Ntongela Masilela (1948-2020): In Memoria

By Dr. Tshepo Mvulane Moloi

It was with despair, to receive the dreadful news on Monday morning, 6th of July 2020 that South African Professor Ntongela Masilela, had transitioned to the ancestral realm. The unofficial cause of death, was instantly explicated to have resulted, from a protracted battle with cancer. Admittedly in such gloomy occasions, I find no comfort in any scientific reason(s) proffered, seeking to elucidate any cause(s) for death. Indeed I argue that for me, such details are trivial, in comparison to the significance, of the life lost, irrespective of age. At the time of his death, it is noteworthy to read that the faculty directory of Pitzer College (an undergraduate liberal Arts and Sciences Institution), in the United States of America (USA) to date still depicts Masilela, as a Professor Emeritus of Creative Studies and World Literature, whose expertise namely included ‘Third World Literature’, ‘Commonwealth Literature’, ‘Central European Literature’, ‘African Literature’, ‘Latin American Literature’, ‘Literary Theory’, ‘Postmodernism’ and ‘Ancient Asian Literature’.

 

The latter could somehow support the view, that having been a fundi of global literature, Masilela undoubtedly was one of South Africa’s foremost scholars of global culture. General allusion to him, animatedly ranged from ‘intellectual African historian’, author, film scholar and Marxist, who much to both ‘his own’ and South Africa’s loss, lived the bulk of his life traversing continents, as though a ‘native of nowhere’, dating back since 1962. Presumably the Masilela family, ought to be the ones, to  be justly entrusted to champion, a much more elaborate eulogy therefore this present article, is authored with the limited intention of merely being read, as  a pithy homage. The plan is to simply share, selected details pertaining the life-story, of Professor Ntongela Masilela.

 

 

Although his parents initially resided in Kliptown, Soweto, Professor Ntongela Desmond Joseph Masilela, was born after his folks moved to Orlando West, on the 9th of December 1948. He was the eldest child (of four boys) to Dr. Albert Mahlatini Magija Masilela (1912-1968) and Mrs. Florence Vuyiswa Masilela (1921-2010). His siblings were Aubrey Monde Xavier, Godfrey Basuke Mzwandile and Sipho Temba Buxton. For the record from his paternal side, Dr. Albert Masilela was the eldest son, of Mr. Joseph Somkgukulushi Masilela (who hailed from Rapotokwane, Limpopo) and Ms. Bella Nomakhosi from the Chidi family, (who hailed from Pieterskraal, Mpumalanga). From his maternal side, Mrs. Florence Vuyiswa was the daughter of tata Xhala and Makhumalo Mtshabe, of Tsomo, Eastern Cape. Basically Ntongela Masilela’s primary school studies commenced, at Thulasizwe Community School, then later proceeded to Montebello Primary School. He then departed from South Africa in 1962 aged fourteen, with his mum (who was a nurse) along with his younger siblings.  He thus commenced, his high school education, abroad. The reason for having left South Africa, was on the basis that the incomplete family, was reuniting with their father and husband. At the time Mr. Albert Masilela, was completing his doctoral studies in Psychology, at University of California Los Angelo’s (UCLA). Ntongela Masilela  initially enrolled in a school in Los Angelo’s (LA), USA and later when the family moved again back to Africa, he was enrolled at Upper Hill High School (previously known as Delamere Boys School), sited in Nairobi, Kenya. It was during those early years in Kenya, where he met Professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah (Sociologist), who introduced him, to the erudition of Frantz Fanon. Masilela returned to USA, to pursue his tertiary studies at UCLA, his father’s alma mater where he successfully completed his BA, MA and alas a doctoral degree in Sociology. His doctoral dissertation, was tellingly entitled the “Theory and History in Marxist Poetics” (1977).

