Cape Town Poet And Playwright Koleka Putuma Is Not Afraid Of Awkward Silences

Sabelo Mkhabela catches up with rising Cape Town poet and playwright Koleka Putuma at TEDxStellenbosch.

Koleka Putuma between rehearsals, tea and chats at TEDxStellenbosch (Photo: Andiswa Mkosi)

“I saw the best minds of my generation tearing pages out of Paradise Lost to wipe their asses when they ran out of kak papier. Sticky taping colonial statues with black bags,” recites Cape Town poet Koleka Putuma to a mostly white audience in Stellenbosch, Cape Town.

Putuma, clad in a short white dress with slits on either side, is the closing act for TedxStellenbosch. Her poem, Dear Allen, references the Rhodes Must Fall movement that fought to take down the Cecil Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town.

There are a few soul claps from the audience, clicks encouraging her along as, syllable after syllable, she infects the whole room with awkwardness. The performance is met with empty applause—no cheers or laughter. That poem, she later tells me, she performed the day the Rhodes statue at UCT fell. “It’s a weird thing to get the applause when you get these stares that are not really sure where this is going,” she says to the crowd.

A few laughs crackle through the hall. “Relax, it’s gonna be okay,” she assures the audience. “Poems are a way of having a conversation with people. And I believe there are a lot of conversations that still need to be had. TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] didn’t do it. They thought they did it but they didn’t.”

Koleka during rehearsals with Poet Roche Kester before the last run of their play, 'Man and Alchemy,' which Koleka directed at the Theatre Arts Admin Collective. (Photo: Andiswa Mkosi)

The poet, playwright and director has only been in the industry two years and she is already kicking major ass. Two months after graduating from the University of Cape Town with a BA in Theatre and Performance, Putuma was nominated as best young director at the Fleur Du Cap Theatre Awards. She was the champion at the first Slam For Your Life and UHM—an award-winning play she directed was picked up by the prestigious Artscape Theater Centre. She is currently in an 8-month residency at Cape Town’s Magnet theatre, where she directs productions for children.

“When all these things happen, I’m like, ‘Hey God, am I gonna die young?’,” jokes Putuma a few hours before her performance. We are sitting together in the foyer of the Spier conference center. The birdsong is audible above the hum of the river, just a few metres away from where we sit just like in the Swazi love stories I grew up to. My friend and photographer Andiswa Mkosi’s camera clicks and whirs.

Stellenbosch was mired in controversy after the release of the documentary Luister, shot by four UCT students documenting the perennial issue of racial segregation at Stellenbosch University. The institution teaches mostly in Afrikaans—a language often associated with apartheid. The university has long been known for systematically excluding black students who usually don’t speak Afrikaans.

The film documents the stories of black Stellenbosch students who have experienced racism in the university. Writer Panashe Chigumadzi of “Why I call myself a coconut to claim my place in post-apartheid South Africa” speech fame pulled out of TedxStellenbosch. She suggested that, in her place, members of the Open Stellenbosch movement–a student body aimed at transforming the institution—make a presentation on the issue highlighted by Luister.

Putuma also thought of pulling out of the talk. “I agree with Panashe’s sentiments,” she says. “If I could show you my whatsapp, guy; I consulted a lot of people on whether to pull out or not. And a lot of people were like, ‘What is your intention, what do you want, if you pull out why would you be pulling out?’ And then I ended up arriving at [the decision to use] the platform to say some shit.”

As she prepares for her performance, I ask her how she feels. “I’m nervous and I don’t care at the same time,” she says. “Half of the audience are going to feel like they are being attacked but I don’t give a shit.”

Koleka performing at TEDxStellenbosch (Photo: Andiswa Mkosi)

A lot of Putuma’s work touches on race. “Blackness—the lives of black people,” she says, “our thoughts and our feelings. How we navigate our lives in the midst of whiteness.” In “Water,” one of the three pieces she is performing at TEDxStellenbosch, she creates a dichotomy between black people and white people using each race’s relationship with the ocean.

Putuma is obsessed with the afterlife. “I have a huge obsession with death,” she admits. “If you’re raised Christian, you are raised to focus on living for the afterlife, not living for the earthly things. Even though my Christianity has been morphed into something else, that has kind of stuck with me.” She tells me about her new play, M’buzeni, that’s opening in March 2015 at Artscape. “It’s about four girl orphans who’re obsessed with playing burials at the graveyard,” she says. “It’s a funny dark piece that I couldn’t have done on my own.”

“As a young black theatre practitioner,” says Putuma, “I’m tired of, when I go to the theatre, seeing black female bodies on stage being beaten, being whipped, being dragged by the hair from one end of the floor to the other or in maids’ clothes scrubbing the floors.” She’s not dismissing the importance of such stories, she says. She believes there are more stories to be told about black people.

