South Africa: Honorary Doctorate for Retiring Prof Ntsebeza

In recognition of his outstanding research on land reform and the democratisation of rural areas in the former Bantustans, in particular, the University of Leiden in the Netherlands will be presenting Professor Lungisile Ntsebeza with an honorary doctorate early in 2020.

The doctorate will be conferred on Ntsebeza, from the University of Cape Town's (UCT) Centre for African Studies, during a special graduation ceremony in celebration of the university's 445th Dies Natalis on Friday, 7 February 2020 in Leiden's Pieterskerk.

Ntsebeza first became aware of Leiden University's interest in his work when Professor Jan-Bart Gewald, director of the African Studies Centre Leiden reached out to him in June.

"He said that they had been following my work closely and wanted to raise my name for an award," Ntsebeza recalls. This was followed by a letter from Professor Carel Stolker, rector of Leiden University, asking whether Ntsebeza would be willing to accept an honorary doctorate from the institution.

"My work challenges the government's tendency to turn a blind eye when it comes to the undemocratic control headmen and chiefs have over land in rural areas."

This honour will come shortly after Ntsebeza's retirement from institutional duties at UCT on 31 December 2019.

The Dutch connection

Having been part of the South Africa-Netherlands Research Programme on Alternatives in Development (SANPAD), a joint research venture between the two countries supported by a grant from the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ntsebeza is no stranger to the scholarly world of the Netherlands.

However, apart from publishing his first sole-authored book, Democracy Compromised: Chiefs and the Politics of the Land in South Africa through Leiden-based Brill Publishers, Ntsebeza has mostly nurtured relationships with colleagues at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

"So, I was quite surprised and a little bit confused when Leiden reached out to me," Ntsebeza says.

"Academics often joke about how people who receive honorary doctorates didn't really work for them," he laughs. "So, I suppose I also had that attitude at first."

As he started telling colleagues about the award, he discovered that it was indeed rare for academics to receive honorary doctorates for their work, making this award even more noteworthy.

"When the letter came and stipulated that it was in recognition of my 'outstanding research', it made all the difference," he says.

Nurturing a love for study

Ntsebeza traces the start of his formal academic career back to 1987 when he enrolled as an honours student at UCT. This was followed by a master's degree at the University of Natal in Durban - now part of the University of KwaZulu-Natal - and a PhD in sociology at Rhodes University. He returned to UCT in 2004 as an associate professor and was promoted to full professor in 2007.

He currently holds the Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation South African Research Chair (SARChI) in land reform and democracy in South Africa, as well as the AC Jordan Chair in African studies.

Growing up in the small town of Cala in what used to be the Transkei with parents who were both teachers, Ntsebeza and his older brother and sister experienced a home environment with access to newspapers, books and daily radio news reports.

"I'm very uncomfortable when I'm put in a department and expected to stay within those boundaries."

This nurtured a love for reading, study and knowledge clearly reflected in the diversity of Ntsebeza's academic background, which includes accounting, commerce, philosophy, economic history and sociology.

"I'm comfortable enough in African studies, because it's inter/non-disciplinary," he says. "I'm very uncomfortable when I'm put in a department and expected to stay within those boundaries."

Early extra-curricular study

Ntsebeza believes that the true foundation for his more recent academic achievements was laid beyond the walls of any institution. As a young, political activist, he joined study groups where they closely examined texts about revolutions and guerrilla warfare.

"I started using a method of close reading of texts in those days - which I still use to this day - where you could easily spend hours on a single sentence," he says. "Our training and discipline were such that you didn't go to the next sentence if there was something you didn't understand."

Under the apartheid regime, the materials being read in these study groups were declared illegal by the Suppression of Communism Act. This did not, however, deter Ntsebeza and his colleagues from their study. Eventually they were found out, placed in detention, and in 1977, sentenced to four years in prison.

"The one good thing - if one can talk about good things in prison - was that they allowed us to study," Ntsebeza says.

Defying his father's wish for him to become a chartered accountant, Ntsebeza decided to enrol for a degree in politics and philosophy, followed by the first part of an honours degree (which he later completed at UCT).

Along with a commitment to relating concepts and theories back to the real world and - maybe more importantly - the local, this close examination of texts has remained Ntsebeza's method of choice.

"The one good thing - if one can talk about good things in prison - was that they allowed us to study."

"For me, that's what scholarship is about and that's what I'm teaching students. If people and institutions like Leiden recognise my work, it's for exactly that reason."

The thing about prophets

Even though Ntsebeza has established himself as one of the leading experts on land reform in South Africa and is being recognised internationally for this work, he has experienced a somewhat surprising marginalisation.

"The government set up a commission about expropriation without compensation and I was not included," Ntsebeza says. "I was considered, but the politicians didn't want me, because they were scared I'd be critical. And they are right!"

In The Land Question in South Africa: The Challenge of Transformation and Redistribution, a book he co-authored with Professor Ruth Hall from the University of the Western Cape in 2007, Ntsebeza wrote an chapter on Section 25 of the South African Constitution, also known as the property clause.

"My work challenges the government's tendency to turn a blind eye when it comes to the undemocratic control headmen and chiefs have over land in rural areas," Ntsebeza explains. "When you raise it with them, they attack you instead of engaging with you."

As a prophet not without honour save in his own country, Ntsebeza's expertise has all but been cast aside in South Africa. Something that makes Leiden University's bestowal of this honorary doctorate even more poignant.

"It's almost ironic that colleagues elsewhere think this is good work, pioneering work. I don't like to beat my own breast, but I know it is."

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