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Rustum Kozain

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

RIP Professor John van der Westhuizen

I have just learnt that John van der Westhuizen, former De Beers Professor of English Language at UCT, and lecturer in Old Icelandic, Old- and Middle-English, Chaucer, Present-day English usage, etc., died this past Saturday.

He was a fascinating character; when I was a first-year student, I found him, lecturing on Chaucer and on the history of English, a bit of an oddity and, perhaps, even an oddball. My next ‘experience’ of him was when he was one of 4 or 5 professors who interviewed me, asking difficult questions, after I had appealed the UCT English Department’s decision to reject my honours application. My marks weren’t good enough, I appealed, they called me in for an interview, I got in. Then, in honours, I did a year-long course with John van der Westhuizen, “Present-day English usage”, based on Quirk and Greenbaum’s A University Grammar of English. It was in this course that I picked up the joke about people “pawking their caw” from him and which I used in that old piece about halal take-aways (“You can’t get lost in the samoosa triangle”).

I’m writing bits and pieces about the culture of non-racialism back in the late 1980s. Here’s a bit on John van der Westhuizen:


“My introduction to Professor John van der Westhuizen was in 1986, in English I, a large class that filled the lecture theatre in the PD Hahn building… I was apprehensive and excited: it was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, wholly alien to me, a thick book, but much of the vocabulary sporting its Germanic roots. As a then Afrikaans first-language speaker struggling with both the overt and hidden English curriculum, this encouraged me.

The obligatory hush fell as in walked the professor in his neat navy-blue suit, who set his papers on the lectern, hung the mic around his neck, threw his head back and, with eyes closed almost in ecstacy, proceeded to recite the opening passages of the Pardoner’s Tale:

In Flaundres whilom was a compaignye
Of yonge folk that haunteden folye,
As riot, hazard, stywes, and tavernes,
Where as with harpes, lutes, and gyternes,
They daunce and pleyen at dees bothe day and nyght,
And eten also and drynken over hir might,
Thurgh which they doon the devel sacrifise…

“Isn’t that what you do at the Pig and Whistle every night?” he asked, chuckling like a jackal and pointing at someone in the front row as he implied a line of interest between late-20th century student life and the putatively alien subject matter of Chaucer.

It was properly eccentric and elicited laughs from many of us. Moreover for me – and there’s no other way of registering my astonishment – he was ‘coloured’. This was my first encounter with a senior, full-time, black academic. A professor because of this eccentric start, but/and a black professor. A black professor who was as eccentric as any of the (white) professors depicted in film, beavering away or spouting passionately about an arcane topic, like Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

In mannerisms and ticks, in the way he pulled his glasses from his face, or smiled, either in mischief , agreement or acknowledgement, or in his bearing when he walked, he could also have been my or anyone I knew back home’s favourite uncle. Or, beyond race, anyone’s favourite uncle.

But, Chaucer? Professor Van der Westhuizen also lectured on the history of English grammar, doing classes on Old English, the three periods of Latinate influence and whatnot in English I. In later years I would do a year-long honours class with him in contemporary English grammar. In still later years, when none of my dictionaries gave me satisfactory answers, I would knock on his door, now a colleague’s door, and he would enthusiastically consult his several different multi-volume dictionaries to tell me what kesh and loaning were. A true professor.

And when one day I discovered that we both not only liked cricket, but shared the absolute crests and troughs that make the emotional rollercoaster for the true West Indies fan, I was as astounded as in that Chaucer lecture. Standing hunched over in the passageway, demonstrating some stupid shot that Jimmy Adams must have played, and almost barking in his resonant voice: “Did you see that shot? How can you play there (indicating an area wide of off-stump) when the man is bowling spin and the ball bounces right here in front of you? You must play here! (hand moving forward along the off-stump corridor demonstrating the movement of a bat). Not there!” (flinging his arm wide again). Or we’d cross each other in the corridor, exchange a knowing glance and just shake and hang our heads in depression at yet another fateful session of Windies play the previous day.

Professor Van Der Westhuizen’s interaction with his colleagues evinced the same easy congress of community I mentioned above. It couldn’t be otherwise. He was not only a senior member of staff, but occupied a named chair, the De Beers Professor of English Language, one of the two highest positions in the department (the other was the Arderne Professor of English Literature), and, as far as topics in English studies go, he was incontrovertibly a part of the club. He’s interest in grammar was also partly a-historical and he taught standard grammar in its traditional normative sense; while he may have taught a past history of the development of English grammar, he steered clear of the descriptive impulse of contemporary sociolinguistics. How it ought to be, rather than how it is, something I had argued with him about in honours as I had also done some courses in sociolinguistics and was writing a long essay on Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poetry, the essay including a discourse on the use of Caribbean Creole.

Part of my mirth in English I was of course due to a crude reading of him, as black professor, discoursing on Chaucer, crude because it considers only the surface and produces the cipher of the deracinated professor. Why Chaucer when around you the students are rioting? Or, how does a black student end up becoming a professor of Old English (forgetting as I was my own predilections for following curiosities all and sundry)?

