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Professor Joan Khabele, remembered as a doyen of African studies and influencer of many on the continent

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi

Published Nov 14, 2021


PROFESSOR Joan Elizabeth Means Khabele passed on at her home in Austin Texas on the October 11.

She was aptly described as an activist, adventurer, educator, and entrepreneur. She was also a sociologist, historian and genealogist who loved seeking knowledge of the past to inform the future. And she was a wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, sister and friend to many.

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Forty-five years ago, the student roll of the National University of Lesotho was just about 700.

African studies and maths for humanities were two compulsory first-year courses for all students in social sciences and humanities.

The classes for these courses were usually very large and had to be conducted in the lecture theatre, which took up to 200 students.

Khabele had the burden of lecturing to 200 students. Not only was this the case, but some science students, Lieta amongs them, enjoyed African studies and would sneak into the class. Joan was fondly known by the university community as energetic and youthful and committed time to playing tennis at Khama Hall.

Although an American, Joan was more a Mosotho woman, unlike her husband, Paseka, whose manner of speech and walk was very much American, where he spent time studying and met a life partner in Joan. I was part of the first cohort to take the African studies programme under Joan.

She opened our eyes to deeper issues of African governance and kingdoms. She ensured that we understood Africa in its own context and not through the lens of colonialism.

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In that way she was ahead of her times in that she ensured that through African Studies she decolonised the teaching of history by shaping the lens through which the students who took history approached it.

Equally, those who would specialise in languages were initiated through her lecturing work in a number of African countries such as Nigeria, Zambia and Botswana.

Her style of teaching held the 200odd students spellbound and this doyenne of African studies did so with an infectious activist smile.

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Four years ago, I bumped into her as we both landed at OR Tambo Airport on a flight from New York and I introduced myself as one of her students. She quickly remembered me as the student who went on to be the statistician-general of South Africa. We had a fantastic chat about what she was up to then as well as her family.

She had moved from being an academic to running the family taxi business in Texas.

Khabele had a deep influence on me on how I appreciated the concept of pan-Africanism and aspiring to be one of those who believe in the continent, its resources and talent.

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When I went for my post-graduate studies in Ghana and explored the kingdoms of Ghana and meeting the Asantehene and seeing the stool and the gold on his shoes and arms, donning the Kente cloth it was at the back of the African studies programme Joan brought us to understand.

Travelling through the coastal towns of Ghana into Elmina castle where knee-level human manure has been preserved for generations to see was part of the revelation that Joan taught us about.

Later, as a civil servant travelling to Goree Island in Senegal and looking through the window of no-return causes you to ask questions of the role and contribution of Africa and Africans in world civilisation and their right to claim their space.

There is no doubt that Joan influenced many on the continent, but a lot more when she was at the University of Lesotho, where many a South African passed through her hands in those 19 years of dedicated service.

Perhaps the African Continental Free Trade Agreement will take a leaf out of Professor Joan Khabele’s book.

May her soul rest in peace.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa. Meet him @ and @Palilj01.

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.


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