The Extraordinary Story of Sam Nolutshungu
Sam Nolutshungu’s story is truly inspiring, as were the actions of a group of Keele students who refused to accept the injustice of Apartheid. Rob Hutchison and John Morris talk to some of Sam’s colleagues as they tell the story of a man who’s life was cut short at the very moment he broke through the glass ceiling in South Africa.
Sam Nolutshungu, born1945 inSouth Africa, is a name that few would recognize, yet what he achieved through his life is nothing short of extraordinary, being one of the most important students that Keele has ever had.
Sam was a black South African, living in the country under the apartheid system, meaning he couldn’t access the same rights and facilities that the white ruling class enjoyed. This system prevented Sam from being able to access higher education, so in order to achieve a better education he departed the country and made for England; with the knowledge he would be exiled from his homeland, forced to bid farewell to his family and friends, never to see them again.
He came to Keele through the South African Scholarship scheme, an initiative run by students, but supported by the university. Students across the university gave their time raising and collecting money for the scholarship, mostly through getting people to pay yearly £1 direct debits. (£15 in today’s money.) However they also contacted celebrities to ask for donations towards the fund and the 1973 Keele University Challenge team donated their £50 appearance fee.
The first ‘Scholar’ and the first black South African to come to Keele was Sam Nolutshungu. Professor Phillip Davies, Keele student 1966-71, remembers how people would smuggle “in application forms and leaving them in places where they might be picked up”. He also spoke of bribes to get ‘Scholars’ out the country, however, he remarked that “any student we could bring to Keele from South Africa was a slap in the face of apartheid” showing the importance of the cause, even against the challenges. The scholarship was deemed a success and something that students were extremely proud of. This feeling was only increased as a result of Sam’s eventual success both at Keele and in later life.
During this time, Keele conducted a four year dual honour degree course, unique among universities, with students having to take a foundation year that gave them knowledge on a wide range of topics. Sam took PPE as a degree, a combination of Politics, Philosophy and Economics. Students have said that he always worked hard; Professor Richard Blackett, a student during 1965-69, commented that “he always excelled. He was bright and witty with a sharp intellect. None of us were surprised when he got a first.”
Sam, like most Keele students of the time, was involved with a number of societies; his most prominent involvement being with the debating society, which he was president of during 1967-68. Bill Proctor, another former Keelite, described him as a “formidable figure both on the floor and in the Chair.” Sam was an exemplary individual, despite his workload he was said to have been an approachable and likeable person, despite all the difficulties he experienced as a youngster in South Africa – or perhaps because of them. He even volunteered to meet new students in 1968, showing them to their rooms and introducing them to the university.
Once Sam had graduated from Keele University he decided to prolong his studies; gaining a PhD in Politics. He spent time serving on boards was a lecturer and a tutor in Universities as diverse as Manchester, Ibadan, Rochester in New York, York University in Toronto, Dartmouth College and as a visiting research fellow at Yale University. Professor Sam Nolutshungu became an international expert on South African politics, producing numerous significant articles and having three of his books published. His doctoral thesis and first book, ‘South Africa in Africa: a study in ideology and foreign policy,’ was considered the first major study in this area by a black South African. His second book, again focused on politics of his homeland, obtained the Johannesburg Sunday Times’ Book of the Year Award.
In December 1996 he was the first black South African to be offered the position of Vice Chancellor at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Sadly, shortly after this magnificent breakthrough, he died in Rochester, New York in August 1997, aged 52.
Sam Nolutshungu’s story is extraordinarily inspirational, throughout his life and even in death it prevails. He was never one to shy away from challenges and was always there for his peers. He was the crowning achievement of the scholarship and he is, without doubt, one of Keele’s greatest students.
This article was written with help from John Easom and the alumni office; the Keele Oral History Website and the Pioneering Keelites of Colour Website. Special thanks also go to Professor Davies and Professor Blackett for their enlightening email responses.
Robert Hutchison and John Morris