Language is the greatest symbol of human diversity, culture and knowledge. Language is key to understanding who we are. many indigenous languages are at the risk of dying all around world. It becomes imperative to anyone in society; especially those who have access to big platforms to change things. This is futuristic and it is what one Motswana writer is doing.
I found him deftly seated under a lapa on a round cement bench with a laptop and a bottle of still water placed on a cement table at Wildebeeskuil Rock Art Centre in Kimberley. As I approached him, he stood up with a genuine smile on his face. The gentleman had extra bottled water for the interviewer. Perhaps an apology for having me meet him a little out of Kimberley; but I’m not complaining, the drive was well worth it. My foremost question to the writer was of course how his love for literature began. The storyteller painted a vivid picture of how he grew up in Taung in North West. Nothing much happens in the rural areas except going to school, doing homework, herding the cattle or playing street soccer.
Sabata-Mpho Mokae is a novelist, translator, former journalist and an academic. He was raised by his maternal grandparents, with few cousins is in the household. In those days, as may still be the case today; employment was scarce.
Parents had to leave their homes and find employment, the kids often left behind to be taken care of by their grandparents or a relatives. Emblematic of a rural household supper was not eaten in the main house but outside, in the rondavel. “We used to sit in a circle, around a fire and have supper as a family. And our grandparents told us all kinds of stories about their life experiences” he relates.
With a twinkle in the eye, he was comparable to a child remembering how granny used to spoil him with candy. It was almost impossible for the writer to hide the enjoyment of speaking about his childhood and grandparents. The young Mokae found himself drawn to the history of his country and captivated by the elder’s gaudy, vivid storytelling abilities, the knowledge they possessed about their country.
The young Mokae found himself drawn to the history of his country …
In the 1950s, his grandmother lived in Sophiatown and worked as a domestic worker in suburban areas in the western side of Joburg. Sophiatown was also known as Kofifi or Sof’town is recognised for its rich black culture, the political mayhem that the communities endured under the apartheid regime and its eventual destruction by the government. Mokae heard all about the protests, raids, poverty, and the violence. He was also told about how the residents celebrated life by dressing up and going to discos where they indulged in dance and music – the blues and jazz – even though they were living at the most abysmal time of apartheid.
His grandfather was born in Lesotho and raised in Free State. He was also a great story-teller with vivid memories of his experiences of the political turmoil in Lesotho and the happenings that took place while working at the goldmines of Welkom in Free State.
As the youngest of the children, Mokae found himself the only child left at home as time went by. One day he stumbled upon a book, a novel No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe. He suspects the book belonged to his mother who was an educator and was the one who would most likely own a book. The inquisitive boy begin to read this book. He was awed by the writer’s clear, brilliant and simple way of telling stories. Amazed at how he could see the story unfolding in front of his eyes, how the characters and the happenings in the book became so real and life-like. The idea of storytelling through writing became an attractive venture that early. Reading became fun and it eased the boredom. Before long he started writing his own stories.
At the age of 18, once he completed his final year in high school, Mokae set off from his homestead to study further. During this time he started an online publication with friends called www.joni.com. The platform generally focused on arts, literature and culture. He subsequently started writing book reviews for Mail & Guardian and later wrote articles about the arts for Sunday Independent, Rootz Magazine and The Weekender. Confident and assured that writing is what he wanted to do, leaving his job at the department was an effortless resolution. His career as a journalist was taking off quite swiftly, decorating the pages of various publications with his with brilliant insights. He contributed opinion writing to Y Magazine while also being a resident book reviewer on various radio stations such as Motsweding FM and Kaya FM which he did in his native language Setswana.
Mokae learned about Solomon Thekisho Plaatje like any other child in school, the legendary literary icon never left his mind. While freelancing he decided to do feature stories on the well-known Kimberley journalist. Later he wrote a story about the contested legacy of Sol Plaatje for Sunday Independent. “I wanted to investigate how the literary icon’s legacy was being safeguarded and preserved. When I got back to Johannesburg I had the idea that I could do more work on Plaatje” he remembers. This led Mokae to travel to Kimberley, where he met the relatives of his subject and Johan Cronje who was the director of the Sol Plaatje Museum. At the time the museum had funding for research projects and this gave him the opportunity to write and update the Plaatje family tree.
Realising that all the biographies of Plaatje were somewhat not accessible to an everyday person, he decided to write one, a journey he describes as “remarkable”. The biography; The Life of Solomon T Plaatje, was published in 2010 by the Plaatje Educational Trust. Mokae was invited to a lecture in Kimberley while he was writing this biography. At the same lecture, he had the luck of meeting and talking to Deputy President of South Africa, Kgalema Motlanthe who also delivered a lecture at the Civic Centre and unveiled the Sol Plaatje Monument. Deputy President had a casual chat with Mokae and asked him to keep in touch.
He wondered about how an ordinary citizen can keep in touch with a member of cabinet until when he had completed writing the biography and he needed a Foreword. Mokae sent an email to the Deputy President’s office requesting him to write a Foreword for Sol Plaatje’s biography. Mokae received a quick response from the office and the Foreword was granted. Mokae was later invited to the Deputy President’s house and had a profound conversation with Motlanthe about politics, history and art. Mokae describes Motlanthe as knowledgeable and dignified.
