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Future Professor: From a mute boy to a master of languages
Author: Corporate Communications and Marketing
Published: 20/04/2023

​Until he was six years old, Gibson Ncube didn't utter a word. Today the boy who suffered from mutism, speaks four African and three international languages. 

Dr Ncube now works as a lecturer at Stellenbosch University's (SU) Department of Modern Foreign Languages, and he's considered one of the brightest rising stars in academia. 

He was “extremely delighted and honoured" to be selected with Dr Tawanda Zininga, a biochemist, to represent SU in the prestigious Future Professors Programme (FPP), a flagship initiative of the Department of Higher Education and Training. 

The FPP is administered under the helm of Prof Jonathan Jansen, a distinguished professor of education at SU, and aims to enhance the academic excellence and leadership qualities of a carefully selected group of lecturing staff at country south Africa's 26 universities. 

All FPP fellows show promise of becoming leaders in their field and taking their place as part of a transformed next generation of South African professors across all disciplines.

Born in Zimbabwe, Ncube studied French and Spanish at the University of Zimbabwe and completed a master's degree in French in 2011. Shortly thereafter, he received a scholarship at SU through the Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences to complete a PhD in French and Francophone Literatures under the supervision of Prof Eric Levéel. His thesis focused on non-normative sexualities in North African literatures. 

In December 2014, he was one of the first two students to be awarded a PhD in French since the establishment of the French Department at SU. 

Over the past decade, the study of literature has become Ncube's vocation and full-time passion. “I've been fascinated by how languages are interconnected and especially how languages allow us to make sense of the world and our experiences. I've been drawn to the worlds that words and languages make possible through literature," he says. 

 “Although my parents did not go to university, they made sure that my siblings and I had the best possible opportunities to thrive academically. Being the first person to attend university in my family pushed me to want to succeed in my studies. And having found myself in academia, I have also strived to always be the best version of myself that I can be." 

As a child, his concerned parents consulted doctors to find out why Ncube couldn't speak. They were relieved to learn their little boy's mutism didn't have a physiological cause. He was just taking his time to use language. “My little sister spoke earlier than me and was very helpful in getting me to speak," Ncube explains.

He is one of the few scholars in Southern Africa whose research weaves back and forth across the sub-Saharan divide which has tended to keep African literary scholarship in two distinct linguistic segments. 

He has undertaken collaborative research projects with colleagues at Leeds University (UK) and Bayreuth University (Germany). He has also completed several postdoctoral fellowships such as a Free-Standing Postdoctoral Fellowship funded by the National Research Foundation of South Africa (NRFSA), and the African Humanities Programme Postdoctoral Fellowship funded by the American Council for Learned Societies. 

Ncube's research interests are in comparative literatures, queer and gender studies as well as postcolonial African studies. He is particularly interested in the representations of gender and sexual identities in different parts of the African continent, specifically in North and Southern Africa. “I focus on literary texts and other cultural productions such as novels, autobiographies and films to examine trans-continental, inter-regional, and trans-lingual dialogues that allow for a fuller and all-inclusive imagining of non-conforming sexual and gender experiences in Africa."

His work has demonstrated that non-normative gender and sexual identities are not foreign to the African continent. In fact, alternative gender and sexual expressions have long existed and continue to exist in Africa. Importantly, his research shows how gender and sexual minorities negotiate sociocultural, religious, and political contexts which are unaccommodating.

Being selected to represent SU in the Future Professors Programme has been quite a surprise, Ncube says. “I heard about the FPP from the Head of my Department, Prof Catherine du Toit. Although I had only just arrived at SU, she encouraged me to apply and I was shocked that my application was one of five that were shortlisted to represent SU. I was even more shocked to be among the 30 scholars selected for the 2023 cohort. The experience has already been enriching, especially being in a multicultural cohort of very gifted scholars at different universities in South Africa."

The skills Ncube is acquiring through the programme have already helped him make his research more accessible. He hopes his research will eventually influence public policy on gender and sexual minorities in South Africa and beyond. 

Ncube thinks the FPP will also help him leverage networks to foster long-term sustainable collaborations. “Already, I have been able to find colleagues in the 2023 cohort who have similar research interests. I am currently engaging a colleague to work on co-editing a journal special issue that looks at the representation of queerness in different African literary texts. In this way, the FPP is great in that it allows cross and multidisciplinary collaboration which I believe can only positively impact and enrich my research and academic career.

“Through the coaching sessions we receive, I also wish to learn how to find a healthy balance between different facets of my work life and my life away from work. I think academics often struggle to strike a healthy balance in this respect."

His experience at SU as a PhD student, a postdoctoral scholar and currently as a lecturer has been nothing short of enriching, Ncube says. “The conducive working environment and support given to researchers are exceptional. I also enjoy teaching at SU because of the caliber of students we have. They are eager to learn, and classrooms are a space for discovering new things and co-creating knowledge with the students. Colleagues in my Department are also very supportive and I have enjoyed working with people who are as concerned about my work as they are about my life outside of the work context."

Ncube is currently the assistant editor of the South African Journal of African Languages and from 2020-2022, he co-convened the Queer African Studies Association. His many accolades include being selected as the 2021 Mary Kingsley Zochonis Distinguished Lecturer (African Studies Association UK & Royal African Society). He sits on various editorial boards, including that of Nomina Africana; the Journal of Literary Studies; the Canadian Journal of African Studies; Imbizo: the International Journal of African Literary and Comparative Studies; the Nordic Journal of African Studies; and the Governing Intimacies in the Global South Book Series by Manchester University Press. 

Ncube's second book, Queer Bodies in African Films, was published in 2022 within the African Humanities Programme Book Series at NISC. The book is one of the first to offer a cross-regional and intra-continental analysis of queerness in African cinema beyond colonial linguistic boundaries. Ncube has recently been awarded a C1 rating by the NRFSA.