By Dr Lebogang Lance Nawa
This is the most heart-wrenching tribute that we have to pay to our towering co-founder, Maishe Maponya, who was born on 4 September 1951 in Alexandra, raised and educated in Diepkloof, and passed away on 29 July 2021. Indeed, the news of his passing on have cast us into a trance for a few days and we’re still refusing to accept that indeed the inevitable has dawned upon him. Who is Maishe Maponya to us as the National Writers Association of South Africa (NWASA)?
A few years ago, two seasoned cultural advocates, Maishe Maponya and Nana Kefuoe Walter Chakela, NWASA’s Founding President, spent endless days deconstructing the state of the arts and culture landscape in the post-apartheid South Africa – the subject they were most passionate about as it embodied the essence of their lives as activists who for them culture was a site of struggle against apartheid.
This duo were both renowned playwrights, poets and theatre directors. While Maponya was a drama lecturer at Witwatersrand University, Chakela – also a former broadcaster – used his craft in adapting African literature matric setworks such as Bessie Head’s phenomenal novel, Maru, into a stage play to make it accessible to high school students. Thus, both also shared an insatiable love for education of a black child. This point is worth revisiting later.
Inside the country in the 1970s, as the winds of Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness philosophy swept across the country to awaken our people from a political lull imposed in the 1960s by the banning of key anti-apartheid organisations and the concomitant imprisonment of struggle leaders such as Nelson Mandela while others such as Oliver Tambo were forced into exile, cultural formations such as Maponya’s Bahumutsi Drama Group and Lefifi Tladi’s Dashiki, Patrick Sefolosha and Kenny Mathaba’s Malopoets and others used their productions as tools to mobilise the masses of our people into joining the struggle. Abroad, African National Congress (ANC) established groups such as the Amandla Cultural Ensemble to mobilise through song, poetry and dance while also conscientising the international community about the demon of apartheid tyranny – hence the world even declared apartheid a heresy and imposed both cultural and investment boycotts to isolate the apartheid regime.
Conscious of this background, the duo were aggrieved by our democratic dispensation’s reluctance or inadequate adoption of culture by the post-1994 democratic dispensation as a critical jigsaw piece in the puzzle of reconstruction and development of our country, and furthermore, using cultural diplomacy as an arsenal in its international engagements. They both couldn’t accept the demise of the erstwhile Congress of South African Writers (COSAW) and African Writers Association (AWA) after the dawn of democracy and they believed this contributed to the declining development of the cultural industries in the country. Something had to be done, they resolved. It is worth noting that at the time, Maponya’s health was declining and yet his sense of camaraderie inspired him to visit Chakela in Midrand where he was confined to a wheelchair after suffering bouts of strokes.
The duo broadened their discussions and invited Lebogang Lance Nawa, COSAW’s last President after Chakela, to join the crusade. Nawa was given carteblanche of bringing to fruition the establishment of a writers’ outfit with a character that is developmental, socially conscious, politically conscious yet non-partisan, and Pan-African in outlook and conduct. The process entailed wide consultations that included approaching erstwhile AWA and COSAW members, as well Prof. Andries Oliphant, the Chairperson of the Ministerial Task Team. As some consensus shaped up and further consultations were needed to sustain and increase the momentum, Abdul Mogale arrived on the scene. The trio recruited additional individuals including Lisa Combrinck, Frank Meintjies, Barbara Schreiner and Mike Van Graan towards the convening of a consultative meeting with other existing yet not formalised writers’ entities, including those operating exclusively online. The latter, somewhat leaning towards Black Consciousness ideology, consisted of the likes of Mphutlane Wa Bofelo, Malik Arafat and Mpho Matsitle.
The bilateral engagement between the two groups climaxed on 25 May 2018 when several writers converged at Kwa-Langa Estate in Midland, Chakela’s residence, and resolved to form a national writers organisation as an assembly of established and aspirant writers with the view to develop, promote, share and disseminate literature and their literary works among themselves and the general public in South Africa and beyond. The newly established institution, called the National Writers Association of South Africa (NWASA), was to advocate for literature, advance and defend the rights and interest of writers and work towards the development of the quality of writing, readership, publishing and distribution of literature.
