The University Record, September 17, 1996

Theater Department's books benefit South Africa program

Fredricksen (from left), Themba, Moody and Simmons survey some of the theater department's 500 books being donated to South Africa's previously segregated and underfunded University of Fort Hare. Fredricksen noted that Fort Hare alumnus Nelson Man dela "has broken a number of barriers in his life, and now that whatever barriers still exist in South Africa are going down all of the time, we were happy to contribute to the process."

By John Woodford
News and Information Services

Shortly before returning last month to the University of Fort Hare, Nelson Mandela's alma mater in South Africa, Prof. G. Themba Sirayi had the satisfaction of seeing a sizable donation of 500 books and scripts weighing 500 pounds from U-M's theater library awaiting packaging and shipping.

"Since our theater department is in its infancy," says Sirayi, founder and director of the Center for Cultural Studies (CCS) at Fort Hare, "this donation is invaluable to us. We plan to build a department that will draw upon the rich artistic and theatrical forms that pre-dated colonialism and apartheid theater."

Sirayi was on campus during the summer as a King/Chavez/Parks Visiting Scholar under the auspices of the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the South Africa Initiatives Office (SAIO), which since 1990 has collected and shipped thousands of books and medical journals for South African universities that were underequipped during apartheid.

Sirayi's visit to U-M was paved by Prof. Renee A. Simmons of the theater department, and the recent donation was headed by Prof. Erik Fredricksen, the department's chairman. Simmons met Sirayi while she was in South Africa exploring areas in which U-M and Fort Hare can expand the cooperation formally begun by former Vice Provost for Minority Affairs and SAIO Executive Director Charles D. Moody in 1991.

The CCS is the repository for the archives of all parties and organizations involved in the South African liberation movement against apartheid, says Sirayi, who founded the center in 1981. He headed a series of delicate negotiations that required consensus on the CCS site among many rival, even hostile, organizations.

The Center also has museum holdings including indigenous art, beadwork, basketry, textiles and household objects, most of which go back to the 1950s. There are 3,000 articles of this nature.

"It was difficult to manage the Center or any other cultural institution during apartheid because culture was known by the apartheid regime to be a dynamic tool for liberation," Sirayi says, "so culture was suppressed as a means of thwarting nation-building and liberation. During the national liberation movements we concentrated on collecting written and oral forms of the Xhosa language and promoting and guiding creative writing efforts among the people, focusing on budding authors and interviewing established authors.

Among the writings the CCS discovered was a dog story written by a Xhosa author and activist named Siyongwana, in the 1950s. The story, Ubu Lumko (The Wisdom of the Dogs), was about a group of dogs held captive by other dogs. Some of the dogs fought their way to freedom and then retreated to the forest. In the end, they resolved the differences between themselves and their captors through a settlement in which everyone was freed. "It was a parable of the liberation struggle, and quite prophetic," Sirayi noted. "The author clearly conducted his protest in a metaphorical way. The, author as it turns out, was unaware of Orwell's The Animal Farm."

Sirayi also served as the African National Congress's representative in the Negotiating Council Commission on National Symbols, which helped select South Africa's new flag, coat of arms and national anthem.

In selecting the flag and coat of arms, the Council "looked at various submissions by the people, themselves," Sirayi says. "We found out what the people envisaged and then reconciled the dominant features---the unifying patterns, colors, themes and what-not. The design we chose was not the creation of any one person. The people designed thousands of flags, and we noted what meanings the people attached to certain colors symbolizing the nature and historical features of our country."