Meet the man who wrote Rhodes University’s first isiXhosa PhD thesis

Dr Hleze Kunju has become the first Rhodes University graduate to write his PhD thesis in his mother tongue, isiXhosa

Hailing from rural Mqanduli in the Eastern Cape, 31-year-old Kunju says his love affair with the language began at a young age.

For as long as he could remember, he was the kid who would submerge himself in Xhosa literature, while his friends focused on the subjects parents and teachers typically encourage students to pursue.

So when he started studying at Rhodes University in 2005 he found himself in the deep end – sometimes unable to understand what was being taught in lectures.

At times during his master’s degree, he says his supervisor couldn’t always understand what he was trying to say in his essays because he wasn’t communicating in his mother tongue.

“Coming from the rural areas and joining Rhodes University as a student was a huge cultural shock,” Kunju tells DESTINY. “It started to register that it was unfair because it felt like I was starting a race that everyone else had started long before you and were so far ahead. So I always wished for the day that I would be able to write in my own language.”

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That day came less than a decade later when the university’s language committee – of which Kunju was a member – adopted a new language policy that allowed students to write in their mother tongue. This paved the way for him to achieve what he describes as a milestone for isiXhosa academic writing.

“I realised that isiXhosa can do what other languages can do, that it’s possible to write academically in isiXhosa,” Kunju says.

His thesis, entitled IsiXhosa ultimo lwabantu abangesonininzi eZimbabwe: Ukuphila nokulondolozwa kwaso (IsiXhosa as a minority language in Zimbabwe: survival and maintenance), was inspired by his stay in Zimbabwe where he taught music and drama, and where he discovered a large community of Xhosa people in the country.

It’s believed that about 200 000 Xhosa people live in Zimbabwe, predominantly amaMfengu descendants; their ancestors were taken there from the Eastern Cape by Cecil John Rhodes in the 1800s.

His thesis delves into the sociolinguistic and historical background of the amaXhosa living in Zimbabwe and how the language has managed to survive beyond borders and eventually officially be recognised as a language in the country.

“I was writing about the Xhosa people in Zimbabwe. Of course, there isn’t much written about them, so this is the first thesis written about them. I also wanted to write my thesis in isiXhosa so they’re able to read it. After all, it was their stories I was telling so they needed to be able to access their stories in their own language.”

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Because this is the first thesis at the university to be written in isiXhosa, Kunju wanted to keep the language simple so it could be understood by all who read his work.

“I wanted to write it in a way that other students are able to read and understand it, and take it further,” he says.

The most challenging aspect, he says, was navigating the cultural differences between Western and African culture when referring to elders. In Xhosa culture, an elder would not be referred to by their first name, but academic writing requires that an individual’s first name and surname be used at the first mention, then just their surname. This is something Kunju says he grappled with as he didn’t want to be disrespectful to the people whose stories he was relaying.

Kunju is an isiXhosa lecturer at Sol Plaatje University in Kimberly and plans to produce more content in African languages.

A keen creative writer, he’s mulling over whether to publish his thesis in its current format or adapt and publish his work as a historical non-fiction novel.

Kunju hopes his thesis will encourage other black students at the university to follow suit and hopefully inspire a movement towards creating more African language c0ntent.

“It’s our responsibility to produce African material. It’s not good enough to say that it’s not there. If it isn’t there, then we need to create it,” he says.