Tribute in honour of Professor Victor Ralushai, an inimitable elder

Professor Victor Ralushai, an industrious scholar of African knowledge systems and their application to modern life, passed away early in October 2011 at the age of 76. In an age of globalisation of culture, he will long be remembered for profiling the cultural heritage of South Africa’s people in the intersection of geographic space and culture across the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers.
Born in the Mbilwi district of Limpopo on 6 July 1935, Professor Ralushai was a trained social anthropologist who dedicated his life-long learning to influencing public understanding about culture in the northern environs of the Limpopo Province and its place in the family of African customs and values. The genesis of his professional interest is highlighted by his doctoral thesis, acquired at Belfast’s Queen University, titled: ‘Conflicting accounts of Venda history with particular reference to the role of Mutupo in social organisation.’ His ethical aim was to challenge prejudiced perceptions about the ‘other’, as conceived by mainstream academia dating back to blinkered classical anthropology.
In this journey that took him from Pope Pius XII University College in Lesotho, to Belfast and New York, he was building on a tradition of progressive anthropologists seeking to reverse the studying of others, merely as objects, towards their recognition as co-authors of knowledge about their lives, their communities and their societies. To Prof Ralushai, the use of ethnography to conduct fieldwork required the levelling of playing fields in the process of knowledge production and dissemination.
It was his proficiency and research ethics that convinced public and private institutions to rely on his expertise to conduct studies of pre-colonial settlements of Thulamela and Mapungubwe as some of the epicentres of early civilisations in southern Africa. His path-breaking research, located in an appreciation of endogenous methods and outcomes, laid the basis for his outstanding contribution to the successful designation of Mapungubwe as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.
His influence also weighed in around discussions about the complex history and nature of traditional medicine and divinity practices. As a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Venda and later Professor Emeritus in its School of Human and Social Sciences, Prof Ralushai’s work provided a conceptual and practical foundation for government’s approach to the institution of traditional leadership and the resolution of historical challenges around lines of succession. As such, academic work was to him not separate from shaping public policy and its implementation.
Among the most instructive observations of the Ralushai Commission of Inquiry on the issue of traditional leadership was that “apartheid politics turned traditional leaders into politicians representing a system which was not popular with many people, because they were seen as upholders of that system. For this reason, traditional leaders became the target…” In many respects, the relevance of such a finding for the understanding of the fraying of social cohesion and the weakening of the historical anchor of social ethics, in both rural and urban contexts in post-apartheid South Africa, is a self-evident reality.
For him therefore, education and training were an integral part of society’s development, not a solace from it.
The world of academia and South Africa at large has sadly lost an inimitable elder recognised, among others, by the South African government when it awarded him the Order of Ikhamanga in 2004 for excellence in his chosen fields. Prof Ralushai’s role and impact in building institutional bridgeheads between his generation of African scholars and emergent young talent saw him hold various academic stints at universities in Botswana, Jos in Nigeria, and Swaziland.
For this son of Mr Matodzi and Mrs Khangale Nemakhavhani Ralushai, the meaning of engaged scholarship implied the assimilation of history to advance the cause of the voiceless and disempowered. Probably a prime motivation for this advocacy was his experience growing up in Mbilwi, holding down a job as a Kafkaien clerk at a bus service company and working in a laboratory to pay off a scholarship granted to him by the Roman Catholic Church.
Moreover, the mark of steadfast dedication to his chosen profession is highlighted by his learning and eventual mastery of the German language in Bavaria so that he could access the original accounts of German missionaries on the Vhavhenda. It is no exaggeration to say that such ascetic dedication is rare among scholars. In this regard, his rigour is comparable to that of such well-known academics and practitioner as W.E.B. Du Bois at the turn of the twentieth century.
Du Bois’s words could just as easily echo Prof Victor Nkhumeleni Ralushai’s persp​​ective of life and the pursuit of knowledge: “The function of the university is not simply to teach breadwinning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment from which forms the secret of civilization”.
The Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) joins South Africa and the international academic community in mourning the loss of Prof Ralushai. Our grief is made the more profound by the fact that, among the last of his public engagements, was his presence at the public launch of MISTRA in March 2011.