Credo Mutwa: Defying the sting of death

At the stroke of midnight, having given up hope of it ever showing up, Khulile Nxumalo’s poem that references Credo Mutwa, Blues Views Burnin’, delivers itself into my inbox. 

… it’s night now

just to gossip dark

credo mutwa’s four-room

burnin’ in ’76


A “Diepkloof sky poem”, as the author calls it, it recalls that moment in June 1976 when the

diepkloof sky began to tremble

says fears for credo mutwa’s grim

brim 

stampede

In 1976, after a series of misunderstandings about Mutwa’s decision to construct Ikhaya Lendaba (a cultural site built on council-owned land in Soweto) and his pre-emptive utterances about June 16, Mutwa’s house was burned down and his wife raped. For writer and filmmaker Nxumalo, Blues Views Burnin’ conjures childhood memories; hushed recollections scarred with the image of a derelict house that once harboured “umthakathi”, as Mutwa was derisively called.

The house, the “wizard” who once occupied it and his daughter (Nozipho, who now lives in it), were the subject of a documentary commissioned by the SABC called The House of Credo. Nxumalo is now working on a six-part documentary series that tells the story of Mutwa’s life. It is a project that, like the man whose spirit it seeks to raise, seemingly has neither beginning nor end, even as his mortal remains touch the ground to power up the next generation of daisies.

“Part of it looks at the notion of isanusi [master healer], and asks the question: how do you hand over isikhwama sakho [your gift],” Nxumalo says on the line from Diepkloof, on the afternoon of the day of Mutwa’s passing. “It covers an interesting issue for African knowledge systems. Is it the family line?  How does this knowledge get transferred into the future?”

This documentary, which is still in production, tends to answer its own questions. Mutwa’s progeny, biological and spiritual, are numerous — interacting with his colossal output of writing, artworks, living museums, theatre and philosophical utterings from every conceivable angle.

“The thing about writers is that writers don’t die,” says Mmatshilo Motsei on Newzroom Afrika’s Your View, on the evening of Mutwa’s passing. The former chairperson of the Credo Mutwa Foundation crushes the notion of his death under her heel, rescuing the concept of “ubuntu” from its washing line. 

“When you dig down to the meaning of ‘botho’, or ‘ubuntu’ and start focusing on the root, which is ‘ntu; ‘ntu’ is ‘moya’. ‘Moya [spirit/breath/life]’, that lives in us,” she says. It is the question of Mutwa’s intellectual property, though, that hangs in the balance. The rights to Indaba My Children reside in Scotland with Canongate, who are in a contractual relationship with a Jo’burg-based individual. On credomutwa.com, Mutwa laments having been too liberal with the rights to his canon, which left him with little financial gain from his intellectual property. 

“[An author of more than seven books], Ntate Mutwa died in the early hours of this [Wednesday] morning not owning his rights to any of his works,” Motsei says. “When I was the chairperson of the Credo Mutwa Foundation, there was a legal team [that placed some of his works under a family trust] … It’s something we need to be very serious about as a country. It’s our legacy. We can’t complain about what white people feed us when we don’t fight for what is ours.”

By centring creativity as “connected to the survival of the human race on this planet … to rebuild what was lost … ”, as Mutwa has characterised it, the highest honour that can be paid to him is familiarising oneself with his prodigious output in seemingly every area of human endeavour. 

Musician, poet and theatre director Kgafela oa Magogodi, who encountered the script to Mutwa’s play uNosilimela as an undergraduate in Professor Bheki Peterson’s African literature class at the University of the Witwatersrand years ago, remembers being affected by its expanse and gravity, but equally daunted by the eventual journey to its restaging at the Wits Theatre last year. The new staging was co-directed with Prince Lamla.

“It was in my head, but I didn’t have the guts to carry it. I needed to journey into myself and understand its creator. It was heavy. I took time to understand it more and more until I felt the time was right. “It draws from the wealth of the spirit world,” says oa Magogodi. 

“It’s an attempt to teach us about his experiences as a spiritual person and seer. It is forward-looking … , about a possibility of rapture that disrupts the colonial encounter.” 

Considering that it was written in the 1970s, just before the Witchcraft Suppression Act was renewed, “he would have had to, as a person of spiritual leaning, speak to that attempt to kill African spiritual practices”, says oa Mogogodi, before stressing that he was interested, primarily, in Mutwa as an artist.

“A lot has been emphasised about his spiritual side. But the more you understand the spiritual side, the more you see that the arts and the spiritual realm meet each other.” 

The further oa Magogodi studied to ready himself to stage uNosilimela, he found that in some stories Mutwa was “repeating and emphasising certain aspects. [The figure of the goddess] Kimamireva [the mother of uNosilimela], you find [it] in most of his texts, Indaba My ChildrenZulu Shaman. It would have been difficult to do the play without referencing his other texts. Working with actors, you do a script breakdown. Before they put it in their bodies they have to understand the philosophy of the man.”

This involved creating a circle of community around Mutwa’s oeuvre that connected spiritual gurus and family to expound on the ethos and the previous incarnation of the play. “We brought his daughter, Nozipho, into the place to talk about how he had staged it outside his house in Diepkloof, ” says oa Magogodi. “We also visited places where he had built sites, like in Mafikeng and took students to Ikhaya Lendaba.”

In every encounter resided a new  revelation, such as the discovery that uNosilimela had been scripted retrospectively, relying more on Mutwa’s memory and African storytelling techniques embedded in iintsomi. 

For Mkhulu Nsingiza, it was a quest for spiritual fulfilment and “getting some answers in as far as what happened in Africa before colonialisation”, that led him to the Mutwa, whom he regards as his spiritual father. “I wasn’t led by dreams or anything,” he says. “It was that quest. I saw him as the only person in possession of that knowledge.

“He was initiated in so many countries on the continent; throughout his initiations he was exposed to so much knowledge about Africa. He knew all the sacred sites of the continent, like the oldest stone calendar and the pyramids in Mpumalanga and the sacred sites in the south.” 

Nsingiza, who has championed some of Mutwa’s teachings through the Zindzi Mandela Foundation (of which he is the chief executive), says the ridicule Mutwa suffered professionally and socially and the neglect hands of the government has to do with the fact that most leaders are steeped only in “Western philosophy. The history of continent … they know nothing about what happened before we were colonised. Others, instead of admitting they have to relearn who they are, they saw him as an enemy who is taking away their stature.”This sentiment was echoed by Professor Pitika Ntuli, who also considered him a mentor, “The persecution stemmed from the fact that he was speaking on African essences, of knowing who we were. Some might have misinterpreted that to think he was supporting the Bantustans. Others, still, thought he was giving white people the secrets to our origins. Either way, it was misguided, misplaced and unlearned prejudice.”

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.
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