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Stan Sangweni: The most remarkable South African you’ve never heard of


Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

This past weekend, a remarkable South African turned 80. Professor Stan Skumbuzo Mzilankatha Sangweni happens to be my grandfather (in the African sense). He is also a remarkable human being, whose life and accomplishments were celebrated with laughter and tears and many wonderful stories. Born in 1933 in a rural Natal village, he went on to complete two Masters degrees, including one from an Ivy League institution. But his message has always been clear: out leaders can do better and it is our job to help them.

Over 300 people gathered on Saturday to toast Stan Sangweni, the old man who is known to those closest to him as “Dedi”. There were many tributes and accolades, but three stood out.

The first was the awarding of new scholarships for students who live in and around the Newcastle community in which Stan Sangweni grew up. For the past three years, the Stan and Angela Sangweni Bursary has supported school attendance for brilliant children from poor families in the communities around Newcastle. This weekend, we expanded the bursary through the generous donations of guests who sent money rather than gifts as per the old man’s request.

The second highlight was a brilliant speech made by Angela Sangweni, his wife of 48 years, who told the funny and sweet story of how he wrote her a letter to declare his love and she had to look him up in the yearbook to figure out who he was.

The third was the speed by the man himself. Dedi’s eyes are failing and he leans heavily on a cane to walk these days. He ascended the stairs painstakingly slowly. But once he got to the podium, it was evident that his mind is as quick as it ever was.

He began by responding to his wife, suggesting a narrative far different from the love story that she had outlined a few minutes earlier. He suggested that it was she who had noticed him long before he was aware of her. He explained, to an amused crowd, that his friends told him all those years ago, that she paid special attention whenever he stood to write out an equation in their final year of high school.

And then he became serious. He turned his attention to the state of the nation and to the state of the rural communities that are at the heart of this country. His words were powerful, frank, impassioned, almost painful to hear.

He spoke about the “unfinished business of economic liberation”. He asked the young people gathered at the event to continue where he and his generation had stopped; he asked us to take up the fight against corruption so that his dream could be fulfilled. “That dream,” he said,  “is of a day long after my sunset, when skylarks will rise over the hills of every village in South Africa and look over communities in which poverty and hunger are no more. That will only happen if you take up the challenge,” he argued.

It was a remarkable speech because it was not given by a politician, but by an understated old man who trained to become a rural sociologist at some of the best universities in the world. A pioneer in every sense of the word, Stan Sangweni rose from humble beginnings to become first an international public servant, then a professor and finally, before he retired, the chair of the Public Service Commission.

Born on 13 September 1933, on a rural plot in Natal, he was the first person in his community to matriculate from high school. As a child, he read the Concise Oxford English Dictionary from cover to cover in order to supplement the lessons that he got at school and the reading that he did by candlelight. Over the years, this insistence on excellence and commitment to self-improvement became his most marked trait.

At the age of 18 he left the small cluster of native farms where he had been raised to become the first in our community to study outside the country, first at the Roma College in Lesotho, then at the Cody Institute in Nova Scotia and finally at Cornell University in the United States. He earned two Masters degrees and had to look for a country that would take him in, since his own would not. After 30 years as a nomad, living in Holland, Swaziland, Zambia, Kenya and Ethiopia, he finally made his way home in 1993.

The Sangweni’s homes were at the centre of the South African exile communities in Zambia and Kenya in the 1970s and 1980s. They sheltered many of the children of 1976 who passed through Lusaka and Nairobi.

I spent many of my formative years with them. By the time I was a teenager, swotting for exams in his study, I was familiar with the red lines that marked all Dedi’s papers because they were all over my assignments too. He gave his colleagues and comrades the same treatment as he gave his children: whether it was homework, a thesis, or a draft report, Stan Sangweni was a stickler for detail. He read each line that was presented to him and took the time to comment.

When I was nine and we were living in Nairobi, I spent three weeks writing a “book” about soil erosion and desertification based on numerous conversations I had had with Dedi. One day, after school I proudly showed him the fruits of my efforts: three notebooks full of my “thoughts.” He commended me for my efforts and we agreed that he would read and comment on my work.

He was true to his word. He returned my manuscript a few days later with each spelling mistake corrected and with detailed comments on the ideas that I had presented. Over the course of the next few weeks we went over the misspelled words together. He ensured that I would never try to cross a dessert, or attempt to eat a desert.

The message was clear: You are worthy of my attention and time. Your dreams warrant my respect and because of this, you must work harder still. I will not let you be less than what your potential demands of you.

At the end of it all, Dedi’s message to those of us gathered to celebrate him this past weekend was pretty consistent with the message he gave me when I was nine. He told his country, the leaders that he helped to raise and mould, in the most straightforward and loving way possible, that they can do better.

In so doing, he passed the baton on to those of us who remain patriotic, committed and only half as brave and critical as he is. He challenged us all to think twice before accusing people who raise questions about where our country is going or seeking to undermine the legacy of liberation. Happy 80th birthday Mzilankatha. DM


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