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News > Passing of friends > Chris Michael 'Zithulele' Mann (1965O)

Chris Michael 'Zithulele' Mann (1965O)

One of South Africa's most distinguished poets, Chris Mann (1965O) passed away in March this year. James Gardener (1974W) with Nicky Bicket (1973F) wrote this tribute


6 April 1948 – 10 March 2021

While there can be endless Bishops banter and collegial contention over who our greatest OD sportsman, musician, politician, scientist, surgeon, architect, artist or craftsman might be, our foremost bowler, baker or candlestick maker even, there can surely be little debate over the emeritus and entirely fictional title 'Greatest OD poet'.

Christopher Michael Zithulele Mann.

The ODU announced Chris’s passing on the 10th March this year and provided links to various sites which described and documented fully his life and times. A life and time full of profound poetry, imagination, brilliant originality and song and together with his artist wife Julia (Skeen) many collaborative works of words and images, her creative talent being a natural partner. (Right: Chris in his younger days)

Son of Norman “Tufty” Mann, one of South Africa’s greatest off-spin (lefthand!) bowlers, Chris came to Bishops after Tufty's early death. At School, Chris is remembered by his contemporaries as quiet (‘Zithulele’ means “the quiet one”), gentle, funny, never an unkind word, unassuming and humble, Christian, kind, generous, considerate — and very bright. And a useful 1st XV flyhalf. At Oxford, as a Bishops Rhodes Scholar, he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry (a prize won by Oscar Wilde almost a century before) for his poem The Wife’s Tale.

Following his formal education, Chris spent the first fifteen years of his working life mainly as Operations Director of the Valley Trust in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, putting together projects in low-cost water-supply and sanitation, small-scale agriculture, pipeline construction and the development of secondary roads. Then taking up a teaching and writing post at Rhodes University, where he remained, as Professor of Poetry (a post created especially for him) until his death. He was in those days a constant anti-apartheid activist, protesting and illuminating, with his pen and poetry, almost, as it were, from the inside out. He was fluent in Zulu, Xhosa, Italian (!), Afrikaans and, need it be said, English.

The country’s most enduring public memory of him will probably be his standing atop a three-tier structure in the middle of King’s Park Stadium, reciting his poem ‘Till Love is Lord of the Land’ before a crowd of some 250 000 people, welcoming Madiba to Durban after his release from prison. Little of the poem’s five stanzas could be heard above the roar of the crowd. It’s worth reading.

His awards include the Olive Schreiner Prize for South African Poetry in English, the English Academy’s Gold Medal and Thomas Pringle Award for Poetry, the Eastern Cape Premier’s Award for Literature, the South African Performing Arts Councils’ Playwright Award, and a National Arts Festival Standard Bank Ovation Award for Drama, among many others.

To further honour the man and the poet, James Gardener (W, 1974) was asked to pen a tribute to honour this OD, one of us. This is what he wrote:

Seven Overs of Mann

James Gardener

(with apologies in equal measure to Will and Chris):

All the world’s a page

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and entrances;

And one Mann in his time played many parts,

His acts being seven overs. At first the infant,

Mewling and puking on Makhanda’s lands;

Then the spinning schoolboy, with his boater

And shining send-up face, cycling the Avenue,

Unwillingly to school.  Serving in the Chapel

The grace a poet lends.  And then the lover

Sighing by the braai, with a wordful head

Making fynbos verse, his mistress’ elbow

Arcing through the flight of science.  Then a fighter,

Wrathful, righteous, against apartheid’s crime,

Quick of wit, sharp of tongue, never one

For shallow gain, or easy for applause,

Even in the glow of fame. And then the justice,

In feeding the hungry, tilling the soil,

Opening the doors of learning and culture,

Freeing the gods to roam, his pages shared.

So he played his part, his sixth over bowled

With all the lean tuft and craft of borrowed time,

A flowering of life and love and art,

His pen never sheathed, his voice his heart’s sword,

Cutting through noise of pipe, whistle and drum.

His last, in the fading light, of all overs,

Wove a spell of incomparable worth,

With ears, with eyes, with breath, with everything.

