TRIBUTE

Maishe Maponya: Pioneering poet, playwright and undimmed activist 

By Andile Xaba 2 August 2021

Maishe Maponya died after a long battle with cancer. (Photo: Thom Pierce)

Maishe Maponya passed away last week. This is a tribute to an incredible poet, playwright and human rights activist.

Andile Xaba

Andile Xaba is a lecturer at Unisa, in the department of Theory of Literature. He is a doctoral candidate, with a research focus on Soweto playwrights. He has also worked as an arts writer and as a chief director of communications at the national department of Arts and Culture.

Academic and popular commentaries on Maishe Maponya’s plays often state that they possess anger against apartheid. That his plays of the 1980s are a bitter testimonial of the atrocities perpetrated against black people. Of course, the man was more than the sum of his creative output: he had an enquiring mind that kept him socially engaged in South African arts, culture and politics; he was generous as a family man, colleague and friend; he was humble and did not trumpet his achievements as a playwright, and he always put those with whom he was interacting at ease. He was the same man with his peers as he was with his students at Wits University. 

Maishe Maponya died after a long battle with cancer. (Photo: Thom Pierce)

Maishe Maponya (1951 -2021) was born in Alexandra township, but his family was forcibly relocated to Diepkloof, Soweto in 1961. He grew to become a world-renowned playwright, poet, actor, director and lecturer. In the 1970s, he became interested in poetry through which he met Matsemela Manaka, who became a lifelong friend. 

Both were part of the Allah Poets in the mid-1970s, when they forged an artistic path to resist the effects of apartheid on the youth. As young people, they embraced Black Consciousness, channelling their emotions towards self-awareness, and emphasising the need to develop their intellectual capabilities and creativity as a means of self-actualisation. In fact, the idea that a young man, or a young woman, could look at themselves in the mirror and say, “I am black, I am a human being, I have an intellect and this is my country,” was revolutionary. 

Living in South Africa in the 1970s, the most potent tool of resistance the youth had was their ability to think about the oppressive circumstances and then to go about changing these conditions. Composed of Ingoapele Madingoane (a poet), Manaka (a playwright),  Makhulu Ledwaba (a unionist), and Maponya (a playwright), the Allah Poets pledged their commitment to Pan-Africanism. However, while Maponya was committed to the principles of Black Consciousness, he was suspicious of party politics and never joined a political organisation. 

In 1990, at the funeral of the Pan Africanist Congress Leader Zeph Mothopeng, the Allah Poets reunited and intoned this poem:

We sing of the whirlwind 

That washed its appetite

Against gaping wounds

Poisoned by leprous decades 

We sing of the march

The March to be

The march to shout

Not to pray

Not to mourn

The march to demand our freedom

To be free again

And as we sing we march!

Therefore, Maponya chose to celebrate the heritage of black people primarily through the creative use of the spoken and written words. He was the founder member of Bahumutsi Theatre Company (1973 – 1983). Thinking of the police harassment of township residents during the 1970s and the 1980s, it is easy to forget that there was a lot of creativity in Soweto.  

Maponya lived in Diepkloof and as a young man, he used the resources available to him to be creative and not be despondent. The group saw themselves as “The Comforters,” and demonstrated that arts involve the community of all African peoples and that African philosophies were the best antidote to colonialism and apartheid. 

Thank goodness he persevered in his art, as there is a sizeable legacy of 13 plays that he has left behind. 

The 1970s were a productive time for him, his plays The Cry (1975) and Peace and Forgive (1977) started him on his journey of highlighting social injustice, but more importantly on articulating the idea that black people, as a society, should combine their efforts to fight injustice. In these plays, he showcased his admiration for expressive African culture, in the words, the dance, music and cultural practices of South Africa’s multitude of cultures. 

Of all his creative output in the 1970s, The Hungry Earth (1979) was the highlight. During that time, apartheid’s racial hierarchies blatantly conspired to exploit black people and see them as mere tools in white-controlled capitalist industry. The gold mines deprived black people of their dignity and made it impossible for Africans to enjoy family life, along with other human rights infringements. 

