Percy Ngonyama died on the afternoon of 19 February at the King Edward Hospital in Durban. Ngonyama, known to his close friends as Boysie, was born in Clermont on 31 January 1977. He matriculated from Westville Boys’ High School in 1994.
After school, he studied for a bachelor of arts degree at the then University of Natal, Durban, majoring in history and politics. His initial activist commitments were concerned with the prison system and, as an undergraduate student, he worked with the South African Prisoners’ Organisation for Human Rights.
He then went on to work with the Ceasefire Campaign in Johannesburg, participating in campaigns aimed at the removal and destruction of landmines in Mozambique and Angola.
Peace would remain a lifelong commitment for Ngonyama. During this period, he was able to visit Palestine. He sustained a lifelong commitment to the Palestinian cause.
Ngonyama did his honours and master’s degrees in history through the University of KwaZulu-Natal. This was the time in which the history department on the university’s Howard College campus became the centre of a flourishing intellectual culture. It attracted a generation of brilliant students, many of whom have gone on to make important contributions in various fields, ranging from the academy to trade unionism, journalism and politics. Ngonyama was a much liked and respected part of this milieu.
He completed his honours in 2007. His thesis was on the history of Adams College. Soon after finishing his honours degree, he began to take on assistant lecturer duties and threw himself into several research projects.
During this time, Ngonyama became a feature at the Killie Campbell library and archive. Here he met and assisted those, from South Africa and around the world, searching for land claim archival papers; for evidence of the political, medical, educational, cultural and social history of the region; and for legal, architectural and heritage papers.
His dedicated and gentle, but sincere demeanour drew the attention of the staff and he was soon recruited to lead Killie Campbell Africana Museum tours for the public, special events and local schools.
He completed his master of arts degree in 2011, in which he focused on the land dispute between the Luthuli and the Magwaza chiefdoms in KwaMaphumulo.
During his time on campus, Ngonyama was a committed militant of the Socialist Student Movement and, with others, worked tirelessly to agitate and organise students to challenge the regime of neoliberalism championed by then vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba.
He wrote persuasive critiques against the government’s Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy, a self-imposed structural adjustment programme, championed by then president Thabo Mbeki.
This was at a time when powerful forces on the political Left in and around the campus were championing an extremely sectarian and authoritarian form of leftism. In these difficult circumstances, Ngonyama won wide-ranging respect for the honest, respectful and dignified way in which he engaged people.
In 2007, Ngonyama campaigned for student representative council (SRC) elections, standing on his own ticket. He won a seat on the SRC, taking on the international relations portfolio for 2007-2008.
In 2014, he registered for a doctoral degree in history on Jabulani “Mzala” Nxumalo, a leading intellectual in the South African Communist Party who died in London in 1991 at the age of 35.
He joined the Mzala Nxumalo Centre for the Study of South African Society when it opened its doors in Pietermaritzburg in 2015. Among other tasks, he ran highly appreciated reading and writing circles for activists.
Ngonyama began writing a biography of Mzala that same year and this became his life’s work. He died shortly after finishing the work and the centre will arrange for his book to be published.
Ngonyama made regular, constructive and non-sectarian interventions in debates on the South African Left. He published many articles and contributed to publications like the SACP’s African Communist magazine, the South African Labour Bulletin journal and New Frame.
His recent work engaged the national question, the land question, traditional authority and the revival of what he, with co-author Jabulani Sithole, described as “the resuscitation of chauvinistic Zulu nationalism”.
Ngonyama was a gentle soul, a caring human being committed to human dignity and peace, a careful and independent thinker, and a feisty opponent of oppression in any form – he never let oppression go unchallenged. He was widely respected by leading intellectuals and grassroots activists.
An email from S’bu Zikode from Abahlali baseMjondolo to the Mzala Nxumalo Centre on the day he died recalled Ngonyama as “a kind and humble activist who worked hard to empower the oppressed and stood in solidarity with us all when duty called”.
Ngonyama is mourned by his parents, family and five-year-old son Tau, on whom he doted and whom he loved beyond all else. He will be missed.
Derek Buchler is the chief operations officer at the Mzala Nxumalo Centre in Pietermaritzburg.
Percy Ngonyama’s funeral will take place at 9 am on Saturday 23 February at the Clermont Sport Hall, which is behind the Clermont Post Office.