In Conversation: Lebogang Mashile (Part 1)
Armed with a sharp intellect and a fierce sense of social exploration through her creativity, Leboganag Mashile is a poet’s poet. She has won the respect of critics, her contemporaries and the hearts of ordinary South Africans. In her own words, she explains why South Africa is intrinsic to her birth as a poet.
Belinda: When did you first discover your passion for the spoken word, poetry and the artistic expression of it?
Lebo: I first discovered my passion for poetry when I was about 20/21, about nine or ten years ago when I was studying Law at university, my BA in undergraduate Law and International relations and realised that I didn’t want to be a lawyer, I didn’t want to be a diplomat and didn’t know what I wanted to do. Through friends, just looking for entertainment, I stumbled across the underground music and art scene and the poetry scene, which I had never seen anything like that before. at the time, it was made up of so many different elements, there was the life element, which was music and hip-hop and spoke word and the first time I saw a poet on stage, I thought my God this is incredible. I didn’t think people could do that and I fell absolutely in love e and I have always loved literature, I have kept a journal since childhood and I think my first understanding of spoken word was not people standing up and saying poetry, it’s not that this was loaded. I thought that people were just standing up, opening their journals and saying who they are in the world, which is something that I had never done before and when I did it, I realised that this is what I have to do. I felt compelled to continue doing it. I felt a sense of purpose and passion that I had never felt before in my life.
Belinda: What is it about the medium of poetry that makes it the best way to get to the human soul?
Lebo: It is immediate, it does not have a lot of barriers to access, all you need is a pen and paper and a platform and there you go. And it’s the text of the soul. It is the real language of the human experience that everybody can identify with and I think right now, we are in a place in humanity where, especially in the Western world, everything is like post, post-industrial, post-feminine, post- democracy, post, post, post. Hyper-technology, hyper-media, you know, everything is big and beyond and there is a sense of isolation and individualism and poetry, the spoken word is the original form of communication and the real original art form and people are going back to that as a way of connecting to each other and to themselves.
Belinda: You are a presenter, performer, producer and you do different things, which of these roles tales that mantle above all else where your career and defining what you do is concerned?
Lebo: Definitely, my artistic identity as a poet. That’s the chord that runs through all of them, whatever projects I chose to take on and whatever space in the media that they take ion, it must first and foremost inspire me as a writer and as a poet.
Belinda: In terms of your background, you lived in the US and you grew up there, how did that influence your life? And then going back to South Africa, did you feel like an outsider, looking back in and looking into the new South African society?
Lebo: Absolutely, I felt like an insider outsider my while life living in America and living in South Africa but I think the difference is that in South Africa, there is a political and a cultural context to my story. In the time that I was born, in the US, they were thousands of South African kids being born around the world for different reasons but ultimately, because of apartheid. I think growing up in America as a black person allowed me to understand that there are currents that run through the black experience. There is universally, whether you are Afro-Caribbean, Afro-British or Afro-American or Latino, black people have experienced, slavery, isolation, dislocation and dispossession and it wasn’t just an isolated South African experience or an isolated Africa American experience. It is what has happened to black people universally and the reason why the universe put me there is because it was a good preparation for South Africa. South Africa is a lot like America in so many ways. We are arrogant the same way America is arrogant, we kind of wield our power on the continent the same way America wields its power and influence in the world. so having a foot in both of these worlds has enabled me to see that about my country and I think it also allowed me to inject that insight into the conversation that we have because we tend to think, because South Africa was isolated for so long, we tend to think that our issues are just our issues are just ours. So, we have this big and wonderful thing to give to the rest of the world and the continent needs us, which is true and isn’t true because we must make our contributions with humility. And growing up in these arrogant societies has forced me to see that.
Belinda: You are described as a born free, what do those words mean to you because I always think that we are all born free and it is the world and system that we are born into that puts us into shackles. What do those words mean to you, to be born free as a South African person?
Lebo: Wow, being born free in South Africa means that I do not know what it’s like to be oppressed by apartheid. I don’t know what it’s like to not have freedom of speech, freedom of expression and movement. It means I don’t know what it’s like to not have my inhibitions and personality curtailed by any other outside forces. This is the lens through which, the new generation of South Africans, very idealistically, this is the lens through which we see the world or that wee should see the world. And in many ways, it is a blessing and a burden because everyone is placing their hope on this generation, you know. The born free, you know, these kids, they don’t see race, they don’t see colour and all these divisions that the older generation sees but the reality is we have inherited the baggage as a legacy. We have inherited the baggage of the history of South Africa as a direct of legacy through our parents, the people around us, through the unequal economy and unequal gender relationships we see in our society. But the burden of fixing of fixing all of that rest squarely on our shoulder because presumable, we see the world through a new lens, so it’s kind of a blessing but it’s also kind of a curse and in many ways, I am aware of the fact that it sinks or swims with us. If we cannot come up with a new vision for the society, who is going to do it? Our parents are reeling from the psychological and emotional trauma that the old system placed upon them and I think we have also another kind of trauma and pain that has been distilled through their experience but we also have a fresh new, way of looking at things and is unburdened by the lived experience of apartheid which is a privilege but that privilege comes with enormous expectations.
