Francois Venter 1981


Francois Alwyn Venter was born at Hopetown, Cape Province, on 27 November 1919, the only son of Mr and Mrs H. C. Venter, previously of the Britstown district and subsequently of the Kenhardt district. He spent his childhood at Botterkraal and Nuwejaarskraal, and received his initial education in a farm school at Vioolkraal. He then attended the secondary school at Strydenburg, and matriculated at the Hopetown High School, where he distinguished himself as a student.

After his schooling he attended the University of Stellenbosch. During his student years he was, inter alia, sub-editor of the Stellenbosch Student, serving on the editorial staff together with, amongst others, Ernst van Heerden, Gerhard Beukes, W. A. de Klerk and Audrey Blignault. Towards the middle of 1938 he joined the editorial staff of Die Suiderstem, in Cape Town, where he advanced from ordinary reporter to acting news editor. In 1946 he became Editor of the Suidwes-Afrikaner in Windhoek. Early in the nineteen-fifties he proceeded to Johannesburg, where he entered politics, and took on the editorship of a popular Afrikaans periodical. In 1960 he returned to the region of his youth to devote himself to creative writing on a virtually full-time basis. He and Mrs Venter now live at the Strand. They have two children.

The importance of F. A. Venter to our University and to our country is to be found, in the first place, in the quality of his work as a writer of prose fiction. The Hertzog Prize, the highest award for Afrikaans literature in South Africa, was presented to him in 1961 for Swart Pelgrim and Geknelde Land. In his tetralogy, Geknelde Land (1960), Offer/and (1963), Gelofteland (1966) and Bedoelde Land (1968), he gave unique expression to the greatest epic of the Afrikaner's history which began on the Eastern frontier. T. T. Cloete has remarked on how important it is that the young literature of Afrikaans should possess a tetralogy of this stature in the art of the novel, pointing out the value of the good work made of familiar material and in accordance with the simple principles of the traditional novel.

This sustained craftsmanship possesses academic merits which are truly commendable. His election to membership of the Maatschappij der Nederlandse Letterkunde in 1962 gives an indication of the recogni­tion he enjoys in the broader context of Dutch culture.

In a time of experimental and often modernistic prose F. A. Venter's talent of affording the reader reading pleasure without compromising the quality of his art, is illustrated by the variety of works with Biblical, historical, topical and a rich diversity of other themes.

In its early years the young University of Port Elizabeth laid strong emphasis on the natural and the economic sciences in the awarding of honorary degrees, and quite rightly so.

Now, however, as the University fully identifies itself culturally not only with the Eastern Cape but also with the artistic activities of our country as a whole, the need has arisen for the University to engage even more actively in the promotion and advancement of the Afrikaans language and its literature and culture. Because of the bilingual character of the University, its understanding of the interdependence of the arts, and the tradition established here by men of letters such as Professor T. T. Cloete and the late Professor Edward Davis, as well as the research results achieved in the study of literature in all language departments, the recognition of the value of literature and literary theory in an area which is heavily industrialised is for us more than just a gesture; the award of an honorary doctorate to F. A. Venter is the affirmation of an endeavour to place spiritual and cultural values at the centre of our academic activities.

F. A. Venter's work reflects a rich geographic and historical diversity. In contrast with the relentless hardships of pioneer life in Geknelde Land; there is the allegorically rich multiplicity of the life on Wingerdplaas in Die middag voel na warm as. His relevance to the realities of the continent of Africa is illustrated in his depiction of problematical worlds m Eenderse Morge, Die drosters and Die Tollenaar. In Swart Pe/grim he pro­phetically describes the Black Man's confrontation with the Big City and White civilisation. But F. A. Venter is also the author of Man van Cirene, a moving account of man's relation to the life and suffering of Christ. Finally we mention his three-dimensional portraits of rural life: the little idylls of Afrikaans humanity in Werfjoernaal, Die Rentmeesters and the unforgettable images of the recollections of a youth in Kambrokind.

In literary studies the term "universal" has sometimes been used so free­ly that readers may well protest that it has become virtually mean­ingless, but we nevertheless wish to assert that F. A. Venter's work has significance today because the events, characters and places he creates transcend the reality of the here and now. They rise above the local and the anecdotal, the characters are liberated from their typical characteristics and become symbols of ourselves: of man in his existen­tial anguish, in his search tor a fixed home, in his longing for a better world, in his experience of pain and earthly misery. In reading, tor example Die middag voel na warm as, we soon recognise the perspective of the narrator on that lost paradise and its creatures as our own, and realise that his sympathy tor so many touching moments of human hurt and wonder has also become our own.

This author succeeds time and again in restoring the humblest of creatures to a status worthy of humanity. His work provides ample examples of a dramatic sense of making the most insignificant and least important of God's creatures live anew before our eyes as people of flesh and blood, with all their joys and frustrations. To enter into the unity of F. A. Venter's works from this vantage is an experience that no sensitive person will ever be able to forget or want to miss.

In conferring this degree the University answers the question of whether the creative writer qualifies for an award that depends on academic criteria. We draw attention to the fact that the academic status of the art of creative writing at various universities in the U.S.A., Europe and our own country is not limited to the awarding of honorary doctorates, but is realised in the inclusion of creative writing as an integral part of degree courses in languages.

The University of Port Elizabeth wishes in this way to accord the creative artist in South Africa the recognition he deserves.