Ungovernable: Athambile Masola

Ms Athambile Masola is a writer and researcher who teaches at the University of Pretoria. She is a member of Bua-Lit Collective – a group advocating for the use of African Languages as a social justice issue – and Founder of Asinakuthula Collective, a group of teachers and researchers who aim to challenge the continued marginalisation of women’s narratives in the school curriculum, as well as hosting the Maxeke-Mgqwetho Annual Lecture. In 2020 she will be awarded a PhD by the University Currently-Known-As-Rhodes and will publish her first collection of poems written in isiXhosa. She spoke to Mr Siphiwe Mpye.

noted.man: In a sentence, who is Athambile Masola?

Athambile Masola: Athambile amaGcina.

NM: When and how did you realise you were a girl?

AM: I was 5/6 years old. The boys had started whistling at me when I went to the shop. I knew it mattered how I looked and what I wore. So I guess it was in relation to the male gaze. I then went to a girls school for 12 years. I also have two older sisters who are incredibly beautiful (they are petite and light-skinned) so I grew up watching how people related to them in public. I learned very early on about the gaze.

NM: You have a particular interest in women’s voices, women’s writing and the history thereof. What have you learned from researching these texts that has illuminated your own experience as a writer and scholar?

AM: I came to the work by mistake. Or rather the work found me. I was becoming aware that people who looked like me were missing in my curriculum but I had a hunch they existed. I discovered that the exclusion of black women in my education was deliberate. It is not because women did not write. It is because women write and people who make decisions about publication and knowledge production (mostly men and white people in general) choose not to take women seriously. And because women end up being mothers and homemakers — which often takes them away from their work— they seldom get the chance to build institutions which take them seriously and thus they fall through the cracks. I have realised that my writing and research is part of a global conversation about taking black women’s writing seriously. It is the work of black women that keeps alive the memory of other black women.

I discovered that the exclusion of black women in my education was deliberate. It is not because women did not write. It is because women write and people who make decisions about publication and knowledge production (mostly men and white people in general) choose not to take women seriously.

NM: Take us through the formation of Asinakuthula Collective and what it represents? 

AM: Asinakuthula umhlaba ubolile/We cannot keep quiet while the world is in shambles is a line from Nontsizi Mgqwetho. She was a poet in the 1920s (a contemporary of SEK Mqhayi who is more well-known) who wrote poetry for Umteteli waBantu and performed at events in Johannesburg. Her poetry was incisive, angry, unapologetic and political. And yet there’s very little done to remember her work and her legacy. So using her words as a starting point Asinakuthula Collective is a group of teachers and researchers who see themselves as custodians of women who fall out of history in spite of the evidence that they lived and changed the world. The idea came after presenting a paper at a colloquium and I realised something significant happened: the paper was about an open letter Charlotte Maxeke had written lambasting SANNC (South African Native National Congress, the forebearer to the African National Congress) for its shoddy leadership. The letter resonated with Nontsizi Mgqwetho’s poetry so I looked at the letters in conversation with the poems. I realised I was onto something when the paper caused a bit of a stir. So our major event is the Maxeke-Mgqwetho Annual Lecture which we hosted alongside a masterclass which looked into other women such as Princess Magogo, Ellen Pumla Ngozwana, Noni Jabavu and Thandiswa’s (Mazwai) album Belede amongst other texts. This year due to the lockdown we’ll have a virtual lecture and we’ve been doing profiles of women on our instagram page in lieu of the masterclass.

NM: What were the ingredients that led to the marginalisation of indigenous languages in South Africa?

AM: This is a tough one. It’s important to remember that during apartheid African languages were part of the balkanisation and ethnic divide of the National Party politics. So in a sense, African languages were developed to advance the project of the homelands. Instead of taking this legacy and using it against the legacy of apartheid, post-1994 policies wanted to obliterate this legacy and inadvertently obliterated a lot more. While people like Neville Alexander wanted mother-tongue based bilingual education (MTBBE), the ANC chose a language policy which undermines African languages. This played itself out in the education sector where the political elite chose to send their children to former white schools without demanding MTBBE but rather privileged English. This has now become a class issue and justice issue because the issue is now about quality education and access. So wealthy black children experience subtractive bilingualism which comes with assimilating to whiteness and stripping them of their mother tongues (the goal is to make them monolingual English speakers). This means they have the ability to study further because they have mastered the language of higher education and corporate South Africa. On the other hand poor black children are left with poor education with all its challenges, a language policy which is disruptive to their development and they never excel educationally in the language required to succeed at university and corporate South Africa. And so the vicious cycle of inequality is aided by language and social capital. In this instance, the class struggle as exacerbated the marginalisation of indigenous languages. It is no different to many sectors where there is no justice for black people.

NM: Are there any essential traits to an ‘Ungovernable’ woman?