Having deliberately chosen to convene the meeting on 25 May – celebrated across the continent as the Africa Day which is the day the then Organisation of African Unity, rebranded the African Union in 2002 in Durban (though South Africa still has to declare this day a public holiday) – was inspired by the duo’s unwavering commitment to pan-Africanism; particularly Maponya whose colleague and friend Nakedi Ribane recently commented in a tribute that his dashikis wardrobe was endowed enough to mount a week-long pan-African fashion week. So, it is thus no wonder that the newly launched organisation immediately affiliated to the Pan African Writers’ Association (PAWA) – an umbrella body for Africa’s national writers associations which is headquartered in Accra, Ghana.
Typical of Maishe Maponya’s selflessness, humility and his commitment to building capacity in others, he chose not to stand for any executive position although he strongly endorsed Chakela’s later nomination as the organisation’s founding president to carry out their vision. Perhaps the other reason he decided it was best for him to continue providing care to his comrade as he battled ill-health that he considered more severe than his. Yes, he was confident Chakela, an excellent administrator and visionary leader would be competent to steer the organisation into the direction they both charted and eloquently and convincingly communicated to all writers across South Africa’s political spectrum.
Although Maishe Maponya didn’t go into exile, this doyen of “theatre of resistance”, as he dubbed his theoretical framework, left an international footprint in the cultural landscape. As one of the foremost anti-apartheid voices in the country’s anti-apartheid cultural circles, in 1979 his play, “The Hungry Earth”, toured three European countries – namely, Germany, Britain and France – to great acclaim. He uncompromisingly declared his works were about conscientizing our people to rise against racial tyranny. His other plays, which were provocatively titled, include “The Cry” (1975), “Peace and Forgive” (1977), “Umongikazi: The Nurse” (19820, “Gangsters” (1984), “Dirty Work” (1984), “Changing the Silence” (1985), “Bušang Meropa” (1986), Jika (1988), and “The Coat” (1990). Maponya also introduced black experience from the diaspora by adapting and directing plays by other playwrights such as Trevor Rhone’s “Two Can Play” (1992), Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (1992) and “The Valley of the Blind” (1987) with V. Amani Waphtali.
Maishe Maponya has also published books and sound recordings on his plays. These include: “The Hungry Earth” (1981), “Gangsters: A One Act Three Man Play” (1986); “Gangsters and Dirty Work” (1985), “Azikho” (1991, Tusk) “Doing Plays for a Change” (1995), “This Land is My Witness: Poems on the State of the Nation” (2016) “Truth be Told: Da’s Kak in Die Land” (2018).
Maponya also won many accolades including the Standard Bank Young Artist’s Award (1985), Wesley Guild’s Best Diepkloof Poet Prize (1986), and the British Council Scholarship.
If South Africa was another country that honours its own exceptional citizens, with a colourful portfolio above, Maponya could have easily been accorded Emeritus professorship and/or a deserved Honorary Doctorate that is otherwise often doled to people with nothing seminal to their names. Actually, apart from being ignored for such honoris causa, and before his grave is showered with confetti prior to his burial, it should be recalled that Maisha Maponya frequented courts for over 12 years fighting against his dismissal in 2003 by his former city municipality employer. He eventually lost the case with legal costs ordered against him. Meanwhile, he was unable to secure new employment ever since; thus, living from mouth to hand.
Nevertheless, Maponya continued to impart knowledge to younger generations as an organic intellectual. It was a site to behold when on 12 March 2016, Maponya wheeled Chakela to a research atelier at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in order to take part in a panel discussion with the likes of Tony Kgoroge and Gita Pather. The seminar, convened and chaired by Nawa, culminated in a book, “Theatre in Transformation: Artistic Processes and Cultural Policy in South Africa” (edited by Wolfgang Schneider and Lebogang L Nawa, 2019), in which Maponya features in the chapter, “Taking meat to the knives” – Report of the panel discussion “Political Power of Theatre – Cultural Policy for Theatre in South Africa”. The seminar was attended by showbiz practitioners and scholars such as Mpho Molepo, Mandla Maseko, Khayalihle Gumede, Janine Lewis, Calvin Ratladi, Adrienne Sichel, Malcom Purkey, Henning Fülle, Rolf Hemke, Daniel Gad, Joachim Fiebach, Julius Heinicke, Yvette Hardie, Avril Joffe, Kenneth Chinyowa, Andile Xaba, and Patrick Ebewo.