 

While at UCLA, Ntongela Masilela crossed paths with current Professor Emeritus Alosi Moloi, an embarrassingly much older yet still less known, fellow South African scholar.  The latter is an expert of ‘African languages and Literature’, ‘Political Institutions and Nation Building in Southern Africa’ and lastly in ‘Pan-African Studies and World Interactions’). He formerly lectured at University of the North (Turfloop) until late 1960’s, then in 1971 was employed as a faculty member in the Department of Linguistics and African Studies Center at UCLA. Professor Alosi spent eleven years at UCLA, prior to moving to his present affiliate, California State University in Long Beach (CSULB), for the duration of thirty-eight years. It’s noteworthy to recall that in the latter institution, Professor Alosi Moloi is a past Chair of the Department of Black Studies, which he helped to reorganize and be renamed, to Africana Studies (in line with global developments). The elaborate reference here, to Professor Alosi Moloi is to drive the point home, that as part of his studies abroad, Ntongela Masilela was also taught, by a prolific South African intellectual as well. In fact after learning about the passing of Professor Ntongela Masilela, from my ‘Facebook’ wall, Professor Alosi Moloi affirmed to me, that Professor Ntongela Masilela was one of the first four of his initial graduate students, when he commenced working at UCLA.  The other three include the late Dr. Edward Akbua, the late Dr. Edward Oko and finally Professor Bede Sssensalo. Another detail that Professor Alosi shared with me, was that Professor Ntongela Masilela had requested him to serve, on his doctoral committee. Unfortunately although this was approved, by the Sociology department where Professor Ntongela Masilela was registered, sadly this request was not realized, owing to Professor Alosi Moloi’s prior arrangements, to depart for his sabbatical year, in Botswana. I opine that the aforementioned details, offer a glimpse of at least how these particular ‘black’ South Africans, fared with each other and other Africans, while abroad in 1970’s.   

 

Careerwise Masilela held vast posts, in multi-disciplinery sites within and beyond academia. His first research post, was at the Fanon Research and Development Center, in California (USA). The latter was followed up by a lecturing stint, at University of Nairobi, in Kenya in 1979. He then shifted to study, at the Lodz Film School in Poland. He then pursued a postdoctoral fellowship, in the Media Studies Department, at the Technical University in West Berlin, in the former Federal Republic of Germany, where he met his first wife who birthed their two daughters. Shenanigans to do with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, compelled Masilela to relocate with his family, once again to USA. He was then appointed, initially as a tenured and later a full professor at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, lasting two decades. His tasks at Pitzer amidst others included focus on literature, film and initiating the founding of the (Herbert Isaac Ernest) ‘HIE Dhlomo Centre for African Intellectual History’, part of the ‘African Studies Center’. The latter may help to support, his commitment to Pan-Africanism, which led to realizing an archive called ‘The New African Movement’, dedicated to South African cognoscente, dating from the nineteenth century, upto the contemporary twenty-first century. Folks curious to read Masilela’s freely available works, are encouraged to google the latter archive. Scholars and non-scholars alike, seemingly concur that Masilela’s commitment to this archive, is arguably one of the trademarks of his legacy.

 

Beyond the abovementioned online webpage, those keen to read some of Masilela’s books, should note that they are all available, for purchase from ‘Africa World Press’ publishers. The list of the books include Black Modernity: 20th Century Discourse Between the United States of America and South Africa (2000), The Cultural Modernity of H.I.E Dhlomo (2007), An Outline of the New African Movement in South Africa (2013), The Historical Figures of the New African Movement (2014) and A South African Looks at the African Diaspora: Essays and Interviews (2017). A sample of his conference papers include ‘One Path of a Possible Thousand Paths across the New African Movement’ (presented at a faculty seminar, at University of Stellenbosch, in August 2010) and ‘Positioning the Scholarship of Bernard Makhosozwe Magubane within the Intellectual Traditions of the New African Movement’ (presented at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), in Tshwane, in August 2010). Besides Kwesi Kwaa Prah’s earlier reference to Fanon’s oeuvre, Masilela counted a range of scholars, who influenced his weltanschauung. A selected list of the latter include, both ‘scholars and activists’ Cyril Lionel Robert (CLR) James (historian), Ethiopian Ras Makonnen (anti-imperialist), Kenyan Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (author), South African authors HIE Dhlomo, Mazisi Kunene, Es’kia Mphahlele and even Nadine Gordimer amidst others.

