If only I could make you see me.” These words belong to Maakomele “Mac” Manaka, son of playwright, poet, painter, sculptor and drummer Matsemela Manaka. They are the last words of his poem If Only, from his anthology of poetry by the same title.
Initially the book was supposed to be called On My Father’s Grave. But the title was changed because the anthology also contained accolades to his mother, dancer and choreographer Nomsa Kupi Manaka. More than anything, though, the book is a window on Manaka’s world.
Manaka wrote the poems when he was between the ages of 15 and 19, a time when his experience was already markedly different from other youths. At 12 Manaka was involved in a near fatal accident: a wall fell on him, damaging his lower spine. Today he has rods in his back and has to walk on crutches. But in the course of his recovery his mother used dance therapy to get his legs moving again. “One of the most memorable times in my life was seeing Maakomele take his first steps out of the wheelchair,” she says, “Now this book reminds me of that moment.”
Manaka believes the accident was in fact a blessing in disguise and that his misfortune has strengthened him. Nevertheless he has expressed his frustrations through his poems.
He writes about how he spent most of his time as a child in hospital wards instead of playing. How he would be late for class because his legs could not keep up.
There are also observations of growing up in Soweto: “My pops told me that a writer starts at home among community people.”
Most importantly, he writes about how he is enslaved by the scrutinising stares of pity. And his pleading expresses the hope that people would see beyond his exterior.
And there is more to Manaka than meets the eye. At 21 he has taken a break from his BA in creative writing to concentrate on his slam poetry. He has already shared the stage with the likes of Mutabaruka, Sarah Jones, Ursula Rucker, Stacey Anchin and Saul Williams.
Manaka’s performances, like his poetry, are an extension of his experience — in fact his first performance was at a tribute to his father in Switzerland in 1998. It is experiences such as these that have moved him to believe that “I see my father’s passing as a transition of [handing] his talents to me.”
Today Manaka belongs to a group called Soul to Mouth. They perform regularly at the Horror Café in Newtown or at Cool Runnings in Melville. As a youngster he says it is important that he works to bring about change: “Many of us have been diluted by the Western way of life — our perception is based on what the media is pumping into our homes. As a poet it is my mission to free us from illusions.”
Of course, the 10 years of democracy celebrations occupy a central place in Manaka’s life given that he was invited to perform at the post-inauguration celebration in Pretoria. But he feels that the nation still has a long way to to go before it achieves its goals. Change through the realisation of goals will be the real liberation.
Quoting his poem No One But Us, he says, “Ten years from now I don’t want to see myself as a struggling writer, juggling words to provide for a family. So change and expansion are my biggest priorities, while I emancipate myself from mental slavery, coz no one but us will free us.”
Manaka is also an artist, he was responsible for the cover of his book, and is adapting his father’s play Goree into a movie script.
In his poetic manner Manaka says, “I’m not only a poet. I’m a prisoner to the arts, convicted by the stars. My drawings and paintings are as metaphorical as my poems.”