Before retreating behind a shrub to rehearse, Putuma shares with me how she became part of Lingua Franca—a spoken word movement from the Cape Town township of Delft. Lingua Franca consists of five band members and five poets. The poets write in Xhosa, Sotho and English. “It’s been running for three years and only starting to take off now,” she says. “We have a show running at Artscape that got picked up for the second time, it started running last year. So this is our second professional show.”

After her performance, Putuma tells me that one of the organizers told her that the audience wasn’t pleased with her performance. One lady is “upset about the last speaker” and is going to draft an email to the organizers “after processing what she has just witnessed.”

“So you’re gonna do a Ted Talk in the context where there’s something called Luister and you not gonna want to talk about it?” exclaims Putuma. She scoffs, “Were they also expecting Panashe to come here and sing ‘Kumbaya’?”

The following day, Putuma published a post on her blog about the response she got at the event. The post generated many comments about the uncomfortable issue of race in post-apartheid South Africa.

I ask Putuma a few weeks after the event if any of the complaints by the audience have been attended to, to which she responds: “None of the complaints were attended to according to my knowledge. The wrath that did follow however, was on my blog. I had posted a reflection on the event and attached my poem ‘Water’ at the end of it. That generated a lot of conversation and hate mail, both on the blog and in my personal mail spaces.” The videos for TedxStellenbosch still haven’t hit YouTube yet. “I have yet to find out if the video will be deemed legal or eligible to be released,” says Putuma. “Either way, my work or intention regarding the TEDxStellies platform was accomplished.”

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Here are 10 Recent Books from Black South African Women Writers That You Need to Read

These 10 books have both shifted and unearthed new narratives within South Africa's literary world.

A few years ago, we celebrated the eight most influential Black South African women writers during Women's Month. The list featured the likes of Miriam Tlali, the first Black woman to publish a novel during Apartheid, Sweet Medicine author Panashe Chigumadzi and beloved poet Lebogang Mashile. We now bring you our selection of ten literary gems by various Black South African women writers which have shifted and even unearthed new narratives in the South African body of literature.

This list is in no particular order.

​"Collective Amnesia" by Koleka Putuma, published 2017

It is unprecedented for a poetry book in South Africa to go into a ninth print run and yet, Collective Amnesia has managed to do just that. The collection of poems, which compellingly explores religion, womanhood, Blackness, queerness, traditionalism, trauma and everything in between, has also been translated into Danish, German and Spanish. The winner of the 2018 Luschei Prize for African Poetry, Collective Amnesia has also been adopted as reading material for students at various institutions of higher learning across the country. It is a truly phenomenal and unrivalled first work by Putuma.

"The Ones with Purpose" by Nozizwe Cynthia Jele, published 2018

Jele's book centers themes of loss, grief and trauma. After the main character's (Fikile) sister dies from breast cancer, it is now up to her to ensure that certain rituals are performed before the burial. The Ones with Purpose highlights a lot of what Black people refer to as "drama" following the death of a loved ones. It highlights how often Black people are often not given the opportunity to simply grieve their loss but must instead attend to family politics and fights over property and rights. It also speaks to how, despite the rift that loss inevitably brings to Black families especially, togetherness also results because of it.

"These Bones Will Rise Again" by Panashe Chigumadzi, published 2018

Drawing from Audre Lord's concept of a biomythography in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name as well as Alice Walker's essay In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Chigumadzi's These Bones Will Rise Again explores the history of Zimbabwe's spirit medium and liberation fighter Mbuya Nehanda during the Chimurenga, Zimbabwe pre- and post-colonization and the Mugabe-regime. The book also pays homage to her late grandmother. Chigumadzi's commitment to retelling lost narratives in Zimbabwe's complex history is a radical act in itself in a world that seeks to tell the country's stories through a lens that centers any and everyone else except Zimbabweans.

"Reclaiming the Soil: A Black Girl's Struggle to Find Her African Self" by Rosie Motene, published 2018

Just as Matlwa's debut novel Coconut explores the cultural confusion and identity crises that result in Black children raised in a White world, so too does Motene's book. In contrast, however, Reclaiming the Soil: A Black Girl's Struggle to Find Her African Self is instead a non-fictional and biographical account set during Apartheid South Africa. As a young Black girl, Motene is taken in by the Jewish family her mother works for. And while she is exposed to more opportunities than she would have had she remained with her Black parents, hers is a story of tremendous sacrifice and learning to rediscover herself in a world not meant for her.

