As the year of OR Tambo marches towards its end, Sipho Mnyakeni is fighting hard for the legacy of Tambo to never end, writes Mpho Matsitle
“I’m trying to build an empire here,” Sipho Mnyakeni tells me as we walk out of Smile Music offices at the end of our timeless conversation. I came in here carrying the heavy burden of Mphutlane Wa Bofelo on my shoulders. My master Milan Kundera has taught me that it is no use putting pen to paper if you’re not going to improve on those who came before you. Wa Bofelo in 2015 already had a tete-a-tete with the multi-faceted artist who takes me down to the battleground when I want to pin him down primarily as a musician.
He has an air of bolekaja! about him – that spirit that is not shy to say, “Come down, let us fight.” Fortunately for me I win this battle: I tell him how when reading the script for Dear Oliver Tambo, the music jumps out at me. Sure enough, it’s a musical. But the music is in every word, every poem, every pause. He smiles; he has an infectious smile that puts me at ease at once. It is calming, yes. But in this case it reveals that I have won. Not that he has lost. No. Rather I have won his trust in our first few minutes in conversation.
He is a musician
“Music is very central to me,” he finally relents. I sigh with relief. Well, not that out loud. Thing is, it is always important to win the respect of your intelocutor. Especially when it is a man with a long-list of accomplishments strecthing all the way to quelling school riots in the politically tamultous eighties.
“All five of my plays are musicals,” he confirms that my observation wasn’t a total shot in the dark. Matsitle 1 : 1 Mnyakeni. Phew!
I still have wa Bofelo to contend with though, and this is made worse by the revelation by Sipho that the former was his student in university. Now they are good friends and intermittent colleagues. “We have a couple of projects we are working on,” he tells me. Only budgetary constraints hamper progress.
Art is by nature political
I’m a person of Black Consciousness persuasion, and Sipho of: “I don’t know what I am.” What I know is that four out of five of his plays are about political figures all linked to the congress movement. I also know that he is a Christian, and my faith is of: “Actually, I too don’t know.” It then becomes apparent that the two of us are Kundera’s novelist with a stubborn refusal to identify with any ideology or religion respectively. In any case, I had hoped to play this conflict out in our discussion on OR Tambo and the role of art in socio-politics – but wa Bofelo, a black conscious sufi Muslim, had beaten me to that by a whole two-and-a-half years.
“Later in our lives black consciousness became a reality, no longer a faction,” he laughs through memories of himself back in the days, leading a Congress of South African Students (COSAS) boycott against a BC-organised event.
Fortunately I had yet another ace up my sleeve: I am, after all, here as an envoi of the Headquarters of Mangaung arts. Those are the untraversed frontiers available to me to justify soiling these white pages.
These people don’t care!
“The culture of critique is sorely missing from the local poetry scene,” he indulges my pet peeve. I tell him I first came to know him as poet on the BloemPoetry stage some half a decade ago. “Yes,” he reminisces fondly, “I did a lot of that.”
The fondness doesn’t last long though; he reverts back to his earlier lament: “These people don’t care about the arts!” These people he refers to are the powers that be in the Free State arts and culture sector. For him BloemPoetry is yet another beautiful one denied the chance to be born.
Smile Music: a launchpad
He fears Smile Music might yet be another one. “I am on the brink of giving up,” he cries. In these headquarters of his company art is everywhere – boasting of a music rehearsal and recording room, a photography studio and drawings all about. It’s a home to Smile Music artists; all from his church. “That is the area I am working in now,” he says of his arts activism. I gain yet another victory when I package his efforts into a palatable word that is neither self-effacing nor boastful: “launchpad.”
“That’s a better way of describing it.”
He can’t give up now. If Thembisile Tshabalala – who hailed him as the one who helped her find her voice – is anything to go by, then the world needs Sipho to launch many more stars to the sky, as he has done already with the careers of many artists that either “went through or past his hands” over the years. He refuses to reveal their names, lest he be lumped together with made-men cabal.
“There was no formal mentor-mentee relationship,” he tones down his influence.
Sipho the Coach
If one can’t get the who of his success stories, at least let them have the what of the achievement. Some of them – his “students” – have gone on to record with the likes of Michael Jackson. Some are in Sarafina. Others are in China right now, touring with The Lion King.