Sol Plaatje had a huge impact on Mokae’s literary career, his exceptional writing style and how he advocated for black people and the pride he took in his culture and native language.
He fought for the dignity and decolonisation of Africans. Mhudi was Sol Plaatje’s first fictional work and ‘first English novel by a black South African’. Mokae describes this book as contemporary, exceptional and inspiring. “In a world where women have taken back their identity and patriarchy plagues society. Mhudi did something phenomenal for that time and now. As a protagonist Mhudi is a strong female character who takes the bull by its horns – much like today’s women; who are brave, take up space and become what they were otherwise not allowed to be” says Mokae with conviction. The author says that it is important that women see themselves as equal and capable citizens.
Mokae has since become an active and respected academic and intellectual of intense rigour and important work. Mokae and fellow scholar of Plaatje, UK-based Prof Brian Willan are currently co-editing a two-volume book; Letters of Sol Plaatje – a collection of essays from various proficient writers and scholars of Plaatje and his work. The essays collection is scheduled to debut in June 2020. They two academics will also debut a collection of essays to celebrate the centenary anniversary of Mhudi. The centenary book will include work from writers such as Zakes Mda, Chris Thurman, Antjie Krog and many others.
“It is a great honour for me to work with Prof Brian Wilan, who has dedicated over 40 years researching Solomon Plaatje and his life. Brian has worked with me as a fellow, scholar not as a pupil or understudy” says Mokae. He wishes that other older scholars could have same kind of perception and understanding when working with other scholars.
Mokae is currently writing fourth Setswana novel, with a working title: Mmu Le Lefatshe a novel that takes place in the wake of the 1913 Native Land Act; much in the spirit of Sol Plaatje.
Subsequent to writing the Plaatje biography, Mokae became weekly columnist at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley. On Monday’s, the DFA reported on breaking news which often had stories of murder, rape and other violent activities that took place over the weekend, where alcohol and other substances would be involved. This painted a picture of how violent the province was. The writer took it upon himself not to add on to the grim realities of the Northern Cape communities. He decided to write something that will entertain. He knew the importance of feature stories as they offered the lighter side of life. His column Corner Bin, contained humor, fiction and light-hearted stories. The name of the column emanated from the location of the DFA paper; corner of Bin Street in the Central Business District in Kimberley. The central of Corner Bin was Kanakotsame; a local teacher with a romantic relationship with a female learner at his school; who he also impregnated her. As a result he was suspended from his job. Even though he was flawed in some ways, this was a much-loved character in the local community of Kimberley. He was a grand, kind and stylish teacher. The characters met at Parks’ Tarven. A legendary pub where adults used to meet to chat, watch the soccer games, shake to the cadence of the music and have a beer or two to get rid of the scorching heat of Kimberley. This pub was known for its strict policy on attire and well behaviour, something Kanakotsame epitomised through his eccentric personality. Corner Bin was heavily influenced by the writer’s upbringing – richly depicting the contemporary black culture of the township.
One could also argue that Mokae’s column was somewhat also influenced by the old Drum Magazine and its old canon of heavyweight writers whose work brought all the stories that he used to hear from his grandparents to life. Writers such as Can Themba, Todd Matshikiza, Es’kia Mphahlele, Henry Nxumalo to mention a few influenced his writing and he admired; not just for their exceptional writing but for their compelling periodic stories too.
Drum Magazine became a vital platform for a new generation of journalists in South Africa and transformed the way black people were represented in society; by giving them dignity, and pride. Drum celebrated black people even through the racial discrimination, poverty and violence; perhaps in some cases to a point of romanticisation. They wrote about phenomenal people of Sophiatown and other townships with panache and reverence; reflecting culture, their love for jazz, blues, mbaqanga, theatre, films, fashion and all manner of sophistication. Mokae even recalled the stories his grandparents used to tell him and those stories came to live again through Drum.
Mokae wrote Corner Bin for four years amusing and entertaining readers. Eventually, Kanakotsame was published – as a collection of articles, in 2012. To elucidate his versatility, Mokae also released a poetry collection Escaping Trauma, this after contributing to a poetry anthology; We Are (2005) edited and curated by Natalia Molebatsi. Sabata-Mpho Mokae has also translated Gcina Mhlope’s two children’s books; from English to Setswana, Dinaane tsa Aforika (Tales of Africa) and Semaka Sa Dinaane (Our Story Magic).
Mokae’s foray into writing had only begun. In 2012, he wrote Ga ke Modisa (Geko) published by Geko Publishing – a small black-owned press based in Johannesburg. Mokae is grateful that Geko – a small, independent press took a risk with this book; and as posterity would have it, this launched Mokae into the world of fiction and his name was cast in stone. Ga ke Modisa went on to win the M-Net Literary Award for Best Novel in Setswana as well as the M-Net Film Award in 2013. It was the last time that the M-Net Literary Awards were awarded. His star was on the rise. Ga ke Modisa became something of a canon and had cult following among Setswana readers. It is prescribed at the University of North West and the Central University of Technology in the Free State.
