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Nicolaas Petrus van Wyk Louw (1906 - 1970)

The Order of Ikhamanga in

Nicolaas Petrus van Wyk Louw (1906 - 1970) Awarded for:
Exceptional contribution in literature and advocacy of language rights for the African languages.

Profile of Nicolaas Petrus van Wyk Louw

Nicolaas Petrus Van Wyk Louw was born in Sutherland, on the western edge of the Great Karoo, on 11 June 1906. He was educated at the South African College School, Cape Town, and the University of Cape Town.

At 23 he became a lecturer in the university's department of education. In 1949 he was appointed professor of Afrikaans at the Gemeentelijke Universiteit in Amsterdam, returning in 1958 to head the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he remained till his death in 1970.

During all this time Louw produced one literary work after another, all resounding with his deep love for South Africa. His main preoccupation was the survival and progress of Afrikaans, but at the same time he was not narrow in his vision; although right-wing in his earlier years, like many Afrikaners in the wake of the Anglo-Boer War and subsequent attempts at suppression of Afrikaans culture and language. But he changed as South Africa changed around him.

He supported language rights for speakers of African languages, and his single most famous work, the epic poem “Raka’, recounts a black hero's desperate struggle against a nightmarish beast to save his people's heritage of language and art – a metaphor as powerful now, in the era of globalisation, as it was then.

At the same time “Wyk’, as he was widely known, became a leading voice on matters of conscience in the Afrikaans intellectual community. As early as 1952 he was on record as issuing a remarkably percipient warning, in the light of later events, against any tendency for a nation to regard survival per se as more important than the survival of justice.

Later he criticised, sometimes indirectly and sometimes openly and vehemently, various aspects of the South African government's racial policies, and in 1966 was publicly attacked by the then Prime Minister, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, for his prophetic stage play Die Pluimsaad Waai Ver.

Van Wyk Louw is widely regarded as one of South Africa’s foremost literary figures. His rich legacy includes five volumes of world-class poetry, stage plays such as Dias and Germanicus, and 12 volumes of essays. He won the prestigious Hertzog Prize an unprecedented five times, and his honorary degrees included a rarely-bestowed doctorate from the Rijksuniversiteit of Utrecht in The Netherlands.

Three decades after his death, the name of Nicolaas Petrus Van Wyk Louw – poet, dramatist, thinker and man of conscience – remains an honoured one in South Africa’s literary and political annals.

The award was collected by Mrs Kemp (Daughter).