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Look back to live forward

An invitation to reimagine our work and lives was extended by Mbe Mbhele in his article Artists must strive to reimagine ways of portraying and inhabiting ikasi. The brother correctly diagnoses the problem that it is “impossible for us to think of the township as capable of existing and recreating itself outside of the boundaries of its formation”. But can it be?

Let’s start with Mbhele’s introduction to the township. Like a racist GPS screaming, “You’re entering a hotspot zone”, Mbhele reminds us of the truth of what the township is and the feeble reading of reality by its cultural connoisseurs. Of course, no one can dispute the “cold truth that the township is nothing short of concentration camp”.

That much we agree about. But I’d like to address the diagnosis that we are inhibited from reimagining new ways of seeing and understanding our lives and that the prognosis is not stretching our imagination to the world of the beyond. Once more, we agree on this. Then why am I writing this article if I agree with the message of Mbhele’s article?

Let me invite you into my head. Dr Motsoko Pheko teaches us that life is lived forward, but can only be understood backwards.

In the 1970s, an insurrection against Kentesian-style plays, melodrama and escapists works ensued, led by Black Consciousness commentators. S’ketch, Staffrider, Black Review and Drum magazines, festivals and performances were contested platforms for ideas about arts representation and what art is meant to do. So intense the discourse was that it affected the creative process — hence in 1973 we experienced a different Gibson Kente with his plays How Long and Too Late.

So great was this bipolar of Sikalo and Requiem for Brother X that it covered Mbhele’s “reimagination and stretching of our imagination”, as imaginations were re-, de- and stretched to try to understand the black body — especially after conceptual zenith of Ipi Ntombi, Dinaka and King Kong. Even in the Black Arts Movement, a precursor to Black Consciousness cultural groups, these conversations played out. Amiri Baraka, for instance, speaks at length about the Negro Theatre pimp.

Really, the point is that this discourse took place in so many different ways with different conclusions and recommendations. Writer Zakes Mda picks up on it. The early 2000s, with the advent of Yizo Yizo and Gaz’lam, the conversation was had with parents worrying about positive imaging for the youth. I mean, Huey Newton is quoted as saying, “I do not expect white media to create positive black male images.” So, the entire article really, more so in the paragraph about Kabelo Kungwane’s work, is a classic repetition of black history.

The new thing in this article is Mbhele’s introduction of his new book Umshanyelooo Umshanyelo Bakhoziii. I know this because he is my friend, nice one Chisel or Shizil — we have not really decided. The one conclusion I can draw is that Mbhele is a casualty of South African society, where we are ardent about reproducing what was there before and thinking it’s new. We see it in the political scene, with the repetition of concepts of the 1960s, FeesMustFall protesters regurgitating decolonial discourse and famous Biko scholars engaging in quoting Biko and Fanon but not knowing how to take that thinking forward. This is why we never really progress.

My jab at Mbhele is: true as your article may be, does it help us reimagine and stretch our imagination in this discourse? As it stands, we need to look backwards to understand it. But maybe society has not looked backwards enough to live forward, so it might be a deliberate choice.

Lehlohonolo Peega is the founder of Music Is Joy School and a director of Level Up Live Music Sessions

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