniwe and Godfrey Silinga, he was held in detention for a lengthy period before they faced trial.


The main item of evidence against them was the three-page manifesto of the People’s United Front for the Liberation of South Africa (PUFLSA), which they had authored, and which had been found in their possession. My guess is that the document must have been stored in the court archive after the trial had been concluded. I doubt whether it has become part of the historical record. Lungisile gave me a copy of it, many years later.


This manifesto commits PUFLSA to reviving the “broken tradition” of “expatriate organizations”—such as the ANC, PAC and NEUM—of what they call “programmed struggle;” to following “the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, which we shall defend ruthlessly against any attempt to vilify and vulgarize it;” and to “mastering all forms of struggle, including the armed struggle, because we are sworn to an eventual military showdown with the enemy.”


The manifesto’s clearest point of orientation, however, is the Black Consciousness Movement, which was closer to the PUFLSA authors, in having emerged from the same generation—and often the same broad educational context—and having a presence in the same Eastern Cape region. Although the authors “appreciate and support” the struggle of the Black Consciousness Movement against white racism, they are are critical of its lack of “a clear programme of social, political and economic change” and note that it has “compromised themselves badly on the security question because of their reckless though well-intentioned actions.”


Perhaps the most characteristic and unusual feature of this manifesto is its final section on “PUFLSA norms,” which specifies that “the young intellectuals from whom it is expected there will come leaders to build and strengthen the mass movement of resistance . . . should be well read, well behaved, sincere and dedicated.” The manifesto is testimony to the ethical ideals of its authors.


It must have seemed to the prosecution, and perhaps to the accused as well, that the case against them was irrefutable. However, the defence called André du Toit, then a lecturer in Political Philosophy at the University of Stellenbosch, as an expert witness, to testify on their behalf. From Lungisile’s account of the trial, years later, it seems that du Toit’s evidence was a revelation to the accused, who now saw their case in a more confident light, as he exposed the problematic assumptions and the conceptual or logical slippages in the prosecution’s arguments, and then stood his ground during cross-examination.


It was a life-changing experience for Lungisile, who decided then, or soon after, to abandon his studies in accountancy and to study political philosophy instead.


At the time of the trial, I was a postgraduate student in Political Philosophy at Stellenbosch. In 1976, I was also du Toit’s research assistant, and a tutor in the courses he taught in practical logic and conceptual analysis. In 1977, I was lecturing in the department with du Toit. So, I knew how rigorous he could be in the analysis of texts, how thoroughly he could expose any weakness in logical and conceptual structure. This enabled him to point out legal forms of resistance that could have been intended by the manifesto: civil disobedience; stay-aways, and the like. His task may have been made easier by the way in which the manifesto speaks of armed struggle as if it belonged in an indefinite future, not necessarily involving the accused themselves, although also not excluding their participation.


The Chief Justice of the Transkei, George Munnik, took no account of du Toit’s evidence. He found the accused guilty and sentenced them to four years in prison, which they served in full.


The view from Stellenbosch


In prison, Lungisile registered at the University of South Africa (UNISA) for a B.A. with majors in Philosophy and Politics. He graduated three years later, and qualified for admission to the Honours degree in Philosophy. The Honours degree was scheduled to be done over two years, and Lungisile successfully completed the first year of it. But UNISA had not lived up to the expectations created by du Toit’s expert testimony at their trial.


At that stage, probably in 1981, Lungisile wrote to ask for advice from André du Toit, who passed Lungisile’s letter on to me, and asked me to respond to it, specifically concerning his questions about opportunities to study Marxist philosophy at a South African university.


I wrote to Lungisile about study options, and we exchanged letters for a while, discussing the situation of Marxism in South Africa in a somewhat coded way. We both knew that the prison authorities would have first sight of our letters.


After his release from prison in 1981, Lungisile was served with a banishment order by the Transkei government of K.D. Matanzima, restricting him to his home town of Cala. He opened (or re-opened) the bookshop there, and became involved in educational and community projects. He was clearly an important mentor to younger people there, and continued to be for many years, guiding many of them politically and often helping them to further their studies. He was also reconnecting with political networks that he had helped to establish before his imprisonment.

Lungisile had not abandoned his plans for graduate studies, but could not actively pursue them while banished to Cala, except through UNISA. However, he seemed confident that the local police would inform him about when they would be able to turn a blind eye.


Then, in 1983, he contacted me to say that, although the banishment order had not been lifted, the local police had let him know that they could turn a blind eye to it, at least for a while. So, he would be coming to Stellenbosch to discuss options for pursuing studies in Political Philosophy there, although he could only begin his studies once the banishment order was lifted, or the temporarily blind eye turned to his travels became permanently blind.


