The End of South African Apartheid: An Interview with Dr. Athambile Masola

This post is part of our forum on the “The End of South African Apartheid Anniversary.”

Dr. Athambile Masola (Credit: African Book Festival)

In today’s post, Black Perspectives’ Senior Editor Tiana U. Wilson interviews Dr. Athambile Masola on her research interests, methods, and her thoughts on South Africa since the ending of apartheid thirty years ago. Dr. Masola is a writer, researcher, and award-winning poet based in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town. She received her PhD from Rhodes University. Her dissertation explored Black women’s life writing with a particular focus on Noni Jabavu and Sisonke Msimang’s memoirs. Her debut collection of poetry is written in isiXhosa, Ilifa (Uhlanga Press, 2021). She is the co-author of the children’s history book series Imbokodo: Women Who Shape Us (Jacana Media, 2022), with Dr. Xolisa Guzula. Her latest book is a collaboration with Makhosazana Xaba; a collection of Noni Jabavu’s columns from 1977, A Stranger at Home (Tafelberg, 2023). Follow her on Twitter/X at @athambile.

Tiana U. Wilson [TUW]: April 2024 marks the thirtieth anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic election. When considering the history of South Africa since the end of apartheid, what are some common misconceptions about the country’s social, political, cultural, and/or economic context?

Athambile Masola [AM]: So if I were to pinpoint a misconception, is that in the midst of the decline (in all the contexts listed in the question), people lose hope (yes, there’s a lot of that), but the opposite sometimes happens: people fill up stadiums for political parties which did not exist 15 years ago. People fall in love and get married and make families. They make homes, start businesses, make music, travel the world, leave South Africa for greener pastures and return again, they protest, shut down universities, study further—an endless list of making a life from the ruins around us. And amid of all that, they bemoan load shedding (electricity blackouts) while making an action plan. This is not particular to South Africa, though. This is perhaps the most post-colonial experience: when the cracks begin to show, and the liberation promises are broken, people choose strategies towards aliveness.

This question made me think about a song released during the Covid-19 pandemic that became an anthem of hope for many South Africans: “Ubomi abumanga” by Msaki and Sun-El Musician. The title can be translated into English as life has not come to a standstill. In other words, life still has so many possibilities. While this resonated for the 2020/2021 moment, I felt the song also resonated with the country’s social, cultural, political, and economic context. As someone who is a beneficiary of some of the post-apartheid experiments that emerged from the 1994 project (social cohesion and integration as a response to apartheid, which meant moving to the suburbs from the townships, attending a school that had been preserved for white children until 1990/1993). I still remember how exciting it was to be part of the “rainbow nation.” There was so much excitement and hope. I never anticipated that the rainbow nation euphoria would be short-lived. Much of the past 30 years has been about the decline and the crumbling of the veneer of the rainbow nation. My early adulthood has primarily been characterized by economic decline, violence against women, and corruption at both the public and private levels. Even though my immediate world—and those of my peers who also received a good education, attended university, and made careers after studying—had been promising, I have also watched the gap between the rich and the poor expand. And yet, at the heart of this widening gap, exists a vibrant cultural life expressed in the song ubomi abumanga.

One of my favourite responses to a greeting hello is “siyaphila” or “sihamba nazo” or “siyacenga”: so, someone will greet me (in isiXhosa and not in English) and I can respond “siyaphila” which means we are fine/in good health but can also means we are alive. When I say “sihamba nazo/siyacenga” this means, we live with our problems, we are willing ourselves to keep living. I evoke something as simple as a greeting which can capture the psyche of where we are: we insist on being alive. People continue to live despite the continued violence and continued gaslighting from the state. In the context of decline and disconnection, there’s an aliveness here.

TUW: Can you offer our readers a glimpse of the content and objectives of South African newspapers like The Bantu World (and particularly those written in isiXhosa)? How does your methodological approach to these archives contribute to twentieth-century South African history?

AM: When I first encountered The Bantu World, Umteteli waBantu, and Ilanga laseNatali, I was astounded by how many languages could be represented in one newspaper. Growing up, all the newspapers I encountered were in English (with two Afrikaans papers and the isiXhosa paper appearing as an insert in the main English newspaper in the region where I grew up), and I simply took this as the norm. So that was the first objective of these newspapers: to simply have a representation of multilplicity represented in one newspaper. That’s the kind of diversity I have yet to see, as English dominance in the public sphere is pretty much a given. The content of the early newspapers was incredibly diverse because the newspapers’ proprietors and editorial teams were aware of the burden of opening the world to a new readership that was possible since the 19th century with the introduction of missionary education and the forms of literacy that this cultural and political shift created. And, of course, at the heart of any newspaper is the impetus for circulation. A newspaper like the Bantu World, for example, could have up to five languages represented and, in one issue, can have the range to cover local and international news, social news, women’s pages, sports updates, literature (in the form of poems, reviews, and serialized novels) and letters and debates and of course advertising of new products. There was a sense of urgency in these newspapers—an urgency about Black people’s place in the world; an urgency about the multiple changes that needed to be navigated; and, an urgency about participating in these changes. This was all possible through multiple languages.

