She is self-affirmed, walking to nobody’s tune but her own. She rejects conformity and seeks only her own truth. She is ungovernable, and just the kind of woman we love. In the second of a series of interviews with these remarkable women, we speak to the righteously militant MS. MILISUTHANDO BONGELA.
Noted Man (NM): In a paragraph, please introduce yourself.
Milisuthando Bongela (MB): My name is Milisuthando Bongela. I am a 31 year-old writer, collaborator, consultant, social activist and the new editor of Friday, the Mail and Guardian arts section.
NM: What is your earliest recollection of ‘being a girl’, in other words, when you first realised what it meant to be female in this world?
MB: It’s not that clear. I don’t remember one moment where I was like, ‘oh I’m a girl’ besides fighting with my sister over my mom’s clothes. I grew up in a pretty feminist household with a matriarch and a lot of powerful, strong, opinionated women who were doing things with their lives. I’ve always had a strong presence of women much more than I’ve had of men. My father was there but he was never heard as much as my mom so I’ve never been in a polarising environment where I had to claim my femininity. I was born into a household with a lot of women and my life generally lacked men. I went to a girls school, stayed in girls res at varsity; my first job was in a women’s magazine. I don’t really know.
NM: Was there a moment where you felt, officially, like a woman and why?
MB: I think it’s in this process that I’ve been making this documentary (an exploration of the politics of black hair). Before I just occupied my skin and my body and I wasn’t super conscious of my race and gender and what it meant. In the process of making this documentary I have met a lot of incredible men and women who have kind of helped shape my ideological understanding of gender and race and I think it’s with the formation of the Feminist Stokvel (a collective of prominent young black feminists) which happened as a result of all this research and talking that I’ve been doing with people regarding the film. It started off as the subject of my own hair and that introduced me to my real self. Feminist Stokvel kind of allowed my space to organically grow and enlightened me about the issues that women face in this country and how alone they are. It’s a combination of all those things. It’s the moment I sat down in front of my mirror and held a tuft of my hair and just asked myself real questions.
NM: Would you say it also helped you grow into your black identity?
MB: Definitely. The examination of my hair was the gateway to a better understanding of black identity. When I started to ask real questions like why is it that we do specific things to our hair? Why do I feel ugly? Why do I hate my hair? Why do I call it kaffir hare? Why do I fundamentally dislike this thing? When I started asking those questions it led me to a whole other enlightenment that I will never climb out of.
NM: Why is it so important to make this documentary and what is the most valuable discovery you have made?
MB: This documentary, as well as the all the writing that’s going on right now and all the other forms of documentation about this collective black consciousness that happened after Mandela died is important. The aftermath of Mandela’s death provided an opportunity for young South Africans to examine this country. We were called Mandela’s kids, the transition kids, the born frees, the ones who were meant to embody this new nation. The documentary is a report card, almost, of that upbringing, of the time between 1990 and 1994 as well as ’94 to the present. It’s a personal narrative so I’m looking at my own life and the difference between my life in the Transkei when I was a child and didn’t know anything and only had black people and black references around me until I came to ‘South Africa’ in 1993 and that’s when I realised that I was black because I was polarised. Like many of us, even the white kids, we were all kind of at the frontier of this new society. So I think it’s important as a report card as to say ‘hey, no one has ever actually checked how those kids are doing’. It’s important for our parents, the government, the church, the family, corporate SA, education – all of us – to re-examine our actions as a country. The most important revelation is the betrayal. We were betrayed and it’s made me understand exactly what is happening right now and why it is happening and why I’m in full support of all the student protests in all their different temperaments, in all their different variations. I understand why they are so relentless in the critique of not only the education system but our government and ourselves.
NM: How difficult is it to have strong political views in your line of work?