Lungisile spent about a week in Stellenbosch, as I recall. He had met André du Toit at his trial years before; he and I had got to know each other by letter; he established an immediate rapport with Johan Degenaar, who had something of the same energy and charm as Lungisile; he got to know the graduate students, whose interests were close to his own; we discussed courses that could be offered at Honours level and the process for deciding on courses.


It felt like a productive visit, with everyone involved eager to continue the exchange of ideas in a more sustained way. Our discussion of possible courses was necessarily provisional, as no-one knew when Lungisile would be able to come to Stellenbosch, and which other students, with which interests, would be in the Honours class. We were, in effect, waiting for Matanzima.


Many of Lungisile’s comrades and colleagues will surely never have heard of the Department of Political Philosophy at Stellenbosch, and may wonder why Lungisile was planning to study there. The initial impetus was du Toit’s testimony at his trial, as I’ve already described.


The department was created in 1967, largely in an attempt to isolate Johan Degenaar, the younger member of the Department of Philosophy at that time and a persistent critic of established norms of conservative theology and politics, and perhaps to force him out of the university. But the Afrikaner nationalists had misjudged the moment; a growing minority of young Afrikaners were thinking more critically about South African politics. Political Philosophy not only survived, but grew, and André du Toit joined Degenaar in the department in 1969.


The department was probably unique in South Africa, then and since, in treating philosophy as integrally connected to the critique of existing reality, beginning with the reality of apartheid in South Africa. At the same time, it provided a rigorous schooling in the classical texts of Western philosophy. By the time Lungisile first came to Stellenbosch, this included a focus on Marxism as mode of analysis and revolutionary project. I’ve outlined parts of the history of the department in a recent four-part essay on Degenaar, posted at www.dialectic.co.za.


By the 1970s, Marxist ideas had a small presence in South African academic life, although its legality in South African universities was not yet clear. Also, the apartheid state had many other methods of repression at its disposal, apart from legal procedures. But Marxism had a presence mainly in the social sciences, rather than philosophy.


What would the core of such an Honours course have been, if it had happened? Perhaps Gramsci on the Southern question, with its parallels with the relationship of city and the countryside in South Africa? By the time of Lungisile’s first vIsit to Stellenbosch, the dominant orientation of many of the politically active students in the department was towards Marxism.


Fast forward: At the end of 1986, three years after Lungisile’s first visit to Stellenbosch, the Department of Political Philosophy closed down. In 1987, du Toit moved to the Department of Political Studies at the University of Cape Town and I moved to the Department of Philosophy at the University of the Western Cape. Degenaar, who was then approaching retirement, moved back to the Department of Philosophy at Stellenbosch. None of us anticipated that in 1983; or perhaps we did not look that far ahead.


The murder of Batandwa Ndondo


I visited Cala for the first time in June–July 1983, when Lungisile invited me to teach at a Winter School, organized by the Cala University Students Association (CALUSA), in which he played a central role. It was an important experience for me—both for the political discussion and the experience of teaching in that context—and for the experience of being in the town and participating briefly in its life.


As I recall, Lungisile continued to make short trips to the Western Cape, at times when the Cala police turned a temporary blind eye to his banishment order. My only clear recollection of seeing him in that time was when he and Neville Alexander paid a surprise visit to me at Partridge Point, where I was living in a wood-and-tar-paper shack on the False Bay coast in 1984, while writing a long-delayed Master’s thesis.


I returned to teaching at Stellenbosch in 1985, and it was there that I received a phone call from Lungisile, probably on 24 September 1985, telling me of the murder that morning of his cousin-brother Batandwa Ndondo that day, by people initially posing as his comrades and then revealing themselves as agents of the apartheid state.


I had met Batandwa in Cala in 1983. He had been a student leader at the University of the Transkei, until he was expelled from the university for political activism. At the time of his murder, he was a field worker for Health Care Trust in Cala, involved in a project of ensuring a supply of clean water in nearby villages. He had links with the ANC in Lesotho, and he knew at least one of his murderers from that context.


The events of that day in Cala were more complicated than I could immediately grasp in our phone conversation. Also, I did not know what information, if any, Lungisile might be withholding because of the likelihood that the call was being overheard by the security police. After we had spoken for a while, I said that I would come to Cala, and talk to Lungisile and Dumisa there. I wondered whether they would be in police detention by the time I got there.


By the time of Batandwa’s murder, a pattern of assassination of anti-apartheid activists was already established, which was widely believed, and later proved to be, initiated by the security police. Matthew Goniwe, who had been tried and convicted with Lungisile and Dumisa, was murdered, along with three other leaders of the Cradock Residents Association, on 27 June 1985, three months before Batandwa’s murder. Some weeks after the funeral of the Cradock Four, P.W. Botha declared a state of emergency, with the aim of crushing the uprising in black townships throughout the country. Now the death squads had come to Cala.