Not shy of controversy, Maponya states unequivocally, in the book chapter about the seminar:
“I now want to talk about theatre today and policy. For me, the struggle has not ended. On Hindsight, we probably did not inherit a wrong status quo contrary to what was said earlier. The 1996 White Paper created a kind of status quo as a basis upon which we should now be going forward. We are supposed to have inherited that White Paper as the law for the Arts and culture in this country. Today, when politicians, for very simple reasons of convenience, decide that they don’t like that White Paper and yet have not really made an effort to ensure that some of the good things are kept within the Paper, they make sure that those things don’t exist. For example, the national, provincial and local government spheres don’t talk with each other in terms of arts and culture. The provincial arts councils are supposed to be set up but the national department sits back and say those things must happen by themselves…”
Maishe Maponya relentlessly continued to raise such unflinching views during the White paper Review roadshows and similar gatherings to which he was often accompanied by Chakela, and sometimes by Bongi Dhlomo, before Chakela’s ultimately death in May 2020. There is no gainsaying that Maponya would still be in the midst of eminent campaigns around the Charter of Rights for South African Artists as recently initiated by Mike Van Graan’s STAND Foundation. But death made sure that was not to be.
Fortunately, the playwright’s presence and legacy is immortalised by the University of South Africa (UNISA) when on 14 June 2018 Maponya donated to the institution for archiving his portfolio of private writings, publications, programmes, posters. This donation was preceded by the signing of an agreement a year earlier in 2017 in which Maponya gave permission for his plays to be digitised while he retained their copyrights. This was to ensure that Maponya’s works are easily accessible to national and international scholars for research purposes.
Despite his gigantic prowess as a prolific writer and scholar where he rubbed shoulders with his peers and dwarfed impostors alike, his community-oriented cultural activism was not compromised. Earlier in Soweto, he was involved with the likes of (to name but a few) Ingoapele Madingoane, Don Mattera, Motsumi Makhene, Matsemela Manaka, John Ledwaba, Makhulu Ledwaba, and Sello wa Loate in various prominent community- upliftment projects. Among these was through the Allah Poets, whose membership included the ever-green wordsmith Es’kia Mphahlele, as well as the Diepkloof’s Creative Youth Association which was instrumental in the formation of the Funda Community College and, more specifically, its curriculum philosophy. He also served as the Creative Workers Union of South Africa (CWUSA)’s General-Secretary, President of the Collecting Royalties Society, member of a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), CHISA (Children of South Africa) – a South African branch of CHIPAWO formed by the now Zimbabwe-based Robert Mshengu Kavanah (Robert Malcolm McLaren), founding member and leader of the Performing Arts Workers Equity (PAWE), and executive of the Johannesburg Southern Metropolitan Council’s Library, Arts and Culture Department. He was also involved in the African Research and educational Puppetry Programme (AREPP) and Theatre for Life Trust.
Indeed, right now as NWASA leaders, we raise our hands and touch the African sky – to borrow from Isaac Newton – because we’re standing on the broad shoulders of these giants who have departed our shores. We’re confident they are currently brewing a cultural storm in the realm above.
Let’s also take a moment to pay tribute to a galaxy of national and international cultural emissaries, too many to cite by name, who have transitioned to the hereafter recently and are to be joined by he whose clan totem is the Elephant. Raise your trunk like an trumpet, and let your huge feet thump loud to announce your arrival in the ethereal while the echo of welcome ululations, led by Chakela, reverberate in the memories of us the living you are leaving behind here to contend with the country’s political instability as well as the genocidal COVID-19 plaque.
Tsela Tshweu, Tlou!
Dr Lebogang Lance Nawa is the Secretary-General of the National Writers Asdociation of South Africa (NWASA). His latest book is a 589-page anthology, ‘Culture and Liberation in South Africa: From Colonialism to Post-Apartheid’.