Zimbabwe-born Stellenbosch University lecturer went  from being a mute child to a master of languages

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By Sarah du Toit

CAPE TOWN – Until he was six years old, Gibson Ncube didn’t utter a word. Today, that same boy speaks four African and three international languages and works as a lecturer at Stellenbosch University’s (SU) Department of Modern Foreign Languages.

He’s considered one of the brightest rising stars in academia.

Dr Ncube was reportedly honoured to be chosen, along with biochemist Dr Tawanda Zininga, to represent SU in the prestigious Future Professors Programme (FPP), a flagship initiative of the Department of Higher Education and Training.

A carefully chosen group of lecturers from South Africa’s 26 universities participate in the FPP, which is under the direction of Prof. Jonathan Jansen, a distinguished professor of education at SU.

All FPP fellows demonstrate the potential to become leaders in their fields and to be part of a transformed next generation of South African professors across all disciplines.

Ncube, who was born in Zimbabwe, studied French and Spanish at the University of Zimbabwe before earning a master’s degree in French in 2011. Soon after, he received a scholarship from SU’s Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences to pursue a PhD in French and Francophone Literature under Prof. Eric Levéel’s supervision. His dissertation examined non-normative sexualities in North African literature.

He was one of the first two students to be awarded a PhD in French since the establishment of the French Department at SU in December 2014.

Over the past decade, the study of literature has become Ncube’s vocation and full-time passion.

‘I’ve been fascinated by how languages are interconnected and especially how languages allow us to make sense of the world and our experiences. I’ve been drawn to the worlds that words and languages make possible through literature,’ he says.

He continued, ‘Although my parents did not go to university, they made sure that my siblings and I had the best possible opportunities to thrive academically. Being the first person in my family to attend university pushed me to want to succeed in my studies. And having found myself in academia, I have also strived to always be the best version of myself that I can be.’

As a child, his worried parents sought medical attention to determine why Ncube couldn’t speak. They were relieved to learn that their son’s mutism was not due to a physiological condition. He was simply taking his time with the language.

‘My little sister spoke earlier than me and was very helpful in getting me to speak,’ Ncube explains.

He is one of the few Southern African scholars whose research crosses the Sub-Saharan divide, which has tended to divide African literary scholarship into two distinct linguistic segments.

He has worked on collaborative research projects with colleagues at Leeds University in the United Kingdom and Bayreuth University in Germany. He has also completed several postdoctoral fellowships, including the National Research Foundation of South Africa’s (NRFSA) Free-Standing Postdoctoral Fellowship and the American Council for Learned Societies’ African Humanities Programme Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Ncube’s areas of expertise include comparative literature, queer and gender studies, and postcolonial African studies. He is particularly interested in gender and sexual identity representations across the African continent, particularly in North and Southern Africa.

‘I focus on literary texts and other cultural productions such as novels, autobiographies, and films to examine trans-continental, inter-regional, and trans-lingual dialogues that allow for a fuller and more all-inclusive imagining of non-conforming sexual and gender experiences in Africa.’

His research has shown that non-normative gender and sexual identities are not uncommon on the African continent. Alternative gender and sexual expressions have existed and continue to exist in Africa for a long time. Importantly, his research demonstrates how gender and sexual minorities negotiate hostile sociocultural, religious, and political contexts.

Being selected to represent SU in the Future Professors Programme has been quite a surprise, Ncube says. ‘I heard about the FPP from the Head of my Department, Prof. Catherine du Toit. Although I had only just arrived at SU, she encouraged me to apply, and I was shocked that my application was one of five that were shortlisted to represent SU. I was even more shocked to be among the 30 scholars selected for the 2023 cohort. The experience has already been enriching, especially being in a multicultural cohort of very gifted scholars at different universities in South Africa.’

Ncube hopes that his research will eventually influence gender and sexual minority policy in South Africa and beyond.

His time at SU has been nothing short of enriching as a PhD student, postdoctoral scholar and now lecturer, Ncube says. ‘The conducive working environment and support given to researchers are exceptional. I also enjoy teaching at SU because of the calibre of students we have. They are eager to learn, and classrooms are a space for discovering new things and co-creating knowledge with the students. Colleagues in my department are also very supportive, and I have enjoyed working with people who are as concerned about my work as they are about my life outside of the work context.’

Ncube is currently the assistant editor of the South African Journal of African Languages, and he co-convened the Queer African Studies Association from 2020 to 2022.

Queer Bodies in African Films, Ncube’s second book, was published in 2022 as part of the African Humanities Programme Book Series at NISC. The book is among the first to provide a cross-regional and intra-continental examination of queerness in African cinema beyond colonial linguistic boundaries. Ncube was recently given a C1 rating by the NRFSA.