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Historian Masilela dies in Thailand

By Zubeida Jaffer

Internationally renowned South African intellectual historian and Marxist scholar, Professor Ntongela Masilela passed away in Thailand recently after a long illness. He was 72 years old.

He will be remembered for his formidable collection of works much of which can be freely accessed on his website called THE NEW AFRICAN MOVEMENT: http://pzacad.pitzer.edu/NAM/.

Film director, Bridget Thompson said his New African Movement was a record of a century long movement of more than 350, largely publicly negated, intellectuals, from mid 19th century SA to mid 20th century SA who provided the intellectual roots of a new South Africa.

“Apart from the great depth and breadth of his work, his unique contribution was that he sketched out both the theoretical premises for, and filled in much of the data of an architecture of this intellectual and artistic movement,” she said. “His phenomenal New African Movement website with associated articles provided a way to appreciate the full scope of the milieu of the New South African intellectual family tree.”

Upon his retirement, he had moved to Bangkok, Thailand to live with his second wife, Wasana Suesena Masilela, where he continued to make intellectual contributions to the field of South African intellectual history.

According to the tribute compiled by his family, Professor Masilela had cited the following intellectuals and artists of the twentieth century as profoundly influencing his work: Henry E. Sigerist, Manfredo Tafuri, C. L. R. James, César Vallejo, Frantz Fanon, and H. I. E. Dhlomo. His mentors included the Pan-Africanist Dr. Ras Makonnen and the South African author and professor Es’kia Mphahlele, whom Professor Masilela would frequently visit in Lebowakgomo, Limpopo Province; close friends and colleagues included the South African poet Mazisi Kunene and renowned Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, amongst others.

Professor Masilela was a tenured professor at Pitzer College of the Claremont Colleges in Claremont, California (USA) for over twenty years. He taught literature, cinema studies, developed an interdisciplinary major, and established a research center for the study of African intellectuals.

He developed an unparalleled archive of articles and newspaper clippings reflecting the intellectual contributions of black South African scholars and writers. He published a series of books chronicling his research as well as anthologies of essays and articles he had unearthed in his tireless research. Titles include: Black Modernity: 20th Century Discourses between the United States and South Africa (1999); Internationalism and Nationalism in Medicine: Henry Sigerist (2005); The Cultural Modernity of H.I.E. Dhlomo (2007); An Outline of the New African Movement in South Africa (2013); The Historical Figures of the New African Movement: Volume I (2014); A South African Looks at the African Diaspora: Essays and Interviews (2017),all published by Africa World Press. He also co-edited a collection of essays on South African cinema with his colleague Dr. Isabel Balseiro, To Change Reels: Film and Culture in South Africa (2003).

 In addition to his individual publications, he contributed countless articles to a wide array of international journals and anthologies, and participated with boundless intellectual energy in international academic conferences and symposia, often returning to South Africa upon invitation during his later years. According to his family, his greatest hope was that his work be continued, as many histories forgotten or erased still need to be unearthed and shared.  

Masilela was born in Orlando West in Soweto in 1948. His grandparents were committed to education and his father became one of the first graduates of a village in a region we call the province of Limpopo today. He completed his high school years in Kenya and eventually went on to the USA.

 He credits these years in Kenya, and the influence of Professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah, who first introduced him to the writings of Frantz Fanon, as particularly formative in guiding him to his intellectual career. He was awarded a scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the alma mater of his father, Albert Mahlathini Magija Masilela, where he obtained a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) in Sociology in 1977.

He returned to Kenya in 1979, where he taught at the University of Nairobi. He later moved to Poland and studied at the Łódź Film School in Łódź, and subsequently he lived in the former Federal Republic of Germany where he wrote articles on African and European dance, African politics, theory, culture and intellectual history, while participating in conferences during his years as a post-doctoral fellow in the Media Studies Department at the Technical University in West Berlin.

During his time in Poland and West Germany, he met and married his first wife, Urszula Wanda Masilela. His two daughters, Anna Vuyiswa and Nomaduma Rosa, were born in Europe. In the time between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, Ntongela and his family relocated to the United States of America. Professor Masilela was a tenured professor at Pitzer College of the Claremont Colleges in Claremont, California (USA) for over twenty years. He taught literature, cinema studies,

He is survived by his two daughters, Anna and Nomaduma; their mother Urszula; his loving wife Wasana; and two brothers, Aubrey and Temba, and their extended families in South Africa, Kenya, Poland, and Thailand; as well as respected colleagues in South Africa, the United States of America, and around the world.

The Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs (TM-SCHOOL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa) and the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) hosted a virtual memorial service on 16 July 2020 at 14.00 in celebration of the life of Professor Ntongela Masilela.