Renowned poet and founder of Wordfest, Professor Chris Mann, passes away

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Chris Mann receives English Academy of South Africa gold medal from the president Professor Mbongeni Malaba in 2019
Chris Mann receives English Academy of South Africa gold medal from the president Professor Mbongeni Malaba in 2019

Professor Chris Mann, who was based at Rhodes University’s Institute for the Study of the Englishes in Africa (ISEA) and founded Wordfest, died peacefully at his home in Makhanda last week, following a cancer diagnosis in 2020.

Prof Mann’s funeral service will take place (by invitation-only, due to COVID-19 restrictions) on Friday 19 March at 10h30 at the Cathedral of St Michael and St George. For those who wish to attend virtually, it will be livestreamed at https://fb.me/e/dqJdRKWay.

 

Professor Chris Zithulele Mann: a tribute

It is with great sadness that all at the Institute for the Study of the Englishes of Africa (ISEA) mark the passing of colleague and friend, Professor Christopher Zithulele Mann, the distinguished poet, playwright, musician and inspiration of the annual festival of words called Wordfest. His numerous awards over the years attest to the depth and richness of his creativity: the Newdigate Prize for Poetry, the Olive Schreiner Prize, the South African Performing Arts Councils’ Playwright of the Year award, the Thomas Pringle Award for poetry, and most recently, the English Academy of South Africa’s gold medal in 2019.

Chris was born in Port Elizabeth (now Gqeberha) in 1948 and pursued academic studies: first a BA at Wits majoring in English and Philosophy, then an MA from Oxford in English Language and Literature and an MA in African Oral Literature from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. In 1999, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Durban-Westville in recognition of his literary accomplishments and many years of community-based work in the Valley of a Thousand Hills. In 2007, he was appointed Honorary Professor of Poetry at Rhodes University, primarily in recognition of his poetry but also for his founding, inspirational work in Wordfest. Despite all of these weighty scholarly accomplishments, Chris wore his status very lightly. He was simply Chris, even to the cleaners and messengers. For him status meant nothing if it was not matched with depth of understanding and empathy.

While this tribute concentrates on Wordfest, Chris’s contribution in the ISEA was considerably more than that. His publications included not only poetry, but also essays, numerous letters to newspapers and, increasingly, social media and multimedia posts that brought together his and Julia’s shared talents. This research output contributed greatly to the annual reports of the ISEA. He also combined his flair for poetry with an unrivalled interactive performance outreach programme to schools across the country, thus raising the profile of the ISEA and, indeed, the University.

Wordfest, which is part of the National Arts Festival, was one of Chris’s main areas of involvement in the ISEA, and also the broader Rhodes and Eastern Cape community. A pilot Wordfest was held in 1999 and in 2000, it was properly inaugurated with a programme of 70 events - the Johannesburg newspaper, The Star, called it ‘the best ever addition to the Festival’. Wordfest was an annual multi-cultural, multilingual celebration of languages and literature which enlivened Eden Grove and St Peter’s with the sounds and song of creatives from all over the Eastern Cape and further afield. At its heart was Chris, revelling in all the activity and nurturing new talent through writing workshops and courses in Afrikaans, isiXhosa and English. From its inception, he drove the multilingual impetus of Wordfest and the themes, form, and funding for the entire event. These impulses coincided very neatly with our own aims and objectives in the ISEA and we embraced Chris’s many accomplishments in Wordfest with pride. He was one of us with a very special place in the ISEA. He grappled with our complex racialised reality, always seeking ways out of our enduring inequalities. He was a man of ideas and of action in his chosen field of the creative arts and we will sorely miss his intellectual and committed presence in the ISEA.

From the start, the Wordfest programme incorporated book launches, writing workshops, exhibitions and displays, open mic sessions where new poets could share their work with peers and a street parade where the colourful procession of writers and imbongi carried placards with messages such as Sakha isizwe ngosiba (Build the nation with a quill) and Die boek is altyd beter as die fliek (The book is always better than the movie). As funding improved, Wordfest became both a national platform and also sank its roots more deeply in the Eastern Cape. Besides its national profile, Wordfest became an annual reunion of writers from many corners of the province and, when funding allowed, these writers’ isivivane were published. 

While these live events served the community of writers and engaged the wider community of the campus and town, radio journalists took Wordfest much further afield. Thus, in 2017, three multilingual radio journalists interviewed writers and these interviews were broadcast on 25 community radio stations and three national ones, reaching over 10 million listeners. 

For the last ten years, Sonwabile Mfecane has been involved in Wordfest, recently as Coordinator. In his own words, “It is Chris Mann who put me there. I leave out the title, Professor. I refer to him here as he wanted me to call him Chris, or Zithulele…. Academically and by age, he is by far my senior. I had many one-on-ones with him and the many other speakers he invited to Wordfest. Many other writers benefited from this opportunity that Wordfest, and Chris himself, presented. I took it. At this difficult time when Wordfest is facing funding difficulties, I hope his spirit will take us forward.

NdinguSonwabile Mfecane ndingumququzeleli womnyhadala wababhali uWordfest SA. Kulendawo ndabekwa nguChris Mann.

As a colleague, his gift, to make poetry of the everyday and the sublime, is well conveyed in these lines from ‘A Breath of Awe’ (in Liberator, 2007)  

 

  In Grahamstown’s Public Library

  I read that we are towers of cells,

  trillions and trillions of sedulous cells,

  each one more complex than a town.

   I turned the page, once more amazed

   at life’s deep daring and finesse.

   The library clock ticked on, unfazed.

 

We convey our deepest condolences to his wife Julia, daughter Amy and son Luke, to all other family members and the many friends and colleagues, here and around the world, whose lives Chris touched and enriched.

 


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