Of course it couldn’t be anything as crude as that cipher. Besides, a ‘coloured’ South African Windies fan… there’s a whole complicated politics in there that suggests a far more massive confounding of any stereotype.

Part of the hidden curriculum as embodied in Professor Van der Westhuizen has several elements which I know have become commonplaces, but it is worthwhile to reflect on them again. Not only was the professor a black professor – an important didactic figure to any student, white or black, then in 1980s South Africa, and arguably also still, now – but he was a professor in a topic that lay – for whatever reason, rightly or wrongly on the part of a student like me – beyond the horizon of the possible, the thinkable, the likely. Not only could you become a professor, you could become a professor in the most obscure topic or field. What you are interested in, what you develop an expertise in, what you teach and write about can not be deduced from the colour of your skin, nor can it be used for a one-dimensional reading of your political affiliations. This to me then, when I think now of Professor Van der Westhuizen declaiming those lines from Chaucer, was the whole world opening up, and not some narrow segment of it as defined, ultimately, by the colour of my skin, whether it was the apartheid induced limitations of the social imagination on the one hand (community, family, radicalisation, politicisation – although these too have a way of opening up the world) or, as I would later experience as a university teacher, the assumptions that underlie others’ sense of one’s research or teaching profile: black researcher, ‘black’ topics. (Something similar to gender studies being reduced to being ‘about women and women’s issues’.)

Racism, in a way, is a failure of imagination on the racist’s part and thus a failure of a basic human intellectual activity. It is the failure to imagine that the person who looks different from me may have the very same interests or tastes or fears or hopes as me, notwithstanding what demographics and demogogues may say about cultural habits. Or, it is the failure to imagine that the person who looks like me may have interests and tastes that differ from mine.

My astonishment at Professor Van der Westhuizen marked or hid my own confrontation with my failed imagination. This is no singular thing. Millions of students have through the ages entered university and been enlivened by the discovery of new areas of knowledge; have been astonished, I am sure, to discover that their childhood range of topics had been limited and that a whole world had opened up in one or other first lecture. A common story about the ‘natural’ progression we call growing up, which we seldom would want to dramatise with a term like ‘failed imagination’. But apartheid colours the South Africa experience differently because the individual failure of imagination is also at the same time structurally predetermined. And there’s the rub: what ought to be no more than a common individual story is rather the story about the individual under duress of a social pathology, and a malady that lingers, a sore to which we return again and again, the return evidence that the malady lingers despite well-wishers wanting to deny or hope it out of existence.”

RIP Johnny. And thank you for explaining “kesh” and “loaning”.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    March 6th, 2012 @23:43 #

    I cannot thank you enough for writing this. Prof JvdW (the fact that everyone seemed to call him "Johnny" in no way undercut the respect he earned) was someone I admired immensely, at the same time as I felt I was always letting him down.

    Because I enjoyed his undergrad classes so much, and because I wanted to study the Morte Darthur, I took his Honours course in Early Middle English. There were three of us: a rosy-cheeked, kindly young man, Mark Jones, who had A-levels in both French and Latin; Prof with his impeccable three-piece suits, and still more impeccable grasp of worlds and tongues long gone; and me, hopelessly at sea. I was sure I exasperated them both, and yet Johnny endorsed my teaching Middle English (mostly Chaucer) once I started my MA. I took the sociolinguistic road (the late 80s were an amazing time to be teaching students about a society convulsing under the grip of a tyrannic, hierarchical, politically and morally hegemonic force). I adored it, so thanks to Prof, among others, for my immersion in teaching (my first great love) something I had to work so hard to master.

    I WISH I'd known about his predilection for cricket, esp the Windies.

    But Rustum, yr piece: I love that you tackle so effortlessly, and yet without fudging, the issues of race and class that confronted 1980s students who walked into a lecture hall and found a black professor with a watch-chain declaiming Chaucer. I had a few lefty peers (white, and all hailing from Constantia or Sandton) who sneered, calling him a "white black man" (because he wasn't "political" -- as if there could be anything more political than choosing against what must have been impossible odds to excel in a field simply because one had a passion for it), and it made me choke with impotent rage, not having the words you have here.

    His unashamed expertise on Old Icelandic at a time when all our research was supposed to be "relevant" helped give me the courage to do an MA dissertation on Malory and 20th-century retellings of his Morte Darthur. He made such a project respectable. And the only time I ever felt that the Dept was an ethically safe zone during my post-grad years was during the all-too-short time he was HOD. RIP indeed.

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    March 7th, 2012 @11:43 #

    Thanks very much for posting this, Rustum.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    March 8th, 2012 @13:59 #

    Update on the funeral, a Requiem Mass said before a packed church (Christ Church, Constantia): in his sermon, the Rev Terry Lester cited from your piece, Rustum, and discoursed on your insights for several minutes. It was a beautiful service, with many old friends. I think Johnny would have approved.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    March 8th, 2012 @16:06 #

    That's very touching. Thanks, Helen.


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