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Wits mourns the passing of Professor Bhekizizwe Peterson

- Wits University

Award-winning screenwriter and producer, literary critic, a towering intellectual and generous mentor.

The University of the Witwatersrand announces with great sorrow the passing of a literary giant, Bhekizizwe Peterson, Professor of African Literature in the School of Literature, Language and Media in the Faculty of Humanities.

A towering intellectual, Professor Peterson was born in 1961 in Alexandra Township, Johannesburg. He started his career at Wits as a Junior Lecturer in 1988, and progressed through the ranks to Full Professor (2012 to 2021). He served twice as the Head of the Department of African Literature during his career at Wits. He held a BA in Drama and African Studies (UCT, 1982), a BA Hons in African Literature (Wits, 1985), an MA in Southern African Studies (York, 1988) and a PhD in African Literature (Wits, 1997).

Professor Peterson was internationally renowned as an award-winning film writer and producer; a leading practitioner of working-class theatre; a literary critic and a public intellectual. He was also known for being a generous mentor to numerous young people in various spheres of the arts and academia.

His academic research, which was informed by an unyielding interest in the value of marginalised forms of cultural knowledge in South Africa and the larger African world, spanned areas such as youth culture, popular musical forms, the visual arts, Black intellectual history, and autobiography. More recently he served as co-leader of an international research group called Narrative Enquiry for Social Transformation. He was a member of the African Print Cultures international research group (Wits-Michigan), and the Literary Cultures of the Global South group (Wits-University of Tübingen, Germany). The convenor of the 40th Annual Conference of the African Literature Association, Professor Peterson brought prestige to the University by convening literary events with leading scholars who enriched our African discourse.

Professor Peterson was a notable scholar whose intellectual and artistic work reverberated across geographies, disciplines, multiple institutions, and different sectors of society. He was the author or co-author of five books, 26 journal articles, six screenplays, and was a member of several editorial boards. He was widely published in the popular press and delivered numerous talks and public presentations across the world.

He easily crossed between academia and the creative arts producing high impact creative works such as feature films (Fools and Zulu Love Letter) and feature documentaries (Born into Struggle, ZwelidumileThe Battle for Johannesburg, and Miners Shot Down), many of which won local and international awards.

In recognition of his selfless contribution in the many areas in which he worked, Professor Peterson received several honours. A National Research Foundation B-rated scholar, he was acknowledged for attaining considerable international recognition for the high quality and impact of his research output. He was invited to serve as a John Cadbury Fellow in 1999 at Birmingham University, and as a Southern African Research Fellow at Yale University in 1993. He also participated in the Mellon Postgraduate Mentoring Scheme for several years. The recipient of a National Institute of the Humanities and Social Sciences Book Award, Professor Peterson also received a Vice-Chancellor’s Teaching Award, and many others. 

Professor Peterson served on several University committees, boards, and task teams. He was a remarkable teacher, and supervised many postgraduate students during his tenure. He will be sorely missed by his colleagues, students, scholars, collaborators, artists, family, and the many friends that he made over the years - Wits University extends its heartfelt condolences to you all during this very difficult time. 

Professor Peterson is survived by his wife Pat, and two children Neo (a Lecturer in the Television Studies Department at Wits) and Khanyi.

Hamba kahle, Professor Peterson, a true son of Africa.