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Books Column: Harry & Shaun


Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

Ben Williams reflects upon the lives of two writers who led the way, and are gone too soon.

Sketch a line on a map from Akure, Nigeria to Libode, South Africa and your pencil will cross a vast chunk of the African continent – too vast, one would have thought, for there to be any meaningful connection between the two places.

Yet here I am, drawing one.

This is because, in 1958 in Akure, and a year later in Libode, two men were born who came to loom large in African literature, and who died just days apart last week in South Africa. In the lives of Shaun Johnson and Harry Garuba, so disparate at the beginning, lie comparable lessons.

Last week was a week of slings and arrows to stagger through. On Monday came the sling. Shaun Johnson left us, suddenly. He was the golden child of South African journalism, a man whose meteoric success in his field ensured a constant low, envious grumble among those who couldn’t help but stargaze.

Shaun’s first and only novel, The Native Commissioner (2007), won a trophy-case of awards and sold thousands of copies. The success left him beyond bemused; he was almost embarrassed by it.

He was a Rhodes Scholar, and later became the founding CEO of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation – a corporate name not for those squeamish of history. For 16 years, he kept it lashed to its task of funding the education of promising African youth. In July last year, he wrote his final MRF update, sharing a letter from the foundation’s alumni. The former students wrote:

“Today, Mandela Rhodes Alumni hail from almost 30 countries across Africa, and now serve in different capacities in wide-reaching corners of the world. From only eight Scholars in residence for the first cohort in 2005, [the programme] now boasts up to 100 Scholars in residence each year. We credit this to your leadership and dedication. For that, we are grateful.”

In terms of legacies to leave, one could do quite a bit worse than that.

Then, on Friday, came the arrow. Harry Garuba left us. As a young man, he lit his home country of Nigeria on fire with his early publications, which include the one-act play, Pantomime for Saint Apartheid’s Day (1977) and a book of poetry, Shadow and Dream and Other Poems (1982), which placed him instantly in the front rank of his contemporaries.

He taught at the University of Ibadan for 15 years before coming to South Africa in 2001, eventually finding an academic home at the University of Cape Town. It took him 35 years to publish another book of poems: Animist Chants and Memorials came out in 2018. “[F]or thirty years / I kept running, running away from / poetry,” he wrote.

Since his untimely death, Harry’s friends, colleagues and former students have raised their voices as one in praise of his humanity. The author and academic Pumla Dineo Gqola put it perfectly when she said, on Twitter, “We will miss your beautiful mind, your gentle heart, your incredible sense of humour… we weep in grief mixed in with gratitude for your life.”

A beautiful elegy; another legacy secured fast.

I knew both Harry and Shaun, but the thought of likening them to each other would probably never have occurred to me, had their deaths not come so closely together. Now it’s clear, however, that their lives contained several of the same threads. They were brilliant writers who abhorred injustice; they were uncommonly decent people whose main instinct in life was to participate and help; they dedicated themselves to the future via the students whose minds they touched; in times of creative drought, they found meaning in shepherding the next generation onward.

In short, Harry and Shaun were leaders. They weathered the storms of everyday politics and kept their eyes on the main prize, which seems to have been, simply, living a life well. And that they did. “Humans, not places, make memories,” the great writer Ama Ata Aidoo is reported to have said. So it was with these two remarkable humans from Akure and Libode.

Leaders like Harry and Shaun are leaving us, and taking their kindnesses with them. On the faces of those coming after, I see many wearing smirks instead of smiles. Suffering by comparison, some have yet to learn, is no badge of honour.

Goodness, how we’ll miss them, Harry and Shaun. ML

Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books



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