What made Batandwa’s killing different from previous murders of political activists, was that it was done in public, and that the killers had no choice but to acknowledge to onlookers that they were working for the police. They had then driven to the Cala police station to inform the local police, before departing from the town. In this context, the murder could not easily be passed off as an unsolved crime, still supposedly under police investigation of a kind that would deliberately lead nowhere.


The few days I spent in Cala were an extraordinarily intense experience for me. Each evening there were visitors taking part in the rituals of mourning for Batandwa. A police crackdown seemed possible at any moment. But there was a sense of the composure and even freedom, perhaps those present had nothing left to lose.


A memory that stands out for me was meeting Dumisa for the first time, not long after my arrival in Cala, when he and Lungisile returned home. Dumisa asked me what was happening at Stellenbosch. Although the previous days, before hearing of Batandwa’s murder, felt very remote, they had in fact been quite eventful.


A group of a few hundred Stellenbosch students had decided to hold an illegal march to protest the state of emergency. I heard about it just before it was due to start, and felt I could not stay in my office while they faced the danger of being beaten up by the police or by racist students. So, I went to the Student Centre where they were gathering, and asked some of them what they had in mind. Did they have demands that would be publicized by the march? Did they have a collective position they would put forward if arrested and brought to trial? The students I spoke to were very firm in their answer: No, they would march first, and think afterwards about other questions!


I was overwhelmed by the laughter of Dumisa and Lungisile; their uncontained delight at the Stellenbosch students’ response. They did not share the perspective of acting first and thinking about the aims and consequences of their action afterwards. But they recognized and perhaps admired the spirit in which they avoided clarifying their aims for fear that such clarity might dampen their spirits!


Their whole-hearted engagement and enjoyment—their laughter in this moment of great danger to them, far from the relatively protected environment of white Stellenbosch—seemed to me then the most generous and courageous act I had ever encountered. Decades later, it still seems to me an extraordinary moment.


Covering up Batandwa’s murder


Looking back now, I think that I went to Cala because I couldn’t think what else to do, and something had to be done.


The few days I spent there were enough to give me a relatively full account of what had happened, and might happen next, and to ensure that I was not missing essential parts of it. I gave a detailed account of Batandwa’s murder to the journalist Barry Streek, who reported it on the front page of the Cape Times; someone approached Progressive Party MP Helen Suzman, who made a strong press statement that was reported nationally; and I spoke at meetings held by the United Democratic Front in Cape Town, and the Current Affairs Society at Stellenbosch.


I was in Cala again for the funeral of Batandwa in October, after travelling to Umtata with a PFP member of parliament, Tiaan van der Merwe, to discuss legal options and funding for legal action with lawyers at the Sangoni Partnership in Umtata. By then, Lungisile, Dumisa, Godfrey Silinga and Victor Ngaleka were in police detention, and probably others in Cala with links to the Ntsebeza family.


The next day I got a lift from Umtata to Cala to attend the funeral. The Transkei police were there in full and threatening force. After the coffin had been brought out of the Ntsebeza home and mourners had lined up for a last view of Batandwa, the police commander announced that all whites were to leave the Transkei immediately or would be deported. Later, we heard that young people at the funeral, especially those wearing T-shirts with Batandwa’s face printed on them, were badly beaten by the police.


Perhaps a month after the funeral, Lungisile and his comrades were released from police detention, and immediately banished to remote areas of the Transkei. This was clearly intended to make it difficult or impossible for them to communicate with anyone outside these rural areas. They were allocated mud huts, already in a state of disrepair or partial collapse and told they would have to grow their own food, as the local people did.


At that time, there was an active and well-funded programme for support of political prisoners and banished people—run by the South African Council of Churches, funded largely by Scandinavian governments—with a regional office in the Eastern Cape. But the SACC officials of that region were closely aligned with the ANC. They saw Lungisile and his comrades as political rivals or adversaries, and refused financial help. They offered to provide spades and a once-off subsistence payment of R75 for each banished person, but then never delivered either the spades or the payment. They rejected a request for funding of a court application on the grounds that it was “excessive.”


It was only after approaching the national director of the SA Council of Churches, Beyers Naude, that this victimization could be reversed and legal funding was provided. When we met Naude, he conceded immediately the absurdity of a situation in which the SACC refused support to Dumisa and others, while Dumisa was the lawyer who represented most of the victims of political persecution supported by the SACC in the Transkei.


Waiting for Matanzima, again


Once Lungisile returned from his banishment to the deep rural area to his previous banishment in Cala, it seemed at first that the old regime of the local police turning a blind eye to occasional violations of his banishment order was over. Transkei president K.D. Matanzima took the exposure of the death squads as a challenge to his own personal authority, and issued a fusillade of threats against the Ntsebeza family, and against the inhabitants of Cala and its neighbouring areas.


