School of Religion, Philosophy & Classics

Storytelling and Songwriting: The Steve de Gruchy Memorial Lecture

Photos: Andile Ndlovu

The University of KwaZulu-Natal’s commitment to honour the legacy, life and work of Professor Steve de Gruchy was met with pride once again this year.

The annual memorial lecture was hosted by the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics (SRPC) within the College of Humanities, together with the Cluster of Theological Institutions and United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA) as well as Syracuse University.

Professor Simangaliso Kumalo, SRPC Dean, opened the event and acknowledged de Gruchy as a key theologian, passionate advocate of the Ecumenical Movement, dedicated academic and an agent of transformation within the SRPC.

De Gruchy was a renowned and well-respected academic; passionate about the University and his work, as both a teacher and ordained theologian. In addition, he was a storytelling songwriter; crafting Christian liturgies and diverse musical expressions from an early age and throughout his lifetime.

It was through this lens on de Gruchy’s unique and interactive presentation of music and spoken word that this year’s guest speaker focused his address.

Reverend Dr Brian Konkol’s (Dean of Hendricks Chapel and Professor of Practice at Syracuse University) address, Redemption Belongs: Theological Reflections on the Storytelling Songwriting of Steve de Gruchy reflected upon de Gruchy’s musical contributions in particular, and the theological impact of music in general, to highlight how songwriting contributes to the transformation of society.

Bringing his lecture to life with the power of music, Konkol was joined by South African singer, actress, storyteller, and inspirational speaker, Zolani Mahola, and Dr José (Peppie) Calvar, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Applied Music and Performance at Syracuse University.

Konkol – himself a former student of de Gruchy and a proud alumnus of UKZN – spoke passionately about the effect that the Professor had on him during his time on the Pietermaritzburg campus, saying: ‘Steve’s intellectual and spiritual impact upon my life was immediate, immense, and indefinite, and for it all I am truly grateful.’

Konkol’s address considered an aspect of de Gruchy’s rarely explored legacy as a storyteller songwriter as he was not merely about information for the mind, but also about formation of the spirit and transformation of the soul which embraced the power and possibilities of music. He learned to play the guitar at the age of 14 and by the age of 20, had composed over 150 songs.

Konkol argued, ‘From his scholarship to his service, from his teaching to his ministry, from his activism to his everyday kind and thoughtful actions, de Gruchy dared to embody the Gospel of Jesus Christ in thought, word, and deed, which is why, I believe, he was a storyteller and a songwriter.’

Konkol asserts that ‘music is at the core of what makes us human, which helps to explain why God is often made known through music. Through music people can share and receive strength and healing. Such is the power of storytelling and songwriting, a power that de Gruchy recognised and embraced.’

At a young age, de Gruchy was aware of the power of music to spark and sustain redemption and belonging, even in the face of injustice. As a congregational minister, he appreciated the ways that music could spark freedom and form as well as creativity and accountability.

In all aspects of life and in the many roles de Gruchy occupied as a teacher, father, husband and son, he used the power of music to help him cross boundaries and fulfill obligations. ‘Steve knew that music could bring perspective and possibility, and communicate his abounding love, in ways that mere words could not. As a child of God, Steve knew that music could bring both truth and grace, to a world yearning for both. And this is the power of storytelling and songwriting,’ Konkol said.

Addressing the event, Professor Nhlanhla Mkhize, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Humanities said, ‘Throughout his career, Professor de Gruchy’s passion for music and storytelling was evident, shaping his unique approach to theological discourse. Tonight’s lecture delved into the intersection of theology and music, exploring how Professor de Gruchy’s compositions continue to inspire and challenge us. Let us not only remember Professor Steve de Gruchy’s academic achievements but also his humanity.’

Mkhize extended his gratitude to Konkol and special guests, Mahola, Calvar, Father Joseph Phiri from the Cluster, Reverend B Swartz (United Congregational Church of Southern Africa in Pietermaritzburg), and the School’s Professor Philippe Denis and Professor B Okyere-Manu.