I stress this issue of language as it is central to the implications for historiography and methodology. For starters, much of the writing in African languages has, by and large, been ignored until recently (maybe the past ten years) as a result of multiple critiques which emerged from the student protests challenging Western-dominated curricula. The newspapers were able to highlight the complexity of African modernity, which was invested in African languages, and the philosophical underpinnings that are possible through these newspapers. Someone like Sol Plaatje might be hard to imagine for readers today, but much of his literary legacy was possible because he engaged with newspapers of different languages. He spoke multiple languages and edited newspapers in seTswana while also translating Shakespeare’s plays into seTswana, preserving seTswana proverbs, and writing the first English novel titled Mhudi. A figure like the isiXhosa poet Nontsizi Mgqwetho is hard to imagine for some contemporary readers even while there’s evidence of her poems being published to great acclaim in the early 20th century. Her poetry shifted isiXhosa literary traditions and made possible a modern poetry, which is finally being taken seriously. This is methodologically demanding because a historian must be able to access these multiple languages and read complex subjectivities emerging from the writers from this period. And this requires more than simply translation. It is about meaningfully immersing oneself into the language to get into the complex ideas and debates circulating in the 19th and 20th centuries.

TUW: We understand that one of your research interests is exploring the process of erasure in traditional archives. Can you share with our readers how your interdisciplinary or multiple forms of reading different types of text mediate this erasure?

AM: Right now, I’m working through making sense of fragmented archives. By this, I mean learning to figure out which “traditional archive” I should explore with the hope that it includes the work, the name, or some evidence of the women I am writing about. By traditional archive I assume you mean an archive which is ordered into folders and usually attributed to an organization or the papers of someone who is more visible than the women I write about. These are the archives which people often refer to as “so-and-so’s papers” or known documents that are known to have been deposited into a particular institution. Most of the women I write about may have had public lives, but their papers have not been organized in a way that they can be easily found. So before the multiple forms of reading different texts can begin, I have to find those texts, and that’s often been where the magic, fun, and frustration often lie. But once I find the texts, most of them are official texts—meeting minutes, school reports, newspaper articles, lists, photographs, etc.—which often do not have the voices of the women. While I can recreate the world from which the women emerge, their voices are often absent unless I find a letter or an article they wrote. By voice, I mean something close to their aliveness beyond being a name on a list or a project or stereotype in the colonial archive. Even while making sense of a fragmented archive, once I collate the texts, I still have to think carefully about how they can tell a story. In recent projects, I have reimagined the voices of the women as a response to the absences around their stories. In another instance, I decided to write the women I was writing and teaching about a letter as though they were still alive. This is my own attempt at reminding myself that they once lived and had lives; they are not merely caricatures who are meant to fulfill our limited imagination about Black women’s lives.

TUW: What factors drew you to your research topic and continue to inspire your writing? Would you mind sharing some of your obstacles and how you/plan to overcome them? 

AM: I came to this research during my postgraduate studies (what we refer to as an Honours degree in South Africa: one year between the undergraduate and Masters degree). I was drawn into the language and gender question and historiographical work through the poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho and Ntongela Masilela’s New African Movement. It was the perfect nexus, which has since led me into a fulfilling intellectual life, which is constantly surprising me. Through Nontsizi Mgqwetho’s work, I was able to ask the question “what were the women doing during these early periods?” At times I simply ask “where are the women?” Finding the work of a poet writing political poetry in the 1920s in isiXhosa began to answer this question for me. I am inspired by the multiple questions I am able to ask through the lives of the women I have since written about, such as Noni Jabavu, Adelaide Tantsi, and Pumla Ngozwana. It seems so bizarre to me that the one group that has been so central to my personal survival can so easily be rendered as insignificant in other quarters of intellectual life. In my world, Black women are the most interesting and complex figures, and to survive an education system that foregrounds the lives of white men from the colonial period is something that will never cease to amaze me!

The obstacles are plenty (getting time to write and research, applying for grants to find the time to write, and working within institutions that do not value the stories nor the labor of Black feminists. The list is endless and boring) but the joys are even more plentiful. I have developed transnational friendships and collaborations, which I didn’t know were possible when I was a young student trying to make sense of the knowledge economy and academia. One of my greatest joys has been watching how I have joined into an intellectual conversation other feminists have had since before I was born. The intergenerational collaborations and friendships that have emerged through this work made it feel worthwhile.

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Tiana U. Wilson

Tiana U. Wilson, Ph.D. is a Just Transformations postdoctoral fellow in African American Studies at the Pennsylvania State University and an incoming assistant professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She completed a Ph.D. in History at the University of Texas at Austin. Her book project, “Revolution and Struggle: The Enduring Legacy of the Third World Women’s Alliance,” examines Black women’s contributions to women of color feminist groups in the U.S. from the 1960s to the present. Her research has been supported by the American Council of Learned Societies, the Center for Engaged Scholarship, the Sallie Bingham Center, Smith College, the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @PhenomenalTiana.

Comments on “The End of South African Apartheid: An Interview with Dr. Athambile Masola

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    Such a fantastic and satisfying interview, Atha and Tiana! A real pleasure to be acquainted with black feminist voices through both your work.


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