Passing the Baton from Matsemele to Maakumele

Address by Dr Reuel J. Khoza (Chairman of Nedbank Group Limited, Aka Capital)  I  20 June 2014

Matsemela Manaka was born in Alexandra, a black township, virtually contiguous to Sandton, just North of Johannesburg, on 20 June 1956 – FIFTY EIGHT years ago. This iconic multitalented artist died tragically in a car accident on the 25th of July 1998. That pernicious car accident cut off a mighty stream of culture, creativity, conscientization and artistry flowing in eloquent torrents in Africa’s direction.

Matsemela used to admonish us against mourning death and exhorted us to celebrate death, particularly the death of those who left a commendable legacy.  In response to that exhortation today we celebrate Matsemela, a great artist snuffed in artistic full flight.

In Xitsonga we say Ku veleka I kutitshambuluta. Zulu equivalent Ukuzala ukuzelula. Procreation is a sublime form of self-extension. Today we celebrate both Matsemela and Maakumele – it is a special kind of sublimation – sublimation of the quintessentially artistical kind. Chronologically, logically and naturally, it behoves us to start remembering and commemorating Matsemela, and by extension/sublimation move on to applaud the chip off the old block, Maakumela.

I speak of Matsemela as someone who worked with him as a corporate promotional adjunct, raising sponsorships for him as his multiplicity of talents blossomed:  First and foremost a playwright, then as set designer, musician, essayist, painter / visual artist, sculptor and critic.

As an artist with a keen sense of history, Matsemela was highly sensitive to the negative impact of European civilisation on African culture and sense of dignity.  In Egoli – City of Gold, he perceived Johannesburg as “the place where our people have lost a sense of their culture”. The theme of Goré laments the barbarism of the slave trade and the unhealthy dichotomy between South Africa and the rest of Africa. Matsemela was consumed by the desire for African social reconstruction.

In his work he undertook to reconstruct what apartheid had devastated: the cultural identity of black South Africans. He dedicated himself to revitalising African tradition in the contemporary urban and urbanising context and to help rediscover South Africans roots in the culture and history of Africa. His ideals were inspired and influenced by Black consciousness and this philosophy initially permeated his plays. As he matured he embraced the more profound and comprehensive philosophy of pan-Africanism and sought to relate his work in both substance and context not just to South Africa but to the continent as a whole, in fact even extending to the African diaspora.

Eskial Mphahlele was prolific in writing about and extoling the virtues of the African Personality, Matsemela Manaka was a formidable exponent of the enhancement of African cultural identity as a weapon to neutralise centuries long western domination. Theatre, poetry and prose were his arsenal.

Matsemela was a protest artist and much, much more. Politically he related his theatre work to the struggle for liberation in a much wider sense; involving and applying theatre in rural self-help projects as with Siza, in literary campaigns through Koma, in arts training and development as with Domba and in the rediscovery of African culture and tradition as with Blues Africa Café and Ekhaya. He covered an expansive theatrical gamut from the theatre of the dispossessed to theatre for social reconstruction.

Matsemela was also a visionary artist. In 1987 he produced his play Toro – the African Dream, described as “the search for self through a cultural collage of drama, dance, music, mime and poetry. Inter alias, this play surfaced one of the acerbic and divisive debates about who contributed more to the struggle for liberation:  exiles or ensiles?  Which continues to plague South African till this day.

Heeding constructive criticism, Manaka revamped Toro. With increased forces and a pared-down story-line, the play incorporated more music and, varied dance in a great celebration of the dream of African independence. The play was particularly extoled for the rendition of the ostrich dance by Matsemela’s wife, Nomsa.

Matsemela rubbed shoulders with some of South Africa’s greatest artists.  Increasing international discourse on apartheid led in 1986 to an invitation to attend a symposium in Dakar (Senegal) together with Breyten Breytenbach, Miriam Tladi, Miriam Makeba, Johnny Clegg, and others. Around that time, Manaka directed Caiphus Semenya’s play, Buwa. The opportunity to direct such eminent musicians as Hugh Masikela and Jonas Gwangwa (who wrote the music for the film Cry Freedom) was a major milestone in Matsemela’s artistic journey.

The range of Matsemela’s work up to 1991 consisted of some FIFTEEN plays and performances. These were, chronically: The Horn; Egoli – City of Gold; Imbumba; Blues Africa; Vuka, Pula; Children of Asazi; Domba – The Last Dance; Siza; Musium Over Soweto; Koma; Toro – The African Dream; Gore; Blues Africa Café; and Ekhaya. On average, then, over the 1997 – 1991 period Matsemela wrote and generally staged– one play per year. Concurrently he wrote poetry; some of his early work was published in Staffrider, but much has remained unpublished.

Matsemela’s contribution to the Visual Arts is captured in Echoes of African Art, a compilation of visual art images spanning over a century. The work was described by Eskia Mphahle as “… a delightfully informative gallery of African art by South African practitioners”. 

It was Manaka’s fervent wish that “after liberation our theatre shall celebrate our life and remain an integral part of our culture of the new day. The dedication of his seminal play Ekhaya summed up is sense of what he perceived as the challenges ahead:

Come sing the uhuru blues
at home
Come dance the aluta dance
at home
Come repaint our home
the damaged canvas
Come rewrite our history
at home
Come resculpt the country
before dawn
Come fight for all the dreams
to melt into one flag
the uhuru flag

As for the apple that fell close to the tree, Maakumele, the acorn that is fast growing into a massive oak, I invite you to immerse yourselves into his phenomenal work:

If Only
In Time

Poetry troves that bespeak sublime creativity, compelling imagination and a magnificent spirit of triumph over adversity.  Today also marks Maakumele Manaka’s debut into the visual arts. I invite you to survey and visually feast.

The baton has been passed on, from Matsemela to Maakumele.

Bo Manaka re a le lotšha
Batho ba Batho
Batho ba Botho
Batho ba Setho
Batho ba Setšo
Babetha-kgomo lenaka
Thobela! Pula!