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Prof Jeff Opland

The Order of Ikhamanga in

Prof Jeff Opland Awarded for:
His excellent contribution to the field of history and his impressive body of work in literature. His work exhumes stories of the dead and brings them to life so that the living can continue to learn.
Profile of Prof Jeff Opland

Prof Jeff Opland was born in Cape Town, and studied at the University of Cape Town (UCT), where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Language and a Bachelor of Science degree in Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, as well as an MA and a PhD for a comparison of the Anglo-Saxon and IsiXhosa traditions of oral poetry.

While holding appointments at UCT, University of Durban-Westville and Rhodes University, he undertook fieldwork in the Eastern Cape, amassing a considerable collection of recorded isiXhosa poetry and literature in print.

He has also taught at the Universities of Toronto, Yale, Vassar College and Charterhouse, as well as the University of Leipzig. In 1972 he won the English Academy of Southern Africa’s Thomas Pringle Award for a literary article. He has published anthologies of South African and isiXhosa poetry, and studies of Anglo-Saxon and isiXhosa literature.

Prof Opland has contributed to a new and progressive historiography through his dedicated and painstaking research into the works of such luminaries as Pixley ka lsaka Seme (former ANC President-General and founder of Abantu-Batho newspaper), Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi (Xhosa poet and historian), Reverend Isaac Wauchope (who died in the sinking of the SS Mendi) and many others.

He brought to light an important period of enlightenment and resistance not only in the then Cape Colony but in the whole of south and southern Africa.

The single most important achievement of Prof Opland is that he mainstreamed the culture of a colonised and oppressed people by devoting his exceptional scholarship to its rediscovery and contextualisation.

A body of literature which had survived for decades hidden deep within innumerable reams of old newsprint buried in obscure locations at home and abroad, was unearthed, edited, contextualised and published, thus recognising its authors and restoring pride and sense of dignity to a formerly colonised people.

Some of these works include The Nation’s Bounty: The Xhosa Poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho. Mgqwetho was the first and only female poet to produce a significant body of work in isiXhosa. The book challenged the view that poetry was the preserve of males and elevated the agency of Xhosa female writers.

Another important work was The Dassie and the  Hunter,  which chronicles the life and poetry of David Yali-Manisi, an extraordinary Xhosa praise poet. It is the first detailed study of the tradition of oral poetry based on actual fieldwork.

This is a tradition that goes back hundreds of years and has evolved to become a feature of many important gatherings in South Africa. It caught the imagination of the world and came to its own during the inauguration of former President Nelson Mandela in 1994.