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Lewis Nkosi (1936 – )

The Order of Ikhamanga in

Lewis Nkosi (1936 – ) Awarded for:
His excellent personal achievements and versatility in literature and contributing to indigenous literary works.
Profile of  Lewis Nkosi

One of South Africa’s most originally creative writers, Lewis Nkosi was born in 1936 in KwaZulu-Natal.

Award-winning novelist, essayist, playwright and critic, Nkosi is known for surprising readers with his often sexual, metaphorical and satirical representations of the deep issues of apartheid and race.

Educated at missionary schools, Nkosi’s generation was the last to receive a more decent education before the onset of Bantu education.

In 1954, Nkosi enrolled at the ML Sultan Technical College in Durban.

His first job as a journalist was with Ilanga Iase Natal. In 1956, he joined the famous Drum magazine that enterprisingly investigated the working and living conditions of black South Africans.

Nkosi suffered severe restrictions on his writing under the publishing regulations of the Suppression of Communism Act and the Publications and Entertainment Act, passed in the 1950s and 1960s.

By 1959, his work was sufficiently well known for him to be invited to apply for a Neiman Fellowship at Harvard University. He was accepted, but the South African Government refused to give him a passport. A lawyer friend somehow found an obscure law that allowed him out of the country, but Nkosi was unable to return.

After completing his studies at Harvard, Nkosi went to London where he worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation. He produced the radio series Africa Abroad from 1962 to 1965, and interviewed major African writers for the television programme African Writers of Today.

In 1963, Nkosi’s stage play, The Rhythm of Violence, was produced in London to critical acclaim. A contributor to Contemporary Dramatists described it as an outstanding and important first play, causing critics to place Nkosi among the “vanguard of the new black South African theatre”.

Nkosi also wrote radio plays during this period, including The Trial and We Can’t All Be Martin Luther King. His television play, Malcolm, aired in Sweden and Britain.

Nkoksi’s most famous work for the stage is The Black Psychiatrist. A one-act play with a disturbing twist, it toured several African countries and was also produced at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France.

Between 1965 and 1968, Nkosi served as editor of New African magazine.

He continued his studies at the University of London and the University of Sussex, obtaining a BA in English literature and an MA. Nkosi became a professor of literature and has held positions around the world – at the University of Wyoming and the University of California-Irvine and universities in Zambia and Poland.

He is the author of several collections of essays, including Home and Exile (1965), The Transplanted Heart: Essays on South Africa (1975) and Tasks and Masks: Themes and Styles of African Literature (1981).

His 1986 novel Mating Birds won the Macmillan Silver Pen Award in 1987 and has been translated into several languages.

Underground People, originally published in Dutch in 1994, deals with resistance during South Africa’s 1985 declared State of Emergency. Despite the gravity of this narrative setting, Nkosi focuses on the comic, with a wayward dabbler in politics mistakenly sought for rescue by a naïve human rights worker from London.

His latest book, Mandela’s Ego, published in 2006, tells the story of a young man coming of age in a time of great torment and upheaval – and becoming impotent just as Mandela is arrested for a struggle misdemeanour.

Retired from the University of Wyoming, where he was a tenured professor, Lewis Nkosi incisively continues to take South African literature to new places.

Nkosi is a resident of Switzerland. He frequently attends literary seminars and conferences as an invited guest.