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1 July 2021
Respice, Prospice: Writer In Residence André Odendaal On SA’s Complex History

Pictured: Professor André Odendaal and Professor Jakes Gerwel in Dakar 1987

The history of South Africa is filled with complexities and contradictions. And nobody knows that better than former sportsman and historian, and newly-appointed Writer-In-Residence at UWC’s Centre for Humanities Research, Professor André Odendaal.

Odendaal has been working full-time as an independent researcher, writer and publisher since 2016, including 20 books published and co-published in his African Lives Series. UWC this year awarded him a three-year writer-in-residence fellowship, based in the Centre for Humanities Research, which will enable him to complete a career-capping writing programme in a cutting-edge scholarly environment.

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, Professor Monwabisi Ralarala says: “We are pleased to welcome Professor André Odendaal as UWC Writer-In-Residence. Given his solid record of contribution to UWC and Robben Island - and South Africa in general - both as a scholar and writer, particularly his gravitas in the domains of history and heritage, we know he has a lot worth sharing.”

Prof Odendaal is no stranger to UWC. Born and schooled in the Eastern Cape, followed by degrees at Stellenbosch University, he received his PhD from Cambridge University in 1984 and thereafter spent 13 years at the University of the Western Cape, where he was a member of the History Department before starting and directing the Mayibuye Centre for History and Culture in South Africa from 1991-1998. Heavily involved in the planning of Robben Island Museum, democratic South Africa’s first national heritage institution, he became its first Director (1996-2002). He was awarded the position of Honorary Professor in History and Heritage Studies by UWC in 2001.

“I came to UWC thanks to Randi Erentsen and Prof Jakes Gerwel - and the rest is history,” he smiles. “This was in the mid-1980s when the university adopted its ‘intellectual home of the democratic left’ alignments and became a hotbed of campus militancy in the country. I immediately felt at home.” 

At UWC, he witnessed history as it was made.

“As the ‘hek toe’ campus protests, riot police tear gas charges, people’s education experiments, community activism and other challenges to autocracy unfolded, we had little sense that the changes of 1990 and 1994 were just around the corner,” he says. “When they came, UWC was poised to make an important contribution to the process of national reconstruction, from constitution-making and economic planning to other areas, including history, heritage and culture.”

Odendaal‘s main areas of interest as a historian are public history, the history of the liberation struggle, with a focus on the deep African roots of constitutionalism in South Africa, and the social history of sport.  

That history is something Odendaal understands well. He was the the only white provincial cricketer to cross the line and join the non-racial SACOS during the apartheid years, playing for SACB’s Transvaal team in 1984-85 and the Western Province team in 1985–86. After the end of apartheid he served as CEO at Newlands Cricket Ground in Cape Town and CEO of the Cape Cobras and Western Province cricket teams for ten years. And he was until this month a member of the Interim Board of Cricket South Africa, recently appointed to resolve the much publicised crisis in cricket 

“In the past year,” he notes, “both the explosive impact on sport of #BlackLivesMatter – playing out in South African cricket’s ruptures – and the seismic impact of the global coronavirus pandemic in shutting down sport completely, underline how sport can never be divorced from politics and society.”

Writing The Past For A Better Future

“As a UWC Writer-In-Residence at the Centre for Humanities Research we are pleased that Prof Odendaal will be available to provide the benefit of his experience to a new generation of scholars,” says Professor Heidi Grunebaum, director of the CHR. And of course, he will be doing what he does best (and what the position title implies): writing books.

“My job is to write, write, write - and I couldn’t be happier about it,” he says. “After 20 years of running organisations, my wife agreed I could do what I called ‘a second PhD’ and I’ve had the privilege to research, write and publish full-time for the past six years. Now I can do that in a stimulating campus environment - and hopefully reconnect and give back in meaningful ways to a university which has fundamentally impacted on my life and thinking.”

This could be through helping post-graduate students turn their dissertation into a book or maybe assisting if there is someone interested in doing a Masters or PhD in his areas of expertise. 

And, he adds: “ I have an archive that needs to find a home; it will depend on what CHR and UWC see as priorities and needs.” 

Since the publication of Vukani Bantu! (Rise up you People), published by David Philip in South Africa and Barnes and Noble in the US in 1984, Odendaal has added over a dozen books to his name. Cricket and Conquest was long-listed for the Alan Paton Prize and placed third in the 2018 NIHSS book awards for edited non-fiction. His next book, due out in a few months, is Robben Island Rainbow Dreams, edited together with Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi, Noel Solani and Khwezi ka Mpumlwana (the latter two graduates of UWC), which deals with the making of the Robben Island Museum.

 

Pictured: Professor André Odendaal, new UWC writer-in-residence Fellow, talking books with television journalist Heindrich Wyngaardt. Credit: Heindrich Wyngaardt. 

“I’ve been fortunate to experience many highs in my career, but right up there is my appointment as Administrator and then Director of Robben Island Museum; throwing open those prison doors on 1 January 1997 was an unforgettable moment,” he recalls. “Driven by the ideals of the time, our goal was to open up this closed environment – literally and figuratively. We wanted to turn it into a place of learning and education, healing and meaning, universalism and inclusivity. It was tasting freedom, thinking forward beyond precedent and convention towards a humane future.”

He’s currently working on a manuscript on the first steps in the making of South Africa’s constitution in the years before the unbanning of organisations in 1990. Titled ‘Dear Comrade President’: How Oliver Tambo Laid The Foundations For South Africa’s Constitution, he hopes this book will add to current hot debates about the origins and value of constitutionalism in our struggling democracy.  

“UWC is undergoing another deep cyclical or generational rethink about the role and place of the university in society in a context very different, globally and at home,  from those that pertained in the 1980s and early 1990s,” he says. “Now more than ever, we need to know where we came from - so we can find where we’re going.”

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