Tribute in honour of Professor Victor Ralushai, an
By Jeffrey Sehume
Professor Victor Ralushai, an industrious scholar
of African knowledge systems and their application to modern life, passed away
early in October 2011 at the age of 76. In an age of globalisation of culture,
he will long be remembered for profiling the cultural heritage of South
Africa’s people in the intersection of geographic space and culture across the
Limpopo and Shashe Rivers.
Born in the Mbilwi district of Limpopo on 6 July
1935, Professor Ralushai was a trained social anthropologist who dedicated his
life-long learning to influencing public understanding about culture in the
northern environs of the Limpopo Province and its place in the family of
African customs and values. The genesis of his professional interest is
highlighted by his doctoral thesis, acquired at Belfast’s Queen University,
titled: ‘Conflicting accounts of Venda history with particular reference to the
role of Mutupo in social organisation.’ His ethical aim was to challenge
prejudiced perceptions about the ‘other’, as conceived by mainstream academia
dating back to blinkered classical anthropology.
In this journey that took him from Pope Pius XII
University College in Lesotho, to Belfast and New York, he was building on a
tradition of progressive anthropologists seeking to reverse the studying of
others, merely as objects, towards their recognition as co-authors of knowledge
about their lives, their communities and their societies. To Prof Ralushai, the
use of ethnography to conduct fieldwork required the levelling of playing
fields in the process of knowledge production and dissemination.
It was his proficiency
and research ethics that convinced public and private institutions to rely on
his expertise to conduct studies of pre-colonial settlements of Thulamela and
Mapungubwe as some of the epicentres of early civilisations in southern Africa.
His path-breaking research, located in an appreciation of endogenous methods
and outcomes, laid the basis for his outstanding contribution to the successful
designation of Mapungubwe as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.
His influence also weighed in around
discussions about the complex history and nature of traditional medicine and
divinity practices. As a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Venda and
later Professor Emeritus in its School of Human and Social Sciences, Prof
Ralushai’s work provided a conceptual and practical foundation for government’s
approach to the institution of traditional leadership and the resolution of
historical challenges around lines of succession. As such, academic work was to
him not separate from shaping public policy and its implementation.
Among the most instructive observations of
the Ralushai Commission of Inquiry on the issue of traditional leadership was
that “apartheid politics turned
traditional leaders into politicians representing a system which was not
popular with many people, because they were seen as upholders of that system.
For this reason, traditional leaders became the target…” In many respects, the
relevance of such a finding for the understanding of the fraying of social
cohesion and the weakening of the historical anchor of social ethics, in both
rural and urban contexts in post-apartheid South Africa, is a self-evident
him therefore, education and training were an integral part of society’s
development, not a solace from it.
The world of academia and South Africa at large has
sadly lost an inimitable elder recognised, among others, by the South African
government when it awarded him the Order of Ikhamanga in 2004 for excellence in
his chosen fields. Prof Ralushai’s role and impact in building institutional
bridgeheads between his generation of African scholars and emergent young
talent saw him hold various academic stints at universities in Botswana, Jos in
Nigeria, and Swaziland.
For this son of Mr Matodzi and Mrs Khangale
Nemakhavhani Ralushai, the meaning of engaged scholarship implied the
assimilation of history to advance the cause of the voiceless and disempowered.
Probably a prime motivation for this advocacy was his experience growing up in
Mbilwi, holding down a job as a Kafkaien clerk at a bus service company and
working in a laboratory to pay off a scholarship granted to him by the Roman
Moreover, the mark of steadfast dedication to his
chosen profession is highlighted by his learning and eventual mastery of the
German language in Bavaria so that he could access the original accounts of
German missionaries on the Vhavhenda. It is no exaggeration to say that such
ascetic dedication is rare among scholars. In this regard, his rigour is
comparable to that of such well-known academics and practitioner as W.E.B. Du
Bois at the turn of the twentieth century.
Du Bois’s words could just as easily echo Prof
Victor Nkhumeleni Ralushai’s perspective of life and the pursuit of knowledge:
“The function of the
university is not simply to teach breadwinning, or to
furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a centre of polite society;
it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and
the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment from which forms the secret of
Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection
(MISTRA) joins South Africa and the international academic community in
mourning the loss of Prof Ralushai. Our grief is made the more profound by the
fact that, among the last of his public engagements, was his presence at the
public launch of MISTRA in March 2011.