South Africa

Op-Ed: A Tribute to Professor Rok Ajulu (1950-2016)

By Tito Mboweni 10 January 2017

Ajulu Rok or Rok Ajulu, depending on what one knew him as, has passed away. According to a family announcement, he succumbed to complications arising from pancreatic cancer. By TITO MBOWENI.

Ajulu, as I knew him, was born in Kenya, Dajo Ka Ajulu, Kisumu, Bondo, near Lake Victoria in 1950.

Stubborn, argumentative and forthright, he was expelled from the University of Nairobi for participating in student protests against the government of the day. He joined the rapidly growing socialist student movement in East Africa and was sent to study in Bulgaria. He did not like it there and eventually ended up at the National University of Lesotho (NUL). His father, Ntate Stephen Odero Ajulu, was also a political activist with the Kenya People’s Union led by Odinga Odinga, Raila Odinga’s father. I gather that Ntate Stephen Ajulu was a disciplinarian of note.

At the NUL, Ajuku immersed himself into the study of politics and African history. One of his lecturers was the legendary Professor John Bardill, who also taught me Politics. John Bardill was a British left-wing academic of immense academic weight and influence, a staunch anti-apartheid activist who had married a South African, Pat January. Ausi Pat was an anti-apartheid activist, I think from Kimberley.

Ever an activist, Ajulu studied and became the glue that held left-wing students together. Together with other students of similar thinking, they formed a number of organisations on campus and beyond: the Lumumba Society (a kind of elite and exclusive study group which one joined by invitation only), the Committee for Action and Solidarity with Southern African Students, the Social Sciences Study Group and they published a magazine, edited by him, called The Vanguard. These organs became influential in Lesotho and southern Africa.

Context is important here: at that time, the 1970s, a number of political developments were taking place in Africa and southern Africa. This was post-independence time. Ajulu had been “exiled” by what he called a post-independence “predatory and rent seeking” state in Kenya, independent but corrupt to the core. And he hated this. Struggles for independence were raging in Angola, Mozambique, Capo Verde and Guinea Bissau, Rhodesia, Namibia and South Africa. Many people in Africa and elsewhere were caught up in these struggles. No wonder then that internationalists like Ajulu were active in these struggles.

The pages of The Vanguard were occupied by articles analysing and discussing these developments. The NUL (a.k.a. Roma) was not just an academic institution but a centre of learning, a hive of political activities, a political school and a place where one learnt about non-racialism, solidarity, global friendship, internationalism and where I regained my humanity, stolen by the apartheid system. Space does not allow me to mention the many good people at Roma. They came from all over the world. Maybe the subject of another article.

In a real sense, Ajulu became a southern African, eastern African, African and international person. A global citizen of doubtful “national citizenship”. I doubt it if he had a legitimate passport! He had been given an exit passport from Kenya when he left for Bulgaria.

After 1990 he settled in South Africa. He had obtained a PhD while studying in England and taught at a number of South African universities. He groomed many students who are today playing an important roles in one or other South African endeavour.

Today we said goodbye to him as South Africans. He will be making his way home to his ancestral burial grounds in Bondo ka Ajulu where he will be resting alongside his ancestors.

Ever cheerful, radiant and intellectually and politically engaging, with a deep laugh and African accent, he used to say: call a spade a spade, not a big spoon, the enemy will not come tip-toeing in hush puppies and we need a “Coke and a cake”.

And so,

The star that shone with glare,
Through storms and wintry nights,
Shall breathe no more nor share our joys and our delights,
The hand that wrote with might,
Unchecked by earthly fear,
Though withered, cold and light, Is honoured far and near. 
The eyes that gleamed with tears, Of love, for Africa’s sake,
In bitter days and years, Are dimmed at Life’s noon brake.
Oh Death thou cruel King,
We dare not curse by name, Despite our hearts that sting, 
For life is a passing game. 
Men (and women) of Africa, young and old, Be bold and fearless as he,
For there he lieth stiff and cold. 
He died to make us good and free

Stanley Silwane, May 2, 1936: Ode to Dr WB Rubusana, PhD. From The Return of the Amasi Bird edited by Tim Cousins and Essop Patel.

Go well Pan-African internationalist, academic, humanist, family man, comrade, brother, friend and professor. Tell the others over there that in Africa, the struggle continues. A luta! Continua! A Vitoria! E Certe! We will deal with all these corrupt “leaders”. Watch us do it from wherever you are, my brother. No more turning back, my cousin always says. DM

Photo: Prof Rok Ajulu.

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