And yet, somehow, Lungisile returned to Stellenbosch around the end of 1985, among other things to consult a Cape Town law firm—Bernadt, Vukich and Potash—about contesting the banishment order. I know the date, because we were stopped at a road-block on the way back to Stellenbosch and then taken to Manenberg Police Station for questioning. We were surprised to be released late that night. I wrote the date and place in the front of the book I had been reading that day: 13 November 1985.


Matanzima’s days in power were numbered, however. In February 1986, he was forced by the South African government to retire as President of Transkei, after allegations of corruption, and replaced by his brother George Matanzima. Not long after, K.D. Matanzima was himself placed in police detention on the authority of his brother, and then banished for a time to his hometown of Qamata.


George Matanzima was succeeded before long by Stella Sigcau and she was then forced out by General Bantu Holomisa, a former student of Dumisa Ntsebeza at the Jongilizwe School for the Sons of Chiefs. I wonder whether Lungisile’s banishment order was ever formally revoked, or just faded away, along with the rule of the Matanzimas.


When Matanzima died in Queenstown in 2003, President Thabo Mbeki delivered the eulogy. According to Wikipedia, Mbeki praised Matanzima’s dream of eliminating poverty in South Africa and ensuring that every South African citizen was educated, and he promised to make Matanzima’s dream a reality. Matanzima’s uncle, Nelson Mandela, who had refused Matanzima’s offer to give him a cabinet position in his Transkei government—an offer made while Mandela was in prison—was not present at the funeral.


My last visit to Cala was in July 1986. Lungisile and I had been to the annual congress of the Association of Sociology in Southern Africa (ASSA) at the University of Natal in Durban. After it ended, we drove to Umtata, where we spent a night with Dumisa and his family, and then to Cala, where I stayed for a few days before taking the bus from Queenstown back to the Western Cape.


Eventually, academic life resumed


I cannot remember whether any of the elements that led to the end of the Department of Political Philosophy at Stellenbosch were in place by the time returned to Stellenbosch from Cala in July 1986. It seems likely that we were both expecting Lungisile to start his studies at Stellenbosch in the new year.


I probably knew by then that there was some discussion about possible re-unification of the departments of Philosophy and Political Philosophy, but had little sense of where it might lead, or how soon. I did not know that André du Toit would move from Stellenbosch to UCT in the following year, or that I would be appointed at the University of the Western Cape.


After weighing up several options, Lungisile registered in 1987 for an Honours degree in Economic History at UCT, and resumed his academic studies, at last. He was back on the path he had chosen a decade before, although the landscape had changed in those years. I will leave it to others to speak of his extraordinary career since then, and the depth and scope of his achievements.


When I think back the years I’ve described, I’m struck by Lungisile’s clarity of mind, often in circumstances in which such clarity is hard to muster, his whole-hearted enjoyment of life, and a distinctive kind of practical wisdom, perhaps with its roots in Cala. There is an image which comes back to me now, which seems to me to encapsulate these qualities and perhaps others as well.


It comes to me from a story Lungisile told me—as if in passing; I think it was quite early in our friendship—of a discussion with Steve Biko and others from the Black Consciousness Movement, sometime before the arrest and trial of Lungisile and his comrades with which I began this essay. Lungisile questioned the idea of seeking to recreate an authentically Black culture in a liberated South Africa, reviving African traditions. What did the BCM mean by that? For example, in a liberated South Africa, would black people continue to wear factory-made shoes? The question caused outrage: How dare you ask Steve a question like that?


But I can imagine how Lungisile would have stuck to the question, even patiently explained it, if he was allowed to do so. It would have been only the first step in a longer chain of reasoning, but he would follow the argument wherever it led, until the need for the enquiry became evident. It was a question about political perspectives and priorities, rather than a question about shoes. It’s that frame of mind that causes me still to think of Lungisile as a philosopher, even if he may no longer always do so.


Describing Lungisile as a philosopher is not to discount his extensive and important work on the land question in South Africa, but perhaps to put it in a larger context.


I was struck by Mercia Andrews’ eloquent and powerful account—on the second day of the seminar—of the farmworkers’ strike, which began in De Doorns, in 2012, as collectively “re-imagining the countryside.” But, if we are to re-imagine the countryside, that will surely require a re-imagination of urban life as well.


Seen in this light, the land question involves a quest to re-unite rural and urban humanity with the natural world on which we depend for our sustenance, and would surely require re-thinking our most basic philosophical assumptions.


28 July 2021



[1] A shorter version of this essay was presented at a two-day seminar “Celebrating the Scholarship of Lungisile Ntsebeza,” held by the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town on 15 and 16 July 2021.

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