MB: As people who have taken the position of responsibility for educating each other, if we are not students we have to be aware that whatever we think, write or talk about, we are potentially fighting the capitalist man because a lot of economic systems are owned by the very people that will be agitated when we say these things – mostly white people. One has to draw the line because they don’t want to get in trouble but I think it’s very important because a lot of people are ready to hear the truth. It is difficult but luckily I have my own platform and had incredible support from Charl Blignaut (at the City Press newspaper) so I was able to transcend being this fashion girl and girl about town and that Miss Milli B that everybody knew, into this Milisuthando that I’m becoming gradually, that I’ll probably spend the rest of my life becoming. If you go 2/3 years back in my blog you will see very clearly that I wasn’t always this person. This whole transition kind of started in the beginning of 2014. Having my own platform makes me a bit more comfortable. Advertisers are still knocking on my door and my readers have also grown with me. I think part of the reason why they wanted me at the Mail and Guardian is because I am able to balance this hard-core political talk with my everyday life. I’m not just a political analysist. I’m a human being with an interest in politics but also art, fashion and music and the relationship between politics and all those things. When you have to tell a truth that has been kind of hidden from our national discourse it’s never easy but I am relentless about it.
NM: What is the most important thing you’ve had to unlearn in your journey to intersectionality?
MB: I’ve had to examine my own hetero-normative understanding of the world and internalised patriarchy. But the class thing has been the biggest wake up call. The fact that my story is not the centre of the South African black identity story, there’s a lot going on beyond that story. So it’s all the things that usually come second after race and gender. I’ve had to rethink the queer politics as well as class politics.
It’s important for our parents, the government, the church, the family, corporate SA, education – all of us – to re-examine our actions as a country. The most important revelation is the betrayal. We were betrayed and it’s made me understand exactly what is happening right now and why it is happening and why I’m in full support of all the student protests in all their different temperaments, in all their different variations.
NM: In a world that is hell-bent on hating black women, self-love is crucial. How do you practice self-love?
MB: Self-love is Sundays where I don’t switch on my phone and I lay in bed and do whatever the hell I want whether it’s watching series, eating my favourite meal or just lying in bed with my man doing nothing. I don’t do any work on Sundays. I also meditate. My house permanently smells of impepho (wild sage) because I realise that I am not here alone, that my gifts are not my own and so I am constantly talking to my ancestors. I talk to my late dad a lot. I also write for pleasure.
NM: Speaking of spirituality, when would you say your spiritual awakening happened?
MB: In 2009 after I lost everything in a space of 7 days. I moved to Johannesburg because I was in love with someone and I got dumped, I became homeless because I got kicked out by my landlord for paying my rent on Monday instead of Saturday, my friend died- drowned mysteriously in a pool. I was living on people’s couches, looking after their dog and just being a loser. I eventually found a place to stay. It was a very small cottage and the owner of that house was a Buddhist. I’d come home and I’d smell incense and she’d invite me over to her porch and we’d start talking. She introduced me to Buddhism and I started going to the temple with her. That’s when I started getting a greater understanding of spirituality but I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist. I like their approach to spirituality because I’m Xhosa and I grew up in a traditionalist home so it’s a matter of balancing a Buddhist approach to life with my traditional Xhosa ancestry worship and the acknowledgement of the silent people.
NM: What is the most beautiful part of black womanhood?
MB: Being alive right now is lit! I’m really loving us right now from Beyoncé, to all these movements happening around the world like #BlackGirlMagic. Women are my heroes, the ones who say ‘this revolution will be intersectional or it will be bullshit’. My favourite part is being alive right now and completely participating. Being at For Black Girls Only was amazing. Being at Feminist Stokvel events is amazing. It’s the spaces. I’m really enjoying belonging somewhere. I was never a Beyoncé fan but after Formation I was like oh my god everything is aligning. What the fuck are you doing if you are a black woman and you are not saying anything that stands up for Black Women’s rights?
What traits must an ‘ungovernable’ woman necessarily exhibit?
A relentless commitment to integrity.
Who is your iconic ungovernable woman?
There are so many. Winnie Mandela, Nina Simone, my mother, Emmanuella (the Nigerian girl from the Mark Angel comedy web series) – that girl is going to be something huge. I love how she defies all forms of our idea of femininity. I love how she owns her humour and you can tell that no one is directing her. She just is that little firecracker. Mamani, the Mpondomise King who was actually a woman was probably the original ungovernable woman. And all the authors who have helped shape my thinking like Bell Hooks, Angela Davis and Audre Lorde.
What was your favourite literary discovery this year?
Zakes Mda’s Little Sun which talks about Mamani, even though I haven’t read it yet.