University of Botswana History Department

Prof. Leonard Diniso Ngcongco: obituary notices
(August 2007)

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Summary obituary

Prof. Leonard Ngcongco, a former head of the UB History Department, and a greatly loved and respected scholar of African history, has died. He was one of those most responsible for building up the History Department from tiny beginnings in an outpost college to a large department in a major African university.

Early life in South Africa

He was born in 1930 in De Aar, in the Cape Province of what was then the Union of South Africa. De Aar was a railway town, in which, as Prof. Ngcongco later recalled, almost everyone seemed to work for the railway. His parents were uneducated people: his father was self-taught and could only read the Bible with any ease. There was no family tradition of education or role model that he could remember later: he just seemed to take to it naturally. Following success in school, he won a scholarship which enabled him to study at Fort Hare, graduating B.A. Hons in 1956.

After some further studies he was appointed as a History teacher at Lovedale College in 1959. In 1960 he married Vuyelwa Ndiki Tabata, with whom he was to be happily married for the rest of his life. However in 1962 the Department of Bantu Education first ended his job and then banned him from teaching anywhere in South Africa - because of his opposition to the apartheid policy of Bantu Education. (He had first come to their attention due to reports of pupils being suspiciously interested in history, which in fact seems merely to have reflected the fact that he was by far the most interesting teacher at the school. An interesting fact about this period is that Leonard Ngcongco taught both Steve Biko and his brother.) He crossed to the Bechuanaland Protectorate in 1963 and found a teaching position at the excellent Moeding College.

At UBLS and UB

In 1967 he joined the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland (UBLS), at Roma in Lesotho, where Gordon Haliburton was Head of the History Department. After joining UBLS Leonard Ngcongco undertook further studies. He studied for an M.A. at UNISA, travelling to Cape Town in the Long Vacation to study the newspaper Invo Zabantsundu. He completed the M.A. at about the same time that UBLS decided he should undertake doctoral studies abroad. In 1971 he returned to Botswana with the establishment of an outpost college (of the federal university) in Gaborone - this college was the seed that grew to become the present University of Botswana - but in 1972 went to Dalhousie University, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to begin his Ph.D. He returned in 1977. His doctoral thesis was on "Aspects of the history of the Bangwaketse to 1910".

At UB he served in a number of capacities, including not only Head of the History Department (1971-2, 1976-81, 1985-96) and Director of the National Institute of Research (NIR) but also Dean of Humanities and Acting Deputy Vice Chancellor.

As Head of Department, Prof. Ngcongco has been especially associated with the development of the Botswana history student research project. This had originally been started by Prof. Thomas Tlou, but Prof. Tlou was seconded to the government service shortly after Prof. Ngcongco returned to Botswana, and it fell to his care. The project, which was the first of its type at UB, became outstandingly successful, the department's flagship course, and has been an inspiration to other departments.

Prof. Ngcongco also oversaw the establishment of the Archaeology Unit, first mooted under the Headship of the late Michael Crowder.

Prof. Ngcongco was the first full-time head of the NIR, appointed in 1980. He remarked in a 1996 interview that in order to convince the authorities of the value of the NIR's work, they had had to present a rather narrow vision of "development", leaving out African Studies and culture, which he would have like to include. "If you are not building a bridge or that kind of thing, people think that you are not involved in development. But you also have to develop people in the mind." [Source: interview cited below, p. 18.] With current interest in "indigenous knowledge" etc., Prof. Ngcongco's vision of NIR now seems ahead of its time.

As Dean of Humanities, Prof. Ngcongco put much work into the establishment of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, and the establishment of the Department of Library and Information Studies in the Faculty.

The UNESCO History

There was a long-standing problem that little had been written about African history - some even denied that it existed - and too much of what had been written had colonial biases. As part of the effort to rectify this, in 1971 UNESCO established an International Scientific Committee responsible for drafting a multi-volume History of Africa. Leonard Ngcongco was made a member, and contributed chapters to the new series.

Church activities

Prof. Ngcongco was an active member of the Anglican Church, and served as a Board member for the Kgolagano Theological Training Programme for fifteen years, up until the time of his death.

Death and final tributes

He died on 13 August 2007. The days following Prof. Ngcongco's passing made clear to all the very wide esteem in which he was held, with a wide range of tributes being made. The Requiem Mass (on Friday 17th) was attended by the former President of the Republic, Sir Ketumile Masire, and at the funeral on the 18th a personal message was read from former Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The Requiem Mass was on 17 August, at the Holy Cross Cathedral. Presiding: the Rt. Rev. the Bishop of Botswana, Musonda Trevor Selwyn Mwamba. Celebrant and Preacher: Bishop T. T. Naledi.
The funeral was on Saturday 18 August.
May he rest in peace.

Sources for data: Obituary of Prof. Ngcongco on funeral programme; an interview with Prof. Ngcongco which was printed in the Festschrift issue of Pula That Tremendous Voice published when he retired as Head of Department. (Vol. 11 no. 1, 1997). Click here to access online as PDF file.

Contributions by readers:

Prof. Gordon Haliburton writes:

I knew Leonard Ngcongco from 1967 when he came over from Botswana to join me in the History Department at UBLS. We were good friends from that time on. He immediately commenced research on an M.A. for UNISA but ran into many niggling problems and re-wrote his thesis several times at their request. He earned his degree several times over. I was glad to get the Canadian International Development Agency, as part of their mission to assist African universities (and specifically UBLS, to sponsor him for a Ph. D. at Dalhousie University. He became a mentor to the many African students studying there and was a notable figure on campus.

He was the victim of niggling restrictions whenever he travelled in South Africa, some of which I witnessed. Even when South African historians inaugurated an inclusive society for members of all their universities at Pretoria, and Leonard and I attended, there was embarassment. Leonard was the only real African at the meetings and the English-speaking professors were afraid that the Afrikaners would disapprove of his presence, and intervened whenever they saw danger. I think their worries were groundless, the Afrikaners certainly made no public display of rudeness and some certainly conversed with Leonard and treated him as a scholar and gentleman. At least I thought they did.

Prof. Ngcongco and his achievement:

Hopefully we be able to add a fuller account later. Prof. Ngcongco contributed so much in several different areas. In direct historical scholarship, he will be remembered for his contribution to the UNESCO General History of Africa and his work on the Bangwaketse, for example. Teachers have cause to thank him for his early work in trade unionism seeking better conditions. But - despite the significance of these other undertakings - perhaps most of all "Prof" contributed by developing other people. A whole generation of educated Batswana seem to have gone through his classes. A whole cadre of Botswana historians have been encouraged and helped to progress by him. This sort of contribution does not leave such a visible monument, and yet this sort of work played an absolutely crucial role in the development of Botswana to what it is now.

Prof. Melamu, speaking on behalf of the Anglican Men's Fellowship at the Requiem Mass, summed up the feelings of many when he paraphrased Shakespeare's Coriolanus (Act 2 scene 2):

" ... the deeds of Leonard Ngcongco
Should not be utter'd feebly."


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Last updated 24 September 2007. [PAGE ENDS]