Chirping classes: Fighting for freedom in Mokoena’s blood

Actor Fana Mokoena's decision to join the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has been met with the customary response for artists who wade into politics: What business does an ­artist have in politics?

When I posed the question, perhaps 40 minutes into the interview, Mokoena, like a coiled snake, lashed out in fury.

"It enhances it [art]. For me, it's not about being a politician. I'm not doing this because I want to be a politician. I want to fix things. And why should I be excluded from politics solely because of my profession?"

Mokoena joins a list of artists who have decided to make a difference by going into politics.

In 1969, American writer Norman Mailer ran for mayor of New York. He lost. In 1967, Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo joined the Biafran cause, and was killed a few months later. Rapper Wyclef Jean tried to run for Haitian president in 2010. He was disqualified on a technicality.

Mokoena insists that his new role as an emissary for the party in Gauteng is part of his identity.

"The fact that theatre is dying, or was dying at some point, had to do with the fact that we were scheming over things, putting on a smile… I had to make this statement because, for me, the EFF gets to the heart of issues. It's not just about the EFF; in my personal and professional capacity, I try to get to the heart of issues."

If you are one of the more than 45 000 who follow him on Twitter, you will have noticed that, more often than not, he addresses the most pressing issues of the day. Twitter is not just a tool to promote his brand. He posts thoughts, explodes mantras, and argues and engages on topics as varied as politics, religion and gender.

"Eradication of poverty will take decisions by government, business and society. Food parcels are not the answer," he tweeted this week.

Joining the EFF wasn't an unscripted, impromptu act. Mokoena underwent a lot of soul-searching, because he realised: "I'd be crucified forever, but I don't care." He was forged in the smithy of the era when people didn't give a damn, when a detour into politics wasn't a get-rich-quick scheme, but "about trying to do the right thing".

The actor recalled that, while studying at the University of Cape Town, he and his friends would engage in outrageous acts, such as going to a beach reserved for white people.

But it wasn't just a case of doing pranks that an amiable cop would dismiss with a strongly worded warning. Some of the actions bordered on the treasonous.

One day, he got into a car driven by a militant who had promised to get him into the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe. They drove from Cape Town to the border with Swaziland before the venture exploded into farce as their contact didn't pitch because he had been arrested.

"We took those risks because we understood that there was a greater cause."

Mokoena came of age in Soweto in the "turbulent" 1980s, the years of strikes and states of emergency, Caspirs and Buffels. It was a period that marked and scarred him, he said. "It shaped my perspective on life."

The actor was born in Kroonstad, a Free State town, where he developed a love for theatre through the penal system.

"What Kroonstad was famous for then was its prison," Mokoena said. Every year, the prisoners erected a podium on which they staged all manner of performances, from musicals to tragedies.

"I watched these things religiously, to the point that when my uncle asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, 'a prisoner'. Apart from television and watching Michael Jackson, that was my way into [acting]. You had these glimpses of what the world could be.

"Coming to Jo'burg was a big thing because we had access to all these things.

"This space," Mokoena said, his open palm swivelling to take in the Market Theatre complex, "was a huge political [arena] for theatre. There were your John Ledwabas, your township ­theatre types, Sophiatown theatre, your Sello ka Maake Ncubes. These guys were my icons. I would steal time from school to come and watch them."

Because of the frequent violent eruptions in Soweto that made uninterrupted education impossible, his parents placed him in the former Woodmead School, a nonracial school in the north of Johannesburg.

"I'd never interacted with white people at that level. I was [an] extremely militant [follower of] black consciousness."

The school, which evoked a now- vanished pastoral ethos, had a river running through it and the institution, unsurprisingly, had no uniform. It gestured to an idyll that apartheid's theoreticians had by then trashed into a blood-soaked abyss.

"It was a completely new world. That place changed my understanding of myself. There was no place in the country like that."

It wasn't just the nonracial ethos of the school that made it attractive, but its curriculum.

In the 1980s, the school introduced drama and art as subjects. Boasting Muthal Naidoo, a writer with a PhD on its staff, the school was more than equal to the changes in curriculum. Naidoo soon noticed Mokoena's natural facility for theatre and cast him in her play, Khayalethu, which was staged at the Laager Theatre, a space at the Market Theatre complex.

When he left for tertiary education at the University of Cape Town, it was another woman, theatre lecturer Elizabeth Mills, who recognised his talent.

And when he was stuck in Durban, as a member of the Loft Theatre Company while studying for his masters at the then University of Natal, it was yet another woman, director Lara Foot, who hooked him up with her agent, resulting in roles in productions such as The Line, a controversial three-part series that tackled the politics of the day, and Yizo Yizo, a cult television drama series.

Mokoena has also appeared in the films Hotel Rwanda, State of Violence and, more recently, World War Z.

"My mission is to try and create a successful film industry for the previously disadvantaged," Mokoena said about his attempts to create more film and theatre opportunities and spaces in smaller cities.

Even though Mokoena is part of the EFF, you get the sense that he is really a cultural freedom fighter – or perhaps a cultured freedom fighter.

Fana Mokoena is in James Ngcobo's ­Nongogo, which is at the Market Theatre until November 3. Follow him on Twitter.

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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