Belinda: And of course, you were born while your parents were in exile and were freedom fighters?
Lebo: My parents left while they were students, my dad left in 1968 after his A’ levels and he wanted to study engineering and there was no opportunity to do that in the country at any of the institutions in the country that were designated for black people. My mother was more of an activist and she left in 1977. My parents met in the US. My mother was part of the 1076 generation, the generation that really got swallowed up by the uprisings, I am sure you have heard of the Soweto uprising, the June 166 uprising. My mu was a university student at that time and literarily, school stopped in the whole country after those uprisings. They started in Soweto and spiralled into other parts of the country. For about a year, she didn’t go to school and she was part of the student unions and that put her in a dangerous position. So she left for the US to go study Law and like many people, they ended up in a situation where they could not come back for a while. Growing up in South Africa, my parents made sure that we had a deep understanding of what was going on in South Africa. I was privileged and when my mother left for school, my mother left in 1977, my parents met in 1978 and I was born in 1979, so everything happened quick for her and she was doing a masters when I was born. So, she sent me to South Africa, to stay with my grand-parents in Soweto. So, in my formative years, I was able to soak up South Africa and get language and get some good experience of the country for me. But by enlarge; the bulk of my childhood was spent in the US. So, my parents really tried to make sure we understood what was going on and explaining the context in which we were in America. I mean, Regan was saying the ANC were a bunch of terrorist, Thatcher was saying the ANC are a bunch of terrorist, so, we were in this society that was telling us one thing and my parents had to make sure that they were telling us things that counteracted those kind of messages. That was the relationship that I had with the education in America, everything that I learnt about black history, through pop-culture and what the school was trying to give me was always counteracted by the messages that I was given in the house. My parents told us that we are not slaves, and that that is not what you come from. That is not the end and be-all of the black culture; you come from a place, from a culture and have a language, you come from a rich heritage that was interrupted and you still have it. In many ways, that was protection for us. In a way, I think that they had to be risk in order to raise self-respecting confident children in America, kind of by default; you have to be an activist just as a parent.
Belinda: In what ways has your upbringing in America, especially the fact that you were told one thing at school and at home, your parents are giving you information to deflate what’s been told out there, how has that influenced your work today?
Lebo: There are many aspects of my life in America that shape my work today and the lens through which I see the world as a poet. My parents were very good at giving us the political context while we were there. They were very good at filtering the information that we were reading in newspapers and very good at diffusing the lies that were being told about South Africa in the news and all that. But what they could never articulate to us was that they could not express to us how sore it was to be in America in the 80s under Regan, they could not articulate it. There they were and how uncertain they were about their future. I remember at some point in the late 80s during the state of emergency and my dad saying we might die here and he said it in such a way that it was heart wrenching and that made and forced me to realise that my life existed in two worlds and at that moment, I became conscious of the fact of how it had always been. The way that they raised us to question popular culture, questions the media, question the system of education made me naturally inquisitive and naturally sceptical of the hierarchy and hegemony of western culture, white supremacy, patriarchy, it made me very aware as a black woman and an African woman that I live in a world where the system of power is meant to annihilate me and that I have to question it and fight it and that has definitely shaped my world view and its shaped the intention that runs through my writing and I am very conscious of the fact that as a black woman, I am writing myself into history, I am writing myself into that absence that has always been there and I am telling a story the world has not heard before because they silenced it and they marginalised it and pushed it away because it is too scary and I am ware of the fact that even though the voice of black woman is not new but I am aware that as far as mainstream media and mainstream literature is concerned, the voice of the Africa Woman is a very, very new thing and we are threading on this new soil and landscape and I walk that journey armed with the strength that comes from my legacy but also carrying very much the knowledge that I have got to walk this path and open it up to others and that it is my job and the purpose of my life.
Belinda: When you first went to South Africa 14 years ago with your parents, no matter how connected you feel to your place of birth, when you have been away that long, there is always a disconnection, how long did it take you as a family to immerse yourself back into the fabric of the South African society?
