Gordimer, Mtshali, Khumalo remember Lewis Nkosi

By Deborah Minors

19 July 2011

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Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer (right) with (L-R) Oswald Mtshali, Anna Hamlin and Alf Kumalo at a WISER seminar to commemorate the late Lewis Nkosi.Nobel Laureate and author Nadine Gordimer was amongst the scholars who participated in a daylong colloquium arranged by the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) on 13 June, to commemorate celebrated late writer, Lewis Nkosi, whose intellectual and literary voice was as unique for its lucidity as it was for its range. 

The colloquium aimed to revalue and engage neglected black intellectuals, as well as remember Nkosi and reclaim his significance for South African literary history. 
The colloquium examined Nkosi’s legacy in relation to three aspects of his literary production: his criticism, his exile essays and his novels.  

The morning session focused on Nkosi’s complex voices here and abroad. Scholarly papers and seminars explored questions of alienation and psychiatry in Nkosi’s exile writing, and considered the writer as a misunderstood intellectual. 

Nkosi’s close friend, Gordimer (Honorary DLitt 1984) offered her recollections during the Remembering Lewis afternoon session. One of the central poets of the 1970s, Oswald Mtshali and renowned photojournalist, Alf Kumalo also made personal contributions. 

Born in South Africa in 1936, Lewis Nkosi attempted every literary genre from literary criticism, through poetry and drama, to novels. He began his journalism career at Ilanga newspaper in Kwazulu-Natal and then joined Drum magazine in Johannesburg in the 1950s. He was awarded a Nieman Fellowship to study at Harvard University in 1960 and because his work controversially criticised apartheid, he had to leave South Africa on a one-way exit permit. He remained in exile for 31 years. He became a Professor of Literature and held teaching posts at various universities, including in Warsaw and London. He returned to South Africa in 2001 and died on 6 September 2010, aged 73.

Nkosi’s body of work includes The Transplanted Heart: Essays on South Africa (1975); plays The Rhythm of Violence (1964) and The Black Psychiatrist (2001); and novels Mating Birds (1986) and Mandela’s Ego (2006)