The National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences pays tribute to Fred Khumalo
Fred Khumalo's book, Dancing the Death Drill, won first prize in the “fiction, single-authored volume” category of the Humanities and Social Sciences Awards in 2019 for its brave historical and social relevance, contributing immensely in the re-telling of South African history yet avoiding the pitfalls of a one-sided story.
Khumalo is described by the judges as a master storyteller, who meticulously uses language to tell a sensitive and complex story, allowing the reader to follow the storyline until the end. The award attested to the book’s unique contribution, if ever there was one.
Khumalo says, “In literature, there is a saying that if it is easy to read, it was difficult to write: Dancing the Death Drill was easily the most challenging book I’d ever written up to that point. Because it was inspired by and based on real events, I had to be careful about the facts: I couldn’t alter real historical events that have been recorded: for example, the number of men who were on board the vessel, the date on which this happened, etc. It was also challenging in that, it entailed a lot of research – I read newspaper reportage about the sinking of the Mendi.”
“Thankfully, the newspapers of the time covered the sinking properly. However, the stories of the black men who passed away were not told. The men were just names and numbers. My job, therefore, was to give them lives; to humanise them.”
“That was the research and conception. Then came the even more challenging part: writing. When I started writing I had to keep reminding myself that I was writing a novel, and not a history book. Therefore, the style had to be accessible. First and foremost, I had to get the reader interested. In other words, I had to entertain the reader. After all, why would the reader care about something that happened so long ago!”
Khumalo says: “In my own small way, I have taken it upon my-self to re-inscribe black people into history. In the book, I show, to some extent, how the Anglo-Boer War impacted black people. I take this theme further, in the book that came after Dancing the Death Drill. In The Longest March, I focus on a group of black men who have to flee Johannesburg at the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War. In their flight, some of them get commandeered by a Boer commando, and have to perform duties at gunpoint. So, yes, I have taken it upon myself to excavate these pockets of hidden history and put them back in the public domain.”
The National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS) was established in 2013 to enhance and support the Humanities and the Social Sciences (HSS) in South Africa, as well as to advise government and civil society on HSS related matters.
The NIHSS’s mission is to value every human life equally, encourage ordinary South Africans to grapple with the deeper questions of who we are, where we come from and how we relate and, above all, protect the privilege we have to shed new light and create a different body of knowledge that’s true to our unique and diverse context.
The vision of the Institute is to become the epicentre of scholarship, pedagogy, community practice and social responsibility for the humanities and social sciences, not only in South Africa but also in Africa. Achieving this vision means significant acceleration of the development of a new generation of scholars, with emphasis on throughput and on releasing new energy and momentum in HSS knowledge creation.