When an old person dies, a library burns to the ground –
As the Faculty of Arts at the University of Zululand we are weeping, as we have been violently weaned off our grandfather actor, producer and director and mentor, Dr. Sam Phillips, whose passing cuts deep in our hearts. Dr. Sam Phillips’s death is indeed a great loss that our country is experiencing, it is like taking off of a blanket from a child’s back on a cold winter night – it is indeed cold in our place today.
The University of Zululand conferred a doctorate honoris causa in Communications on Sam Phillips during one of the 2020 December Summer special graduation sessions, for the sake of his great contributions to the art in our society, a contribution which can block the sun. Dr. Sam Phillips’s name gave an uplifting colour and a concrete texture to our December 2020 graduation ceremonies for his work which thunders in great quality and refined talent, resonates with our vision of the quality that we want to offer to our society as an institution.
Now the Jazz Man is no more, the guardian of our traditions, teller of our stories, a man who transformed our society with his narratives – Dr. Sam Phillips is no more, and our tears refuse to dry out.
His death is indeed a library of knowledge burned down.
Dr. Sam Phillips’s passing is a heavy sore in the soul and psyche of our society, for a storyteller, a great guardian of our traditions and utiliser of our indigenous languages in filmmaking, who used to delight us with his humour, and edify us with his wisdom and insight and inspire us with stories that are close to our lives is now gone from the world of the living.
We must remember what that German poet, Heinrich Heine wrote: “The history of a world lies under every gravestone” – yes, under Dr. Sam Phillips’s gravestone a great gold of our history resides to permanent silence – that is why we weep. An embalmer and maker and teller of stories that mirrored our lives and moved us to be better and do great is no more. Who will tell us more stories? Who will mentor us now that Our Sam is no more? These questions are a nagging kind of impulse in Sam’s wake.
But should we just weep and reduce Dr. Sam Phillips’s death to “a great loss”? Perhaps we ought to remember that Dr. Sam Phillips’s career in the acting industry spans 40 years of sheer talent, inspiration and relevant expression to our place and space in the world – and his stories are still here with us today, ever powerful. He left a great legacy, immortal as long as time still exists. So people like Dr. Sam Phillips are not just mourned and that is it, for their deaths bestow us with lessons, revelations, and temper us to heed their works and out of them let a forward-moving world flower.
It seems, when a great person dies, his death becomes a light, a revelation, a brilliant injunction for the living to heed his or her works and harvest the lessons of his or her life – so the great Dr. Sam Phillips is immortalised by his contributions to our society. We must therefore pour out our tribute and appreciation for Dr. Sam Phillips upon the air and time, fully cognisant of the gold knowledge that he has left us with. We must blow the horn from one of our great hills in the land in honour of the great man, detonate our appreciation of his long and selfless service to our society.
The Rift Valley must hear us as we sing in Dr. Sam Phillips’s name, for his name is layered with lessons and knowledge, like the silt sands of the Nile, Sam leaves us with riches to feed our culture and minds. The “Immaculate Talent” gave us his heart, he played his part greatly and tempered us to work hard in the building of our societies and keeping aflame our consciousness – his stories continue operating on our consciousness – he is still serving us then. We celebrate his life therefore, for giving us the stuff of dreams, for challenging us and for igniting in us a want for greatness. Yes, we raise a flag of freedom and dreaming in his name; we laud the rigour of his gold standards and pledge that his name will never leave our minds and lips in song of gratitude.
Dr. Sam Phillips’s name and works have inscribed themselves on our consciousness, on the fabric of social psyche. So we celebrate him for he has been an agent of transformation. Many of our young and those who came after him in the acting industry feasted and still feast on his bosom of tested knowledge and wisdom.
The Jazz Man is no more but he left us with music, stories and dreams.
What an heirloom we share in that Dr Phillips has left behind! He had been a therapist of our age, a psychologist of our nation; his stories have been balm to our wounded minds. Today the Gods have called him home, but his place in our midst will never be occupied by a sad emptiness, but a bubbling presence of wisdom, knowledge and art and stories. In the words of Christopher Okigbo, one feels like saying: the “horn may now paw the air howling goodbye” to our giant, rich with the music of appreciation; for today because of him the African pot of storytelling and the arts is rich, well-seasoned and becoming ever great; Dr. Sam Phillips has added his salt, his unique seasoning to the African pot of knowledge. He played his part, he gave us his heart and his works inspire us to go on working hard.
This way we appreciate him. But we must admit that we can never offer appreciation enough for people like him whose Prometheus, Atlas and Shaka kind of work seem to be bigger than life. But we must all come together and join our voices into blowing more alive the flame legacy of his work. We must keep on gleaning lessons and inspiration and action from the rigour of his commitment and contribution to our society through the arts. And now he is gone: his legacy is now a mountain on which we will, must climb to see the future from it, the future of our societies’ telling of stories about themselves by themselves, to see into the great journey of African cultural renaissance still ahead.
As the University of Zululand and in particular the Faculty of Arts, we appreciate him, and we thank his family for having shared him with us.
The Jazz Man is no more! We say then, may he rest well on that shore of the Great, with the light of the Great Beyond kind on his lovely face.
May a million flowers of freedom, of expression and truth that liberates and educates sprout towards the African sun.
Professor Mogomme Alpheus Masoga
Dean: Faculty of Arts
18 January 2021