 

At a personal level, I vividly recall that I first learned about Ntongela Masilela in 2008, at Stellenbosch University, while I was an overzealous Political Science student, enrolled for a Master’s degree in International Relations (IR). This was during a spontaneous dialogue, with fellow student Athi Mongezeleli Joja (who was then a fine Arts student and is presently an Art Critic).  Our interaction took place while we were at the computer lab, called Humarga and I had shared with Joja, my lack of progress, with my master’s enquiry, concerned with ‘Africa’s Contribution to IR’. I was exploring (frustratingly without much success) for possible avenues, which I could explore when drawing from Es’kia Mphahlele’s oeuvre, in the context of the aforementioned theme. So Athi Joja suggested a list of scholars, worth considering and Ntongela Masilela, was one of them. I then researched about him (similar to the others on my list), that is when I encountered his earlier mentioned website, where he had contextualized Es’kia Mphahlele in 1960 (having begun with Tiyo Soga in 1862), as a part of his ‘New African Movement’ discourse.  Since then and over the years, I have exchanged emails with him, regarding my ongoing studies about Es’kia Mphahlele’s works. As typical scholars, we agreed and differed on different points, often to the amusement of those who were present, who witnessed our collegial repartee. Unbeknown to us all, his last visit to South Africa in 2019, marked his farewell bid.  He first participated in a workshop (lasting two days), hosted by the Thabo Mbeki Leadership Institute (TMALI) at University of South Africa (UNISA). That occasion culminated in a co-edited book by Professors Vusi Gumede and Kwesi Kwaa Prah. Then Professor Ntongela Masilela proceeded to join us to give us a memorial lecture, on ‘Es’kia Mphahlele at 100’, delivered on 28th March 2019, at Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study (JIAS). I had the privilege, of having spent that afternoon with him, chatting mostly about Es’kia Mphahlele, as I was supposed to be a responder to his lecture, later on. Much to my dismay, I received his paper, shortly before he had to begin his presentation. So my reply simply became part of the multiple voices, who were eager to also engage, Professor Masilela’s presentation. As fate would have it, this was unfortunately to be our final rendezvous, with him alive. This however should not be misunderstood to mean, that his passing signifies the end of engagements, where his and other deserving scholars body of scholarship, is concerned. To the contrary, Professor Masilela’s passing should in fact, be arguably one of the renewed reasons, why we ought to advance the much needed engagement, regarding scholarship, that such ‘black’ South African scholars, have bequeathed for us, to advance it further.

 

Professor Ntongela Masilela passed away in Asia, at Et, in the Isan region of Bangkok, Thailand. His funeral took place on Thursday, July 9, 2020 at the aforesaid location. He was cremated, with the view that his ashes, would later be transported back to his home country, South Africa. He is survived by his two daughters Anna Vuyiswa and Nomaduma Rosa (both born and grew up abroad). Watching them via the ‘Zoom’ platform, on the day of their father’s funeral, they led the proceedings, with grace and dignity. The latter were birthed, from Masilela’s initial marriage in Poland, to Urszula Wanda Masilela. Professor Ntongela Masilela is also survived, by his second wife, Wasana Suesena Masilela from Thailand. He is further survived, by his two brothers Aubrey Monde Xavier and Sipho Temba Buxton and their respective nuclear families. The aforesaid are spread-out across Thailand, South Africa, Poland and Kenya. Indeed the highest honour to bestow on a scholar, is for those who remain, to continue to engage their works, which they have left behind. Fare ye well / Hamba Kahle / roballa ka kgotso ntate Ntongela Desmond Joseph Masilela!

Dr. Tshepo Mvulane Moloi, (Postdoctoral Research Fellow), Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study [ tmvulanemoloi@gmail.com ]