Lebo: That is a profound question. My dad was 19 and when he left and my mother was 21. So in their minds, their mental picture of South Africa even though they were keeping up with things on the news, the literature and constantly talking to our relatives at home but their mental and emotional picture of South Africa in their heart was of a 19 year old and 21 year old but the country had moved on. So, when we came back in 1995, my parents had divorced and that was the huge change. I was 16 years old and just got my licence in the US and was 2 years away from finishing high school. The last thing I wanted was to be uprooted and moved back to Africa. I was not interested in that. But my mother had become a single parent and wanted to be close to her family and also wanted to be part of a society that had opened up because they never thought that they would see that in their lifetime. So coming back, we became part of the community known as the returnees; that was what they called this wave of exiles that came back into the country. There was a huge divide as to what people referred to ‘inxiles,’ – those who stayed in the country and those who left, exiles. There are many divides in South Africa – they are diverse groups but there are also many conscious divides, the divide between black and white, male and female, rich and poor and the ‘inxiles’ and exiles is just one kind of divide. I had to very quickly accept the fact that I am South African but, I think that has been pretty consistent with the identity that I have always occupied. My story has its roots in South Africa. My identity has its roots in South Africa but my identity also belongs to the world and growing up in America has given me a head space and a way of seeing the world which allows me to travel with a sense of authority. As much I feel like a foreigner in Britain, I don’t feel like I don’t have the right to be here. And I think for a lot of people who grew up in South Africa, during the oppressed, the idea of moving beyond those physical, mental barriers is a huge, huge, huge thing. You have to work on yourself to be able to make that shift and for me it is an elemental part of my reality. I was very fortunate because when I got back, my sister and I went to a school where there were kids from different background, rich, poor, those who grew up in London and some kids grew up in Soweto. So there was a nice mix of different people and it really prepared me for the mix that the country was going to become. I think coming back at the age I went back, was a blessing because I was old enough to have taken a lot from America and the country was still young enough for me to have a real experiences of South Africa imprinted on me as teenager and young person in South Africa. I feel like I came back at a time when the country was still finding itself and South Africa was inventing itself and I was also inventing myself as a South African with a real experience not just the kind of rose glass through which my family saw the country but my own experience of the country and I think we have mirrored each other. As I flesh out my identity as a writer and as an artist, I have this wonderful mirror of this country that is trying to do the same thing and we dialogue with each other that way.
Belinda: Let’s talk about the first generation, now, when you look at the struggles that your parents went through and when you look at us, the first-generation, the born free generation, who seem to do is buy and buy, with a need to suppress the rejection and oppression that we have suffered for so long. , what do you see that just does not sit right with you?
Lebo: There are so many lessons that I think South Africa could learn from the rest of the continent in that regard because the rest of the continent was free much longer than us. So, there are lessons about freedom that we can take; lessons about identity, lessons about the acquisition of power, there are lessons about politics and how you wield power as a leader and about leadership we should be able to take from the rest of the continent. Whenever you see a situation where people have been deprived and I saw it with African-Americans, I see it here with Afro-British of Afro descent and Caribbean descent and I also see it in South Africa. Whenever you have been deprived and you have been told that who you are is shit, and that you have nothing to offer and that you are useless and worthless, the easiest way to medicate yourself is through the acquiring of wealth and worthiness and what the system tells you to have. Funny how, we fought so long for freedom, people fought so long for freedom, and fought for so long to have their own sense of identity and the second they get it, we want the same thing that the rich white people have because that is what they told us power is, that is what they have told us wealth is and that is what they have told us freedom is. So, right now in my country, my generation is massively materialistic and we are the bigger, better, bolder generation and we want everything now and we want the shinning, the bling, the dropping, we want the expensive, we want it today, tomorrow and the day after that and even some more and it has a lot to do with the fact that when South Africa emerged in 1994, the Soviet Union had collapsed, the Communist Empire had collapsed and there was nothing to counteract the hegemony of Western Capitalism on a global scale and America was a super power and South Africa emerged at a time when mass media was bigger than it had ever been and the forces of marketing and advertising and consumerism were bigger than they had ever been and South Africa was a fertile and ripe market and there was nothing to counteract the kind of consumerism that came into the country. It’s a known fact in the world of advertising and the consumer fact in South Africa – that black women path with their money faster than anyone else. They have even put a category for us. In this new emerging black market, we are called black diamonds because we will spend more money than anyone else. We are faster to take credit than anyone else. We don’t plan for our future, we don’t save, and we don’t invest. All the income we have is disposable income. We go out there and we want things. So, everybody is attacking us. You open a magazine and you will see black people in adverts, the young black body is the face of wealth in the new South Africa. It is the face of achievement in the new South Africa. In some way, it is an achievement because 15 years ago, when you opened a magazine, it will be hard to find a black person in an advert. So in some way, it is good that we are finally seeing ourselves in mainstream media but what are we actually seeing? We are seeing the fact that now, our money maters and it is important for us to part with our monies and there are no filters. No one prepared us for the onslaught of consumerism. We didn’t dialogue about it. We didn’t use the media or even our political structures to dialogue about it. Now we are seeing the after effect of it. And it’s everybody. It’s our politicians, our young black professionals, young black business people and every body is sucked up in that.
To Be Continued
Lebo in headscarf: Hash Naidoo
Lebo in black dress: Carl Collison