University of Vermont

The College of Arts and Sciences

In Memoriam: English Professor Mbulelo Mzamame

Former UVM English professor Mbulelo Mzamane

The College of Arts and Sciences has recently been informed that former English professor Mbulelo Mzamane has died. Mbulelo joined the English Department at the University of Vermont during his two decades of exile from South Africa.  He had to leave his beloved country owing to his involvement in political struggles against apartheid. 

In the English Department, he taught African literature, he counseled students, received tenure, and then left after apartheid ended, to take up the position of Vice-Chancellor at the University of Fort Hare.  In South Africa, the Vice-Chancellor of a university has the dual duties and responsibilities that here are separated into the president and provost.  The Chancellor is an honorific position; during Mbulelo’s term, the Chancellor was Govan Mbeki, his good friend and father of the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki.  

Upon Mbulelo’s return to South Africa he took the helm of the most prestigious black university in all of southern Africa.  It was there that a great many of the leaders of Africa had received their education:  Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo of the African National Congress, Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Inkatha Freedom Party, Robert Sobukwe of the Pan Africanist Congress, Desmond Tutu (Nobel laureate), Chris Hani (assassinated militant leader of the ANC), Kenneth Kaunda (first President of Kenya), Julius Nyerere (first President of Tanzania), Robert Mugabe (President of Zimbabwe), Joshua Nkomo (Vice President of Zimbabwe). Mbulelo was a close friend of the Mandela family, Desmond Tutu, Chris Hani, and Thabo Mbeki.

He was a writer of considerable note: his stories are important milestones in South African literature, and the speeches he wrote, both for himself and Thabo Mbeki, resonate deeply with those who seek to find a path forward in our difficult world.  As a scholar, he championed the poets of the Black Consciousness Movement (which, politically, was led by Steve Biko) as both an editor and a critic.  He was a wonderful teacher here at the University of Vermont: students flocked to his courses, and he was instrumental in establishing African studies as a part of the university’s curriculum.

Says English professor Huck Gutman, “It is hard for me to put into words how remarkable a man he was.  I have never met anyone like Mbulelo.  He had a deep, deep love of justice, a commitment to justice, to equality for all regardless of color or sex or gender or class or status.  But he was not alone in that: what made him such a remarkable human being was his unwillingness to let that commitment to justice be limited by anger or bitterness (even after decades in exile) or partisan wrangling.  He cared deeply about both justice and individual people, and his vision of a world that could and should come into being was more humane than that of any human being I have ever encountered.”

He is survived by his first wife, Nthoana, by his three children Nomvuyo, Thami and Nonkosi, and by his grandson Mbizo.