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History of the School

Language and literature studies have been an integral part of Wits University's teaching and research activities since the university was inaugurated in 1922. One of the prominent early figures in the field was B.W. Vilakazi, who joined what was then the Department of Bantu Studies in 1935. Vilakazi was the first black academic at Wits, and in one of his poems he wrote about the challenges this presented:

I realise beyond all doubt
That I am lost! Yet well I know I came
To serve my own beloved people -
Aware of them always, I hear them cry:
'Take up your burden and be our voice!'

Vilakazi collaborated with C.M. Doke on a Zulu-English dictionary, one of many seminal works that Doke - as a leading scholar of African languages - produced during his lengthy tenure at Wits. The equally accomplished D.T. Cole took over as Head of the African Languages Department, a position he held for 28 years.

At Wits, the discipline of literary studies, or what is usually called ''English'', has produced or been associated with various significant figures in South African literary history. Herman Charles Bosman was a student at the university in the 1920s; his protege and, later, editor Lionel Abrahams also studied at Wits some twenty years later. (Thus began a line of continuity linking Wits and ''Jo'burg writers'' - writers of Johannesburg in the fullest sense - that stretches to contemporary urban pensmiths such as Ivan Vladislavic.)

In the 1940s, Guy Butler joined the university as a novice member of staff; years later, the protean South African ''man of letters'' would describe the intellectual foment at Wits in the years following the Second World War (largely in response to the introduction of apartheid legislation by the National Party) as an abiding influence on his career.

It was also at this time that a young Nadine Gordimer enrolled at Wits as an undergraduate. Like Abrahams, she would not complete her studies, but maintained a lifelong connection to the university; the Nadine Gordimer Lectures have brought such luminaries as Susan Sontag, Amartya Sen and Carlos Fuentes to the Wits campus.

Over the decades, literature and language studies were affected by changes in curriculum and institutional structure. In 1983, the Department of African Literature was established under the leadership of Es'kia Mphahlele. The Department of Afrikaans had strong links with distinguished figures in Afrikaans literary studies (in the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, N.P. van Wyk Louw was finishing his academic career at Wits, while Ampie Coetzee was starting his). Other significant Afrikaans writers who taught in the Wits Afrikaans department included Ernst van Heerden, John Myles and Marlene van Niekerk. The department was unfortunately closed down in the early 2000s. Continental European literature and language studies have long been established disciplines within the university. French, German, Italian, Portuguese have a long history at the University and have been joined by Spanish.  

In 2001 the School of Literature and Language Studies was established along with the other schools in the Faculty. Its name was changed in 2012 to the School of Literature, Language and Media to reflect the importance of two disciplines within the School: Media Studies and Journalism. To compensate for the loss of certain languages in early 2000, the African Language, Creative Writing and Translation programmes continue to encourage scholarship and writing  in a wider range of languages at Wits.

That such a revival might form part of a mooted Transnational Heritages Programme, which would also include literature studies in modern European languages, is an indication of the potential linguistic diversity within literary studies at Wits. Continental European literature and language studies have long been established disciplines within the university; French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish are all taught in SLLS.

Future transnational foci would be complemented by projects already under way (such as the ongoing Indian Ocean research of Isabel Hofmeyr and those participating in the South Africa-India Research Thrust) as well as by postgraduate offerings in translation and interpreting.

The Linguistics Department, which is known for ground-breaking instrumental phonetics work on Khoisan languages, has also been a national centre for studying the phonology, morphology and semantics of Zulu, Venda and other southern African languages, as well as South African English.

In 2002, Media Studies was added to the bouquet of offerings in the SLLS, aiming to equip students with critical and analytical skills to understand the institutional role of the media, media production and media audiences in their social context. Another new addition to the School is the Department of South African Sign Language.

The Journalism Programme at Wits, which became part of SLLS in 2008, is an innovative and premier postgraduate teaching and research unit led by Prof Anton Harber, celebrated South African journalist and co-founder, in the 1980s, of the Weekly Mail (later the Mail & Guardian).