At this stage my ‘I am not worthy’ fears return doublefold. “Did you ever have ambitions of reaching those dizzying heights yourself?” I attempt a question to keep my lips from falling to the ground. “Maybe when I was young,” he says nonchalantly. “But no, not really.”
His strength is elsewhere: unearthing talent for one. I remember Harvest Live in Concert. So I can’t help but agree. “I am a lyricist of note,” he adds. I have a copy of the Dear Oliver Tambo script in hand. I have seen its sheer beauty. To this too, I tip my hat off to him.
The Year of OR Tambo
One of the many wonderful lines in the script which pricked my interest is from a Nelson Mandela eulogy of OR Tambo: “There are many of us who became part of his soul and therefore willingly entered into a conspiracy with him.” This text successfully tempts me to break ranks with my decision to stick with the state of Mangaung arts and avoid questions of national importance. Defeated by his brilliance, I ask: “Who is in conspiracy with OR at the moment?”
We are not a couple of idiots who just willingly answer each other’s questions; so he reshapes mine before dropping a bombshell. “I know people who love OR.” First, the reconfiguration. Then the bombshell: “Jacob Zuma is one. There are glimmers of OR in him.”
“The ruling party declared 2017 as the year of OR Tambo. How is he celebrated in the arts?”
“These people don’t care!” Sipho repeats his earlier lamentation. It seems to be a cry of his heart. Of his life. But it is not just the snubs on his production that grates him, but the general snub against OR – a man who was as passionate about the arts as he was about destroying apartheid. “It was OR who formed the Amandla Cultural Ensemble,” he schools me. Amandla was led by jazz trombonist Jonas Gwangwa who will grace Macufe this year, which could be a perfect opportunity for the organisers to hail OR. But I am beginning to acquiesce to Sipho’s wisdom, “These people don’t care.”
Art according to Sipho
So what is to be done? I try wrap up our conversation. I list three fields in particular that are the bedrock of his play Dear Oliver Tambo: poetry, drama and music. He preambles that he will give an answer that will avoid controversy as people are not ready to hear the truth. Then moves to say information must start coming out on associations that are there for the advancements of the arts. Equally, he’d like to see local artists being exposed to other platforms so as to not limit their frame of reference to popular artists and what sells. “If you stop there, then you’ve sold poetry away and have started a new thing. I don’t know what it’s called.”
He advises learning from the greats: “We must first know the likes of Mafika Gwala and Don Mattera,” he preaches passionately. “The problem ya bona is they think English is poetry.” According to him, the current state of poetry is one of “random syllables thrown at will.”
Of drama he admits that apart from his own work he has not kept his finger on the pulse of drama in the city and province. He has a general comment though: “In the Free State, drama is an orphan. There is no development of new writers and new actors.” He urges those involved in the game to go to small towns like Theunissen where young people have their own productions to scout talent to develop.
For words of wisdom, Sipho challenges musicians to not wait for ‘the big break’, but do their own shows, develop their own crowds and find alternative avenues for revenue. “All I can say is that artists must begin to work for themselves.”
Dear Oliver: Sipho is still here
I look at the time and realise that it is indeed true that it flies when fun is being had. The alarm company has already called to ask why Smile Music’s alarm has not been set for the night.
The burden I walked in with has been lifted off my shoulders; I will manage to write something worthy of this giant of a man without resorting to old tropes. It is such a blessing that the KwaThema-born man of the word Sipho Mnyakeni has found an ethical position beyond the banal humility and arrogance binary: he is a man confident in his capabilities and convictions.
In this regard he will celebrate his dear Oliver Tambo – who was an inspiration to him throughout his political activism in the eighties – whether or not anybody cares.
The successful runs of the play, most recently at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, prove that he is capable. He is free in the freedom OR Tambo fought so hard for him to have.
Dear Oliver Tambo: These people may not care, but there is hope for your memory—and legacy. There is Sipho Mnyakeni. And his empire stands firm.
The Dear Oliver Tambo tour will make stops at Welkom’s Ernest Oppenheimer Theatre on 7 October 2017 and in Bloemfontein’s Andre Huguenet Theatre on 14 October 2017.