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Wole Soyinka: Nobel laureate charms SU audience with razor-sharp wit and wisdom
Author: Corporate Communications and Marketing (Hannelie Booyens)
Published: 22/09/2023

​​There are a number of things Wole Soyinka dislikes – one of which is social media. And he's also not keen on people trespassing on his secluded forest property in Nigeria where at the ripe age of 89, he's still a prolific writer and activist.

If the celebrated Nobel Prize winner for Literature sounds a bit cantankerous, rest assured his appearance at Stellenbosch University (SU) on 13 September as part of the Africa in the World festival was a joyous and highly entertaining event that culminated in a standing ovation. Soyinka's conversation with his compatriot, the equally sardonic novelist Okey Ndibe, had the audience in the Jan Mouton Learning Centre in stitches.

The Africa in the World Festival, an initiative of the Nigerian journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Dele Olojede, took place at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Research over four days. The purpose of the festival is to spark connections and engage action that can move African society forward. The Lives of Wole Soyinka dialogue was attended by more than 250 people and was undoubtedly the highlight of the festival.

With his famous crown of unruly white hair, Soyinka often gets mistaken for Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations. He enjoys being Kofi Annan, Soyinka said. “It isn't that I don't like to meet people, I just enjoy meeting people as other people," he joked. While being mistaken for the notorious American boxing promotor Don King irks him, Soyinka likes being seen as the Hollywood star Morgan Freeman, with whom he not only shares a physical likeness, but also a melodious baritone voice. “I don't know how many autographs I've signed as Morgan Freeman. He's so popular – from France to Uzbekistan people recognise him." It speaks volumes of Soyinka's fame that he sometimes enjoys escaping the burden of being Wole Soyinka.

His contributions to literature and his unrelenting commitment to social and political activism have earned him global acclaim. Soyinka became the first African to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, a testament to the profound impact of his work. He dedicated his Nobel Prize to Nelson Mandela who was still a political prisoner at the time.

Soyinka's literary works, such as his plays and essays, often delve into themes of oppression, injustice, and the struggle for freedom, which resonated with the experiences of South Africans under apartheid. His powerful storytelling and eloquent prose served as a source of inspiration and solidarity for those fighting against apartheid. Asked about his ties to South Africa, he spoke lyrically about his involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle.

“From very early on, South Africa represented a life's mission for me. South Africa was the negative summation of how the world viewed the black person, the African," he explained. As a young man he was obsessed with the injustice of apartheid. “Together with a number of my colleagues, we felt that we existed to be trained both intellectually and physically for one purpose only – to liberate and rebuild South Africa."

On a lighter note, Soyinka quipped that after the dawn of democracy in 1994, South Africa didn't exactly roll out the red carpet for him. In his typical droll style, Soyinka related his many “battles" with South Africa's customs, where he's been held for hours on end for not having his visa in order.

“It's a kind of irony, isn't it? That each time I come to South Africa, I have a huge problem with immigration." For a few years Soyinka rejected all invitations to South Africa in protest against the harassment by immigration officers. This strike ended when he bumped into the famous South African poet and activist Dennis Brutus at Port Harcourt airport in Nigeria just as he was suffering the same fate as Soyinka did in South Africa – being refused entry due to incorrect paperwork. Talk about poetic justice. “And here I am again. I think it's the wine," Soyinka declared.

It was clear that Soyinka's outspokenness has not dimmed with the passing years. “The truth matters to me," he stressed more than once. “And humanity. Not ideology or religion or ethnicity, but the indivisibility of humanity. That has always been my guiding principle."

Although there wasn't much time for questions at the end of the dialogue, the author tried to address young people in the audience, specifically aspiring writers. Don't feel obliged to throw yourself into the maelstrom of events, he cautioned. “If you say you want to be a writer, your primary mission is your literature. Please, do not be influenced by social media, either in your writing or in terms of opinions expressed in social media. Just form your own ideas, examine the circumstances and the environment in which you are. Act according to your conviction. Avoid trying to be seen as being radical for its own sake simply because that strikes you as a romantic and progressive kind of position to take."

Asked about retirement, the celebrated wordsmith indicated that his instinct towards literary creativity was still as strong as ever. After all, he's not been very successful at turning on the brakes, he confessed. “I've been working at retirement for a number of decades now. Eventually, I'll probably sit for an examination and get my Bachelor of Arts in retirement studies and then move on to a PhD. And then I'll probably become emeritus professor in retirement strategy."

​ PHOTO: Stefan Els