In the course of his reflection on Chris's immense canon of work, James was reminded of the connection between his father, John Gardener (G, 1945, former Bishops Rhodes Scholar, Principal of Bishops and Chris’s English teacher).

John was an early and formative influence on Chris, the nascent young poet. He tells the story of walking into an English lesson upstairs in the Old Matric Block (he recalls the exact classroom and Mann's customary seat therein) writing on the chalkboard, 'Over the hills and far away...' and asking the class to respond in writing however they felt moved to do so. Almost fifty years later and well into his distinguished and celebrated career, Chris wrote poetically of this occasion, taking care to disguise the names of those present, although we should say that “Mr Fogarty” is John Gardener.


The English Lesson

(Chris Mann, 2013)

I’d have been horsing around in the back row

with Talbot, Robbie le Roux and Snitcher,

an egg-mayonnaise sandwich on my desk,

when Mr Fogarty strode in, chalk in hand.


Tall, gangly. Grey suit, white shirt and tie.

The quizzical, admonitory look on his face.

The cough, repeated, to settle the theatre

before the curtain goes up. The pause.


And then, ‘Boys, what do you make of this?’

He spun on his heel, strode up the board,

and hand held high, scribbled six words.

A silence. A murmur. Of perplexity, mostly.


And then the grumbles, the groans of revolt

he liked to get going at the start of a lesson.

Robbie, I guess, would have started swatting

the Chemistry notes tucked into his Hamlet.


And Mulligan, the vox populi of the class,

waving an arm from his desk in the front.

old Mullikins would have stood up and said,

‘Please sir, what’s this got to do with exams?’


But that’s as maybe, that’s all quite gone,

along with the hours spent playing sport

and messing around after school on bikes

The Chemistry, the History dates.


What’s left is a kind of faded hologram,

archived, I imagine, yet alive in the brain,

where Mr Fogarty, that look on his face,

pitches up in the classroom, just as before,


where gawping at his words on the board,

a half-eaten sandwich still on my lap,

I sense a curtain lifting in my adolescence

and powers of the mind not felt till then.


Throughout his life, Chris generously acknowledged the impetus John gave to his lifelong love of language, its words and rhymes and cadences and rhythms. He dedicated his poem 'Dwebza' to his old schoolmaster.



Chris Mann (2002)

for John Gardener


You’d never think to find Dwebeza on a map.


That doesn’t go to say Dwebeza isn’t there.

for even if you never ford its drift

and bump across the cattle-grid into its hills

you’d know the place I mean


The aloe burning on a slope of lichened shale,

a warthog grubbing roots from dust,

the pair of eagles mating high above its thorns

will be as much as you’d expect.


But the strange scents, strange insects, plants and birds

will loosen your matrix of thoughts

until you start to hear, beyond the rocks and heat

the singing of the bush.


And when that night you lie down on the ground

beneath its huge, dark void of sky,

you’ll shiver with a long-forgotten awe to see

its mass of glimmering stars.


This is the place which makes its presence felt

when labouring at a city desk

you yearn to wrench your tightened mind away

from files and grey-lit screens.


This is the place whose presence makes you say,

I want to drive across a drift

and walk through the afternoons of singing bush,

and sleep beneath an open sky


and wake one more beneath Dwebeza’s stars.


And John replied. In verse, of course.



John Gardener

Stout Cortes? - I know him

Because he stood silent on a world's-view peak.

A symbol of epiphanic awe.


Historians snuff that poet's truth:

He wasn't even there, they say,

But conquistadoring sordidly for gold and power,

Destroying dreams of people who were different,

Scarce one to hail anything Pacific.


Just so,

I claim small title to far Dwebeza,

But am ennobled by incorporation in the poet's vision.

I'll seek with him to breathe Dwebeza's ‘pure serene',

And that can help my old unworthy truth


Step by step, towards Dwebeza's ‘glimmering stars'.


In many senses, reading these lines feels like eavesdropping on two fine, sensitive OD minds engaged in a lifetime's conversation in verse.

Chris’s soul flies up, but his words, thank God, remain below.

May he Rest in Peace.

To Julia, Amy and Luke, our heartfelt condolences.

Nicky and James suggest that other OD poets of different generations be encouraged to mark Chris's passing with verses of their own, honouring Bishops Poet Laureate.

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