Arts activist

Scholar-Elect Siyabonga Njica talks about his PhD which will explore the role of exiled artists in South Africa’s liberation struggle.

My research aims to promote the teaching, learning and understanding of African people’s creative and intellectual contribution in their fight for freedom and social equality.

Siyabonga Njica

“Circumstances made me who I am.

Hands held high in a pleading beggars position,

Grieving, nonetheless believing that the privilege will someday listen

To the pledges of my people,

Please give them something to believe in...

Circumstances made me who I am.

Now rise above your circumstances.”

What is the role of artists in the struggle for social justice and liberation? Siyabonga Njica has always been interested in how oppressed peoples have historically reflected on the meaning of freedom – from the blues in black America to the work-songs of unskilled labourers in South Africa - and, more specifically, how the arts and culture became a premium nation-building tool that galvanised the international community against apartheid.

His PhD in History, which he begins in the autumn, will explore the role of exiled artists in South Africa’s liberation struggle. He says: “I am interested in reimagining how we think about South Africa’s recent past in order to reveal how exiled South African artists became key cultural players at the height of intellectual diasporic engagements between African, Caribbean and North American artists in the second half of the twentieth century. My research aims to promote the teaching, learning and understanding of African people’s creative and intellectual contribution in their fight for freedom and social equality.”

Siyabonga’s research interests link to his own arts activism. A well-known poet in South Africa, he has also been involved in student movements which are part of the ongoing response to the legacy of the apartheid system in South Africa. Siyabonga was born in 1994 in the township of Gugulethu in Cape Town - a black residential area that was established to accommodate migrant workers and families who were forcibly relocated from Cape Town’s inner city under the Group Areas Act during apartheid.

He is the eldest of three children, all of whom grew up without a father figure, and he feels the responsibility to be a good role model for them. Siyabonga was raised by his grandparents, mother and two aunts. His father was incarcerated when he was born and Siyabonga [2018] later moved in with him following his release in an effort to know him better. Three years later, however, his father died suddenly. Of his father’s influence on him, Siyabonga says: “My father is said to have had a remarkable mind. I remember how he was always curious and interested in my education. He would often ask that I read aloud to him. People say that I have inherited his thirst for knowledge.”

Siyabonga started writing at the age of 15 and his first poem, “Circumstances made me who I am” [from which the extract above comes], became very popular in poetry circles around Cape Town. His poetry critically examines the contradictions of South Africa’s post-apartheid state and what it means to be ‘born free’. He says his creative work was always linked to his political activism. At school, he was also President of the Representative Council of Learners. “I consider my activism and the creative arts as one, they compliment each other,” he says.

His school, Cape Town High School, previously an all-white school under apartheid, was an inspiring place in which to learn and Siyabonga was encouraged to continue his education. He says: “I sat by the window during History class and would incessantly stare at the University of Cape Town shuttle service as it drove past our school premises to their satellite arts campus, Hiddingh. Our History teacher always intimated that we should imagine ourselves in those shuttles and work towards admission to what is still considered the best university on the African continent. I was emboldened by his vision for our lives and would occasionally visit the university campus with a handful of questions about what it took to be admitted.”

Cultural ambassadors

Siyabonga continued his arts activism at the University of Cape Town and made quite a name for himself as a poet and budding guitarist. He co-founded two poetry collectives called Vocal Revolutionaries and Whispers of Wisdom. The former enabled his commitment to arts education and community development to flourish whilst the latter helped him to hone his virtuosity as an artist. Vocal Revolutionaries was dedicated to creating programmes that cater to youth through arts education, reading clubs and scholarship opportunities. “We realised that there weren’t many facilities or coordinated efforts in schools and organisations for young students who didn’t want to study the sciences. Our mandate was to provide a platform that nurtured creative talent in the townships,” he says.

The real breakthrough was when they were able to raise the money to travel and tell their stories abroad. Siyabonga represented the group at the international Brave New Voices poetry festival for four years up to the summer of 2016. “We were the first representatives from the African continent and cultural ambassadors for the literary arts,” he says.

Siyabonga was also involved in student activism at the University of Cape Town. Together with other student activists sensitive to the arts, he led poetry and music sessions that followed heated political discussions by student-led gatherings aimed at fostering a culture of debate and critical thinking. “Under the banner of ‘Imbizo’ we were using the arts to grapple with major political issues in South Africa such as the unresolved land question which remains a thorny issue and is at the heart of much public discussion and debate in South African politics today.”

For his first degree, Siyabonga majored in anthropology and gender studies. He chose anthropology because he was interested in ethnography and first-person narratives – improvised approaches to writing that complimented his creativity as a poet. He says he chose gender studies because “working with a gender lens can illuminate knowledge in new multifaceted ways”.

Siyabonga then moved on to do an honours degree in African Studies after his undergraduate course and became more interested in the links between literature and jazz music in South Africa’s liberation struggle. He says: “In the summer of 2016 I was privileged to take up a writing fellowship at Emory University on the history of South African jazz music and literature in the liberation struggle. This preliminary inquiry led me to the illustrious Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York, where I came across a rich archive of South African exile activity. My encounter with this archive impressed upon me a sustained interest in how South African artists have counterpoised the injustices of apartheid and reflected on the idea of freedom through creative imagination.”

Cambridge

In 2016 he applied to the University of Cambridge to do an MPhil in African Studies. He chose Cambridge because its course had an emphasis on interdisciplinarity and the Centre of African Studies library has a rich archive on the black diaspora. “African Studies became the most suitable place to do a project which considered music and literature as modes of knowing and the UK became the ideal place to read my MPhil because most of the exiled artists that I trace in my work either settled or spent time here. Engagement with the South African diaspora is important and we should recognise that the struggle against apartheid was not just about what happened in the armed struggle or at the negotiation tables, but what artists articulated on canvases, in theatre, on typewriters, gramophones and through their camera lenses,” says Siyabonga.

He has been tracing the cultural activity of two South African artists exiled in the UK in the 1960s: the Drum magazine writer Bloke Modisane and Blue Notes jazz musician Johnny Dyani. While at Cambridge he has also become interested in the work of the Black Cantabs Research Society which aims to research and make visible black Cambridge alumni across the university. He currently serves as resident artist and cultural coordinator of the Black Cantabs Research Society.

In the autumn he begins his PhD as a Gates Cambridge Scholar and he says he was drawn to the scholarship programme due to the value it places on social impact. His research will extend his master's work on artists’ contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle and will also consider their impact today. “I am interested in art as a lens for South Africa to re-imagine its recent past and in the role of art in political struggles from the decolonisation movement to the Fallist insurrections [#RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall] in South Africa today,” he says.