The play illustrated the effects of apartheid to South Africa and the world, as it was performed in Soweto, Johannesburg, then West Germany, Britain and America. At that time, black people’s lives were seen as disposable, but the play illustrated the resilience of black people in how they came together to resist oppression. Maponya was part of the generation that originated the notion of theatre as a form of resistance in South Africa: using one’s intellect and engaging in creative endeavour was in itself reclaiming one’s humanity and dignity as a black person.

One of the highlights of his work in the 1980s is the play Umongikazi – ‘The Nurse’ (1983), which examined the undermining of black nurses and doctors by their white counterparts in the health sector. The play was not only an indictment of how anti-black thinking had warped the thinking of privileged members of society, but it was also humorous because, even in their confronting of injustice, black people were not represented in a one-dimensional way.

Maponya’s plays also created an opportunity for other actors to establish their careers in South Africa. For example, Gcina Mhlophe originated the role of the enormous Umongikazi, who was later played by Thoko Nthsinga. 

Perhaps the most enduring of his plays were Dirty Work and Gangsters (1984). In particular, Gangsters repositioned the moral argument offered by the apartheid government. At that time, the government told the international community that South Africa allowed for the “separate development of all racial groups”. In answer, the play simply exposed the regime as gangsters. Yes, the play was inspired by the tragic death of Steve Biko while he was in police custody by the apartheid government. But the play was also poetic, musical and intensely dramatic and showcased Maponya’s gifts for capturing the essence of our collective lives. It presented the potency and urgency that has made Black Consciousness an enduring philosophy in the development of black people. In 1985, Maponya was awarded the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for drama.

Maponya was a lecturer in drama at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he published a collection of his plays titled Doing Plays for a Change (1995).  His other publications include two poetry collections, This Land Is My Witness (2016) and Da’s Kak in die Land (2018). 

A number of plays in the 1980s used faeces as a metaphor to dramatise the deleterious effects of apartheid legislation on blacks. Protesting the tragic death of Michael Komape, a child who fell into a pit latrine and died in 2014, Maponya registered the marginalisation of vulnerable communities under South Africa’s democracy. These poetry collections were also an artistic culmination of his preoccupations in the 2000s. 

He was part of the Save South Africa civic movement, which was organised to challenge political malfeasance so prevalent under the Jacob Zuma presidency.

Maponya elected to be an activist through his artistic output, an attitude to the arts that has seen him continue his activism long past the end of legislative apartheid in 1994. He was the founder member of the Performing Arts Workers’ Equity, a lobby group for artists’ rights in South Africa. Although he served as the director of arts in the Johannesburg city council between 2001 and 2003, his ideas proved too radical for the confines of government. 

Nevertheless, he continued to interrogate the role of the artist in democratic South Africa and was acutely aware of the pitfalls that can happen when artists become complacent in deference to political office-bearers and general officialdom. A few years ago he told me that “the biggest danger and threat to democracy is the absence of criticism”. His view was that to be an artist was not to be a passive observer, especially when your community and society needs you to point out the wrongs.

Perusing his archive, it is apparent that he had a keen awareness of history. It is also apparent that he made friendships across the spectrum of the South African arts fraternity. It is impossible to account for all his contacts, in fact, even the list of the members of Allah Poets above is provisional as the group encompassed many other poets and musicians. 

Perhaps reflecting on his own mortality and the importance for Africans to memorialise their experiences, he wrote:

Recapturing ourselves

In the rubble of facades

Every piece a victory

We’ll have to create

A monument of pieces

Every calendar day a monument

Every monument a victory

Every loss a victory

Triumphant sacrifice

For we alone could afford another loss

We alone possess the ancestral touch

To turn every loss into a victory (Monuments/Bhambatha 1991/97)

Lastly, in 2017, I was honoured when he agreed to be part of the South African Drama and Theatre Heritage project, which is based at Unisa. He donated his entire collection of original scripts, correspondence, posters, theatre programmes, photographs, press clippings and related materials. As a man with foresight, he had kept a meticulous record of artistic output. The material is now preserved at the Unisa Archives. DM/MC

Andile Xaba is a lecturer at Unisa, in the department of Theory of Literature. He is a doctoral candidate, with a research focus on Soweto playwrights. He has also worked as an arts writer and as a chief director of communications at the national department of Arts and Culture.

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