Mokae is known for being a true proponent of indigenous languages to the extent that he took a decision to write fiction; exclusively in Setswana.
The native language activist writes in Setswana because it is the opposite of what apartheid had intended for Africans.
“African languages were not official languages during apartheid. An attempt to culturally confuse black people by making them forget what makes them who they are” he said. According to Mokae, language cannot be separated from culture as culture is tied to people’s pride and identity. “Africans have been made to think that there is nothing of value in their language, culture and what they look like; thus black people aspired to look different, speak different” adds. “It is a pity that South Africa as a multi-lingual country, it is largely English-speaking, this causes Africans to conform because we believe that there is something wrong and incomplete about us.”
Efforts are currently underway to translate Ga ke Modisa into IsiZulu and into English by Dr Lesego Malepe in Boston, Massachusetts in USA. It was because of this book that in 2014 Mokae got accepted into a prestigious writing residency at the University of Iowa in USA.
He was later awarded an Honorary Fellowship in Writing at the University. Ga ke Modisa is a story about two brothers Otsile and Thebe Modiri who are caught in a love triangle love with the beautiful girl, Nandi. When the lady finally chooses the one she loves, tension between the brothers soars as the other is unable to accept defeat.
While at University of Iowa, he began his draft of his latest novel Moletlo Wa Manong (Xarra) released in 2018. “It took me four years to complete, and six rewrites over that period of time to complete” says the novelist. One can say the patience and perseverance clearly paid off. The book; acts like sequel to Ga ke Modisa, continues the journey of a local skilful journalist, Otsile Mothibi in the city of Kimberley who investigates corruption in government with tragic results. The book is contemporaneous and it brings politics, conspiracies and realties of state capture to our languages and closer to our local audiences.
“Language is a way of seeing, it is a way of knowing and interpreting life and the world around us”
Moletlo wa Manong is currently prescribed at the Northern West University and is subject of an Master’s Degree thesis at the same university. The book was dedicated to another literary icon who was born in Kimberley, Aggrey Klaaste. A journalist who was born in Kimberly and came to be known as one of the greatest journalist in the continent, the father of the ambitious “nation building” project which aimed to see a unified South Africa, free from racial discrimination.
Moletlo wa Manong has received a great deal of recognition, further earning Mokae a second SALA award in 2019; for best Setswana novel. In his acceptance speech he wrote: “One day I took a decision to stop writing in English and did the unthinkable. I wrote my first novel in Setswana, the language suckled from my mother’s breasts. It was a moment of sheer madness. I tasted freedom and I never looked back. I think what encouraged me to carry on was the appreciation from the speakers of Setswana but also the idea that one could create art in an African language in Africa and be mainstream.”
In this SALA acceptance speech, Mokae paid tribute to the generation of young Setswana musical artists who made motswako music popular and the Setswana language “fashionable” – artists such as HHP, Tuks Senganga, Mo Molemi and Kuli Chana among others.
The writer joined the Sol Plaatje University (SPU) in 2014 as a creative writing lecturer. The SPU is currently the only university in South Africa that offers creative writing in Setswana. A platform he is grateful for, as he gets to be part of the mid-wifery process of a generation of African writers who will continue to produce literature in African languages. His students wrote a stage play as part of a class assignment which later participated at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in 2019. Another student – Sisca Julius – went to win the K&L Prize for African Literature in 2019, for a short story which was also a class assignment. “I always check my student’s scripts twice and give them thorough feedback, he says. The lecturer is evidently doing a proficient job mentoring and managing the talent at the University.
The Sol Plaatje Literary Festival was Mokae’s brain child. The festival was established in the year 2009 in partnership with the North West University and the Department of Arts and Culture (DSAC). He is also the current curator of the Northern Cape Writers Festival (NCWF) – now in its 14th year. “It is a platform that gives writers, readers and the community to engage, create awareness and to form networks. It is a national festival and a rare opportunity for developing writers of this province to interact with established writers from the rest of the country and from abroad” Mokae added.
NCWF is an initiative of the Northern Cape (DSAC) in collaboration with SPU. Mokae is reading for a doctorate; in African Languages. His study is the work of the indefatigable Kabelo Duncan Kgatea. “Rre Kgatea is one of the most important Setswana authors of the post-apartheid era. He is prolific, sharp with the language and he is relentless. he has written at least 16 radio dramas, 6 novels and many poems. There is no writer of Setswana fiction; alive today who has produce this amount of work. He is truly exceptional.”
It is not surprising that Mokae ends the interview this way – by praising a fellow author of his language. He is a geniune supporter of others and an appreciator of those that advance Setswana and other African languages in the face of the onslaught of English. Mokae is working on one of the biggest challenges in his writing life – translating Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter. This book is so different from everything that many of us have encountered and it is challenging on so many levels – its original language (Olof), religion, culture and so much more.
“But I enjoy a good challenge” Mokae closed the interview.
We cannot wait for another Setswana gem, from this prolific recorder of our society’s shenanigans.