‘BC is love, self-love and respect. It is a way of life’
The clicking sounds of a typewriter would always reassure Maakomele Manaka that his father was home. As a child, Mak, as Manaka is known, would also sit next to the late Matsemela Manaka: Black Consciousness activist, poet, drummer, painter and playwright as he painted.
His father gave him a paintbrush early on because he could see that his son had an innate interest in art of all kinds: “There was something about colour that captivated me. The same happened to me with literature. My father realised that his art had a magnetic effect on me and so he let me do what he did,” says Mak.
Matsemela Manaka was born in Alexandra, Johannesburg, in 1956. He grew to have a critical eye and a philosophy shaped by BC. Most of his life was spent in Soweto, however, where he attended primary and secondary school. Following the deaths of students during the 1976 uprising, some of Manaka’s close friends were arrested and tortured.
Only 20 years old when he was detained, Manaka was among the creative outburst of young people from Diepkloof who founded the Creative Youth Association (CYA), which was driven by BC ideology. Manaka would then found the legendary Soyikwa Institute of African Theatre company at the Funda Art Centre in the township in 1978.
It was during this dark period of our history that many in his generation left the country in pursuit of military training with liberation movements in exile. Peaceful demonstrations were no match for the apartheid regime.
But unlike those who went into exile, Manaka instead left Johannesburg for Pietersburg in Limpopo.
“My grandmother told me that something had changed in my father when he came back,” says Mak. “He came back a different man, with a bigger purpose.”
Limpopo was the fertile land where the seeds of his artistry were planted. There, away from the inferno streets of Johannesburg, Manaka wrote poems, plays, painted in oils, and made lithographs and woodcuts. He also composed and performed music. Upon his return to Diepkloof, he brought with him hundreds of lines of art that he was burning to publish through Ravan Press. But Manaka was not only to be published; he was to publish as well - and not just any rare volumes.
From 1979 to 1981, he was co-editor of Staffrider, the exceptional bi-monthly literary and cultural magazine that was to become one of South Africa’s most significant influences. Manaka, too, published his work in Staffrider, a word which was slang for the people who, without a choice, had to hang outside or cling to the roof of overcrowded apartheid trains.
Black people were not allowed to share coaches with white people at that time. Started by Mike Kirkwood and also edited by the beloved writer Chris van Wyk, the pioneering talent-seeker Mothobi Mutloatse and artist Kay Hassan, the anti-establishment Staffrider provided a space for mostly black writers, graphic artists and photographers.
Nadine Gordimer - who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991 - was comfortable with having her work appear in its pages alongside aspiring writers, many of whom would later become names with significant literary presence. Manaka’s own body of work included short stories, graphics and photographs from southern Africa.
But he didn’t stop at the printed word and image. He also wrote and staged plays alongside his wife, Nomsa Kupi Manaka, who was a choreographer and actress. “My mother still teaches dance to your children,” says Mak.
It was, however, his father’s political plays, written throughout the 1970s and 1980s that became renowned for the articulation of the conditions under which black people lived. He went straight for the jugular of apartheid South Africa.
Manaka’s play Egoli: City of Gold spoke of the dehumanising work on the mines, and the men who left their homes to live in single-sex hostels. Banned by the apartheid government in 1980, the play was well received in Germany where Manaka was invited to take it to the Erlangen Festival. Other Manaka plays which have entered the hallowed literary halls include Vuka (1982), Children of Asazi (1984) and Goree (1989).
“My father used to say making art is more than just a final product. It is some form of a ritual, a spiritual obsession. Art is an integral part of a people’s culture,” said Mak. “It bears witness to a people’s myths and beliefs. Art is meant to articulate the social, agricultural, political, economic, cultural conditions of our people.”
Now also a poet and writer, Mak’s lineage has woven its creativity into his blood. Born in 1983, Mak’s parents didn’t wait long to introduce him to the arts: “My parents took me to the theatre when I was 18 months old. I grew up knowing art to be life and that my parents produced art for social transformation, as was the norm with BCM-ideologised cultural workers and organisations.”
Mak remembers how his family would go to the Funda Centre every weekend, and it became a place where he spent most of his younger days. And it wasn’t only Mak. Funda was a haven for township children, who went there to learn dance, fine art, music, and how to write poetry and plays.
“My father had invested all of his being in the arts. He preached that it teaches you discipline and opens your mind to a world of opportunities. He loved nothing more than sharing the beauty of art with others.
“We came home one afternoon and found children sitting in our backyard. They had paintbrushes in their hands, and sheets with brushstrokes lay in front of them. My dad had brought the Funda Centre home.
“My grandmother said my father was a special child and that he didn’t want to be born into this world because he knew the hell our people were living in at that time.”
When Manaka was in his mother’s womb, he moved closer to her spine. As a result, says Mak, “when my father was born, he was frail. He grew up with a frail physique, poor eyesight and a squeaky voice. But my grandmother always knew her son would grow up to fulfil his purpose in life”.
And so he did. It was in winter 1998 when Manaka died in a car accident at the age of 42. Mak was only 15 years old.
“My father once told me that you need courage to be an artist. You will say things that people will not agree with.”
Yet Mak also needed to find considerable courage inside himself to deal with his father’s sudden death. Fortunately, a year before his father’s passing, Mak started writing poetry. This was two years after a near-fatal accident in which he was involved when a wall collapsed on him and his friends. There were six of them, and one died.
The accident left Mak in a wheelchair for a year and a half.
He started performing on the anniversary of his father’s death, debuting in Lugano, Switzerland, at a tribute to Manaka. Mak has since performed his poetry around the world and maintains that art finds its solace in people’s hearts when it is produced for social transformation.
“There has always been BC in our literature, even before the era was so named. BC is love, self-love and respect. It is a way of life. I now understand what my parents did and stood for. I’m putting that in my art. If people look down on art, I feel like they are looking down on my family.
“Art captures people’s memories. During the BCM era, people were mobilised through art because nothing is more eternal. Art tells our stories, informs us on where we come from and who we are.
“I don’t think my dad would have become the man we all know if it wasn’t for my mother. But the more I understand myself, the more I understand the man he was. Not only as an artist, but as a child born of the flames.”
Of all the song, dance, painting, poetry and plays by Manaka, the best sensory experience remains that sound of the rapid clicks from his father’s typewriter. That sounded like home to him.
The Saturday Star