Mwelela Cele, Tribute to Prof Jeff Guy who died this week

For Prof Jeff Guy

I received the news of Professor Jeff Guy’s passing while I was at another fountain of knowledge,

the National English Literary Museum (NELM) in Grahamstown, doing work-related research about writers and poets of the Black Consciousness era, focusing specifically on those that left us this year, namely Mbulelo Mzamane, Mafika Gwala and Chris Van Wyk.

While reading at NELM I received two text messages in close succession, bringing news of the departure from this life of yet another outstanding South African: the text messages came from Yvonne Winters my former boss, retired Head of Campbell Collections, UKZN. I immediately called Prof Catherine Burns. For some reason I had not checked my emails on Tuesday 16th. Had I done so, I would have seen e-mails from Cath and Meghan and other friends, sending beautiful tributes to Prof.

I had the pleasure and honour of working with Professor Jeff Guy at Campbell Collections, UKZN and I was privileged to see him many times in action during the famous UKZN History Seminars. Sometime in 2007 I went to Professor Jeff Guy’s office at Campbell Collections, to discuss a seminar that we were organising, and while discussing the seminar he asked me about my family history. I mentioned my grandfather, Chief Jerome Cele of Inchanga (Fredville), the elder brother to my grandfather Leonard Cele (L.R.) on my paternal side, and I also mentioned some family members on my father’s maternal side, the Gumedes of Inanda, specifically my great grandfather, the Rev Posselt Gumede, and his son my grandfather Dr I.B. Gumede. A few days later, at the UKZN History Seminar, Percy Ngonyama was giving a presentation about Adams College. During the discussion Prof Guy pulled out a copy of The new African : a study of the life and work of H.I.E. Dhlomo by Professor Tim Couzens, and he mentioned the Rev Posselt Gumede and Dr. Innes Gumede, as some of the people that are linked to Adams College, and are mentioned within the aforementioned book. After the seminar he lent me his copy of The New African, and in this way, superb mentor that he was, he indicated to me that I could carry out research into my family. By giving me The New African after I had mentioned my family to him a few days before for only a few minutes, he encouraged me to explore new sources: and now he had gone and found information about my family, thus helping me find an angle as a librarian, archivist, heritage professional and student of history. Before meeting Professor Guy I was an avid reader of history books, novels, poetry, biographies etc: however I didn’t have a paradigm or an angle. By pointing me towards my family history, while linking it to early African intellectuals, and giving me the bible of early African intellectuals (The New African), he gave me direction.

From early 2005 to late 2006, as curator and researcher at Luthuli Museum, I did a great deal of research about Chief Albert Luthuli; then, in December 2006, I started to work with Prof Guy, and in 2007 I began attending the History Seminars, and I discovered that I had been researching Chief Luthuli as an isolated figure, not within the context of the other African intellectuals of his era. When Prof Guy helped me find an angle I became a better researcher and librarian and this in turn helped me assist my library-users and researchers more effectively. Prof Guy and the History Seminar taught me to connect events and people in history. Inspired by Prof Guy’s points made during the Adams College discussion during the History Seminar, and by The New African, I began researching my family history, looking for material at Campbell Collections, where I indeed found valuable information. After one of the TAP meetings, Meghan Healy Clancy invited me to contribute an essay about the Gumedes of Inanda for publication in the book Ekhaya.

When I told Prof Guy that my grandfather, Leonard Cele, three months before he was killed by lighting at the age of 41 in 1954, had written two articles in Ilanga Lase Natal about the History of the Cele people and that in one of the articles my grandfather said he was planning to writing a book for his grandchildren – meaning me and us long before I was born – Prof Guy said that I must find time and write about the Cele people.

Prof Guy loved and lived history day in and day out. I remember he once came to Campbell Collections with his eyes looking tired and strained: when I asked about this, he said he had been writing the whole night before. In August 2008 I visited kwa Ceza and, while driving along that gravel road, I remembered that in the preface of Prof Guy’s famous and classic Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom he thanks the staff of kwa Ceza hospital for having given him accommodation when he was doing research. When I was back in Durban I asked him about the trips to kwa Ceza back in the late 60s and early 70s. And he shared with me that he had done these trips, driving a VW beetle and accompanied by the then Prince Zwelithini, currently King Zwelithini ka Nyangayezizwe ka Solomo ka Dinuzulu ka Cetshwayo. And he told me that while doing research he was introduced to Princess Magogo ka Dinuzulu.

When Prof was talking History, you could sense passion coming from within him. Prof Guy was not only a writer, preserver and defender of History, but he also loved the Archives, the Libraries, Museums, Old Government Publications, Old Maps, historical knowledge generally: as long as information illuminated the past, specifically south-eastern Africa in the 19th century, Prof would love it. My consolation is that Prof Guy left this world after doing what he loved most, and that is discussing History. When Yvonne and Cath told me that he had left us after attending a conference on Colenso, I was consoled, and thought what perfect timing that was. In the Campbell Collections Reading Room in 2008, when I told him that I was reading his book: The heretic: a study of the life of John William Colenso, 1814 – 1883, he said to me “Mwelela, of all my books that is my favourite”. Being a master at drawing in all the threads of an argument to present a virtuoso conclusion, he left us in the brilliance of yet another great conclusion, in the conference paper he had lately delivered. Like a true Zulu warrior he left us in the action after the action. I once said to him “Prof I love the way you conclude your papers and books”; my favourite was the way he concluded a paper about Harriet Colenso, with a letter from Harriet Colenso to the Rev John Langalibalele Dube. And who can forget the conclusion of the Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom where he writes: “The Zulu nationalist movement today, whose leaders are in many cases the direct descendants of the men who fought the civil war, and who draw consciously on the Zulu past, is a force which will still affect the course of southern African History.”

For me it is symbolic that I received the news of Prof’s passing while doing research (he would approve!): I was in a fountain of knowledge, the National English Literary Museum. I felt like Noel Mostert who wrote in his book Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and the Tragedy of the Xhosa People, that he had been working in the State Archives in Cape Town when, emerging from there one afternoon, he was confronted by the headlines of Steve Biko’s death. While at NELM I told fellow-researchers about Prof Guy’s passing and we were all aware of our sense of loss.

The ‘Zulu National Poet’ of the 1930s and 40s Dr. B.W. Vilakazi wrote the following lines of poetry after the passing of his father: “I SHALL BELIEVE…/ I shall believe that you have died/ When bird-calls brightening the air,/ When night-dark skies festooned with stars,/ When haze of dawn and mist of dusk/ Whose fading glow is pale as moonbeams -/ Have vanished forever from the earth./ I shall believe that you have died/ When rooted mountains and rushing streams,/ The winds that blow from north and south,/ The winter’s frost and glittering dew-drops/ Scattering pearls upon the grass -/ Have vanished forever from the earth./ To me your fall was like a star’s…/”

A reviewer once described the Destruction of the Zulu Kingdom “as a monument to scholarship of the highest order”: how true – Prof Guy himself was a living monument to scholarship of the highest order, and the abundant fruits of his life’s work should inspire those whom he taught and influenced to produce high-order scholarship worthy of his memory.

Mwelela Cele

Ginsberg: King William’s Town (eQonce)

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