"Period Pain" by Kopano Matlwa, published 2017

Matlwa's third novel Period Pain honestly pulls apart the late Nelson Mandela's idea of a rainbow nation and non-racialism. Through the central character Masechaba, the reader is shown the reality of a country still stuck in the clenches of racism and inequality. Xenophobia, crime and the literal death sentence that is the public health system are all issues Matlwa explores in the novel. It's both a visceral account of the country from the vantage point of a Black person without the privileges and comforts of a White person as well as a heartfelt story about how even the most broken continue to survive. It's the story of almost every Black person in South Africa and that that story is even told to begin with, and told honestly, is important.

"Always Another Country" by Sisonke Msimang, published 2017

Msimang's memoir details her political awakening while abroad as well as her return to a South Africa on the cusp of democracy. Hers is not an ordinary account of Apartheid South Africa and its aftermath but rather a window into yet another side—the lives of South Africans living in exile and more so, what happens when they eventually return home. Admittedly, it's an honest account of class and privilege. Msimang describes the tight-knit sense of community built between families who were in exile and acknowledges that many of them came back to South Africa with an education—something of which South Africans living in the country were systematically deprived. It is an important addition to the multitude of stories of Apartheid-era South Africa, the transition into democracy and the birth of the so-called "born-free" generation.

"Khwezi: The Story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo" by Redi Tlhabi, published 2017

Redi Tlhabi's second non-fiction work tells the story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, the woman who accused then President Jacob Zuma of rape back in 2005. "Khwezi" as she became known throughout the very public trial, was a symbol of the many women subjected to the abuse of men in positions of power. Similarly, she was treated as women like her are so often treated—ostracized by the community and forced to leave and start anew elsewhere. Tlhabi's account of Khwezi's life was a courageous one and one that tries to obtain justice despite the court's decisions. Although Khwezi died in October 2016, her memory continues to live on in the hearts of many South African women who refuse to be silenced by the dominant patriarchal structure. For that alone, this work is tremendously important.

"Intruders" by Mohale Mashigo, published 2018

When one thinks of African literature, stories of migration, colonization, loss, trauma, culture and traditions usually come to the fore. As a result, Afrofuturism or speculative fiction is a genre that is often sidelined and the stories therein left untold. Intruders is a collection of short stories by Mohale Mashigo that unearths these stories in a refreshing manner. From mermaids in Soweto, werewolves falling in love with vampires and a woman killing a man with her high-heeled shoes, Mashigo centers the proverbial "nobody" and pushes against the narrative that Africans can only tell certain kinds of stories but not others.

"Miss Behave" by Malebo Sephodi, published 2017

There is a reason why Sephodi's Miss Behave has resonated so strongly among women across the board. Drawing inspiration from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's adage that "well-behaved women seldom make history", Miss Behave documents Sephodi's journey to smashing the stereotypes peddled by society in its relentless prescriptions of what women can and cannot be; can and cannot do. Naturally, she's labeled a "misbehaving" woman and hence the title of the book. Sephodi also explores themes of identity and gender issues while allowing women the opportunity to take charge of their own identities despite societal expectations. A book that wants women to discover their bad-ass selves and exercise agency over their lives? A must read.

"Rape: A South African Nightmare" by Professor Pumla Gqola, published 2015

This book is both brilliant in the way it unpacks the complex relationship that South Africa has with rape and distressing in the way this relationship is seen to unfold in reality. Rape is a scourge that South Africa has not been able to escape for years and the crisis only seems to be worsening. Written almost four years ago, Prof Gqola's profound analysis of rape and rape culture as well as autonomy, entitlement and consent is still as relevant today as it was back then—both a literary feat and a tragedy. There can be no single answer to why South Africa is and remains the rape capital of the world, but Rape: A South African Nightmare is by far one of the best attempts thus far.

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Koleka Putuma's New Poem Speaks to South Africa's Femicide Crisis

'This country buries us before we are born. Calls us by our obituaries before it calls us by our names,' writes Putuma.

South Africa has a long history of femicide and gender-based violence. However, over the past few months, this seeming war against the country's women has surged with numerous young women being abducted, raped and subsequently found dead—if found at all. Last month, South African women marched to both the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) in Sandton and the Parliament buildings in Cape Town in protest of the rising violence against women and children. Against that backdrop, award-winning South African poet and author of Collective Amnesia, Koleka Putuma, has recently penned an unsettling poem entitled "Every Three Hours" which details the nightmare that women in the country are faced with on a daily basis.

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The artist's highly-anticipated sophomore album features Burna Boy, Koffee and more.

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The 13-track album features the likes of Burna Boy, who joins the artist on the upbeat track "Play Play," as well as buzzing Jamaican artist Koffee who appears on the track "Repeat," one of the album's clear standouts.

It also features a new artist by the name of iceè tgm on three tracks. Some fans have speculated that the mysterious artist is J Hus' sister. The album includes the previously released single 'Must Be,' which he dropped in November of last year.

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