IsiXhosa language lecturer conferred ‘milestone’ PhD


RAISING ISIXHOSA: Dr Hleze Kunju wrote his PhD thesis in isiXhosa, and was conferred his degree last week at Rhodes University

DR HLEZE Kunju set a new standard for South African scholars and academics last week when he was conferred his PhD at Rhodes University for his thesis written entirely in IsiXhosa.

Kunju, 31,who recently started teaching IsiXhosa at the Sol Plaatje University Faculty of Education, wrote a breakthrough thesis which delves into an untold version of history, and reveals the existence of an about 200 000 strong community of amaXhosa living in Mbembesi, which lies 45km outside Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

“It took me four years,” said Kunju, who was born and raised in the rural Eastern Cape. “I had to spend quite a lot of time in [Zimbabwe], got to know the people and familiarised myself with the area.

“The area is divided into 12 locations. Eventually I was able to travel around the area without assistance. The people were very welcoming and I’ve received positive feedback from the Xhosa people of Zimbabwe.”

Kunju first learned about the amaMfengu when he went to teach in Zimbabwe after completing his post-graduate teaching course in 2009.

“I heard about the Xhosa people in 2010 when I was working as a drama and music teacher at Peterhouse group of schools in Zimbabwe.

“The majority of Zimbabweans do not know of these people,” Kunju said. “In 2012, I started thinking about this research, and 2013 is the year I registered for the PhD.”

Kunju’s PhD Thesis, IsiXhosa ulwimi lwabantu abangesosininzi eZimbabwe: Ukuphila nokulondolozwa kwaso (IsiXhosa as a Minority Language in Zimbabwe: Survival and Maintenance), delves into the existence of amaXhosa people living in Zimbabwe, and depicts the reality facing this community which no access to isiXhosa reading material aside from the translated isiXhosa Bible.

Beyond this research, there is nothing written about their existence and subsistence in Zimbabwe – or even how they came to be there.

[Cecil John] Rhodes died in 1902 while he was still in the process of getting more and more Xhosa people to move to Zimbabwe

“It was during the late 1800s to early 1900s as they left in different groups. [Cecil John] Rhodes unfortunately died in 1902 while he was still in the process of getting more and more Xhosa people to move to Zimbabwe,” Kunju said.

“Xhosa people had to just carry on with life in Zimbabwe without much support from the government.

“They still would like to engage with the British embassy about the fact that they did their part in Zimbabwe, they really worked hard for Zimbabwe, they worked in the mines, they worked as teachers, as nurses, as religious ministers and so on.

“In the thesis, I have tried to let them tell their own stories rather than me talking about them,” Kunju said. “This thesis is for them as well, so it’s important for them to be able to access it in their own language.”

Kunju’s accomplishment bears great significance for the development of South African literature. Since being conferred his doctorate, he has opened a new discourse into using Rhodes University’s language policy to optimum capacity by students at the institution.

“From the messages I’ve received from students at Rhodes University, some asking me to supervise them in isiXhosa, I think it has inspired quite a number of people and I’m positive that there are more isiXhosa academic writings,” he said.

The Xhosa people will soon be well known as people who can use their language for academic writings

“The Xhosa people will soon be well known as people who can use their language for academic writings,” he said. “There is little material in African languages. We have to build material. I think we need, academically, to write more in African languages so that there can exist a South African literature; so that they can know that all languages can do what English can do.

“We will soon see more academic articles in isiXhosa,” Kunju said. “And for me this is transformation.”

Kunju closed off with a quote from the late former President Nelson Mandela who said: “Without a language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or enjoy their songs.”

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