‘Bury me where the grasses grow
Below the weeping willow trees
To let their branches shed upon me
Leaves of varied greens.
Then, as I lie there, I shall hear
The grasses sigh a soft behest
‘Sleep, beloved one, sleep and rest.’
–Excerpt from the poem, ‘If Death’
Dr. Benedict Wallet Vilakazi, poet, novelist, and educator, was born Bambatha kaMshini near KwaDukuza, Natal (nowSouth Africa) on January 6, 1906. In 1946, he became the first black South African to receive a Ph.D.
At the age of ten, Dr. Vilakazi was baptized and given the name Benedict Wallet. He earned his teaching certificate in 1923 and taught at several schools. He published his first novel, “Nje nempela,” in 1933. It was one of the first works of Zulu fiction to treat modern subject matter.
Dr. Vilakazi earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Africa in 1934. He began teaching in the Department of Bantu Studies at the University of Witwatersrand in 1936. There he created a Zulu-English dictionary with his mentor and co-author linguist C.M. Doke. He was the first black South African to teach white South Africans at the university level. In 1946, he earned his Ph.D. in literature from Witwatersrand for a dissertation on Zulu poetry, making him the first black South African to earn a doctoral degree. Vilakazi Street in Soweto is named after him and it is now famous as the place where both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu once lived.
Dr. Vilakazi died of meningitis one year after becoming the first black South African to earn a Ph.D. He was 41.
The Akosua Report: Facts on The African Diaspora, is written by Akosua Lowery. Follow her on Twitter @AkosuaLowery.