AM: The danger of course is to be prescriptive about this. The epitome of an ungovernable woman for me is my grandmother. She was financially independent as a well-known dressmaker eMdantsane. She spoke her mind and lived as best as she could as a single mother who had never married during apartheid. She had a lot of life in her. She was the first person I knew who said “uyanya” (you are full of shit) with so much passion.

NM: In what way are men complicit in their own downfall?

AM: In every possible way. But primarily, their refusal to be friends with women and by friendship I mean a meaningful bond that needn’t be a gateway to a sexual relationship. Men are homo-erotic: they love other men. If they could share that commitment they have towards other men, towards their friendships with the women in their lives, it would be revolutionary. For all of us.

Men are homo-erotic: they love other men. If they could share that commitment they have towards other men, towards their friendships with the women in their lives, it would be revolutionary. For all of us.

NM: How have you been practising kindness to yourself during lockdown?

AM: I’ve given up on routine and I listen to my body. I am more interested in pace rather than productivity. I say no to work that does not add value to my life. I take walks, read poetry, drink lots of tea, watch tv and listen to podcasts while I soak in the bath. I’ve slowed down.

AM: What were the building blocks of your political awakening?

AM: My mother and my grandmother. The death of Chris Hani. Letta Mbulu’s song Not Yet Uhuru. ‘Voting’ in 1994: my sister was the electoral officer and we drew our IDs etc and when the adults went to vote we also had our own voting. I grew up in two worlds: at home we were poor and at school I experienced privilege. I lived inequality every single day. Using public transport to get to school made me street-wise (I was such a fierce 7 year-old negotiating with taxi drivers about where to stop and how much I would pay). Taking the bus with racist kids who wouldn’t share seats. I would push them until they moved over in the seat because the bus driver said I should. Watching Sarafina and dancing to the songs for church concerts. My Sunday School teacher Ntshantsha who used to wear pants to church.

NM: Your voice has been prominent in the recent while as an old girl at Clarendon High School, in the ongoing moment of reckoning for former Model C and Private Schools in South Africa. As you have shared yours and other girls experiences at these schools, what has been the most illuminating realisation for you?

AM: I learned that our childhood traumas hurt us and mark us as adults. I’ve chaired meetings where grown, successful, accomplished women could finally pour out their hearts talking about what they experienced while at school. Some spoke about going to therapy and healing from the wounds of racial trauma. I wasn’t prepared for a new generation of young people who had experienced racism and how our silence did not make our white teachers better people. I remain disappointed that after 26 years white people remain stoic in their racism. We are reaping the consequences of the work that was not done in 1994. But I remain hopeful that there are enough of us who won’t compromise our humanity by sending white people into the sea because bangcolile abelungu (white people are cruel).

NM: Having been a school teacher yourself, how did you try to be different to the teachers that taught you?

AM: I taught in two very different schools and showed up quite differently but still remained myself. I was unlike my teachers in that I wasn’t really an English teacher but rather a language teacher. I wanted my students to read the world rather than become Anglicised. I taught in a co-ed school with coloured and black children in Cape Town when I started teaching. I was the first black English teacher for many of the students I taught. Because I’m bilingual with a smattering of Afrikaans I used examples from three languages when teaching. I used language as a way to make sense of the world. I wanted them to see the power of their words in real life rather than language being stuck in stuffy books so I made them write letters to Helen Zille when I was teaching them transactional writing (formal letter). When we were reading Animal Farm we went to watch a parody at the Baxter with Rob Van Vuuren (The Three Little Pigs, not the fairy tale – Ed) which was inspired by Animal Farm. I made them enter the English Olympaid which was the purview of the privileged schools because I wanted them to be exposed to the ideas presented in the Olympiad and we brought it alive for them through workshops. I wanted them to grapple with history (it was a Maths and Science school so no History beyond Grade 9) so we chose the play “Nothing but the truth” as the Grade 11 drama and I invited Wilhelm Verwoed to come speak at the grade. I wanted them to believe their words mattered beyond passing an exam. I had the best time of my teaching life there. Then I moved to a private school in Joburg for 2 years. It was a girls’ school. I was the only (and first) black English teacher and everyone pretended like it wasn’t a big deal. I had tattoos and didn’t hide them. I challenged them in every way, mostly by being myself. I didn’t coddle them; I don’t really know how to. I gave the black girls space to breathe and made them believe they were smart even while the environment was stifling. When there was a cultural appropriation incident amongst the Grade 11s the school was forced to deal with it and I challenged the girls involved to write about it and it was published in Friday (Mail and Guardian).

NM: You recently received confirmation that you would be awarded your PHD this year, was this always your goal or did you grow into it? Can we already call you Doctor? 

AM: I grew into it. When I was younger (I wanted to be a palaeontologist or astrophysicist but that’s a story for another day). So the PhD became an idea when I was doing my undergrad but it was something I would do when I’m an adult (which I thought would be in my 40s/50s maybe). So it happened much sooner than I thought. So technically the degree hasn’t been official conferred (that will be in October) but no one really cares about that so everyone has started calling my Doctor which is just so hilarious!

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