Death of a poet, a leader and a friend – Prof Harry Garuba, 1958-2020

03 Mar 2020
03 Mar 2020

“his spirit soared above the skies

leaving behind the lies in the rhymes

This dull, dull craft of words

Can it capture the dark delight of his life?”

I write with a heavy heart as we mourn the passing of our dear colleague and friend, Professor Harry Garuba who passed away this past Friday, the 28th February 2020.

What better way to begin a commemoration about a literary master than with his own words? In Death of a Poem, composed to honour his fallen comrade, the late poet Sesan Ajayi – and whose lines were borrowed above – Professor Harry Garuba told the tale of a boy who loved beauty.

Many of the tributes that have been published in the past days attest to Garuba’s own love for beauty, be it the beauty of a kind word, a hearty smile, a gorgeous turn of phrase or a simple glass of red wine.

His life is one that we may well celebrate as much in death as while he was with us. It is often the case that the essence of a person, their extraordinary deeds at a young age that laid the foundation for who we know them to be, becomes buried under years of outstanding scholarship and fearless commentary.

For while he arrived at UCT in 2001 and forged a reputation in Cape Town as one of the foremost wordsmiths and decolonial thinkers around, Garuba’s talent had made waves across the continent decades earlier.

Pantomime for Saint Apartheid’s Day, Garuba’s one-act play, was published in the Festac Anthology of Nigerian New Writing in 1977 while the author was still a teenager. By the time his first volume of poetry was published at the ripe old age of 24, Garuba was already long regarded as one of the skilled poets on the continent.

That anthology, Shadow and Dream & Other Poems, published in 1982, proved to be his last for decades. In Running Poem, from his 2017 collection of poems, Animist Chants and Memorials Garuba confesses that for thirty years, “i kept running from poetry …”.

The Faculty of Humanities and University of Cape Town at large owes Garuba a debt of gratitude. Along with colleagues, students and supporters, Garuba was at the forefront of a reimagining of African Studies in the Global South and at UCT in particular. He was deeply involved in the struggle to keep the Centre for African Studies open in 2010.

Garuba also made seminal contributions to the transformation and decolonisation project at the university. His role with the Curriculum Change Working Group was exactly the kind of work needed for UCT to become the genuinely African institution he envisioned and dedicated his life to, alongside many others.

In 2017, he stepped in as interim dean and steered the faculty expertly during a time of upheaval, at the expense of his own academic commitments. Despite his reluctance to take on the role, Professor Garuba’s intellectual and synergistic leadership was foundational in building bridges between us and pursuing transformation at all levels of the faculty.

To me, above being a colleague and a friend, Harry was an elder brother and mentor. I will miss his guidance and counsel, the discussions, debates and fierce disagreements, which were always coloured with much gossip, stories, and laughter.

The tributes that have started pouring in from his students, colleagues, and all who knew him from far and wide are consistent in their descriptions of Prof Garuba as a gentle giant, an inspiring mentor, and a formidable teacher and scholar. His smile and laughter were his most discerning traits along with his dry sense of humour that would dissipate the most tense of situations!

Like many of you across the faculty, I will miss his presence, his warmth and irreplaceable spirit.

To the Garuba family, we wish you strength and offer our condolences. We thank you for granting us so much of Harry’s time, insights and energy.

Despite our sorrow, we find solace in the knowledge that our dear colleague, teacher and brother is now resting in peace.


Assoc Prof Shose Kessi

Dean: Faculty of Humanities