Actress, author and activist Buhle Ngaba has always loved telling stories. Committing oneself to the intimacy and discipline required for performance and accessing people in ways that a mundane exchange or academic conversation can’t is what she loves about acting. In a short time since graduating from Rhodes university, she’s acted alongside theatre veteran, John Kani, founded an NPO and written a children’s book.
Of late, her creative practice has centered around empowering black women to tell their own stories. Her children’s book, The Girl Without a Sound, is about finding your voice and having the courage to speak up and share your story. Buhle doesn’t view acting and storytelling as exclusive from one another and knows that as a black woman, the world hasn’t written many stories for her to tell so she took to writing her own. Last month, she was awarded the Brett Goldin Bursary and will be jetting off to study acting at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK this July.
The notion of ‘voice’ is integral to your work as an actress, author and activist. How would you describe your artistic voice?
Imaginative. I try very hard to give myself permission to explore different aspects of myself as I grow. It isn’t limited to one thing, so I am never shackled into what it is that people expect to hear from me.
Whose voices inspire you and why?
The women in my family mostly. I grew up around women and have been inspired by their resilience.
How would you define your creative expression – is it a necessity, a protest or an act of freedom?
All three. But I’m dancing in the freedom just for now I think. That has something to do with how 2016 has felt to me like the year of the Black woman.
You’re building a dynamic career across various platforms. What advice do you have for those wanting to pursue something similar?
Work. Nothing but work.
What would you say characterises ‘young South Africa’ now?
We share a sense of urgency to change our landscape.
Do you feel as a young creative, you have a responsibility to make work that is a reflection of our time?
Undoubtedly. I feel like we are at the cusp of huge changes and, yes that’s uncomfortable but it’s also necessary and incredible. I am so appreciative of being alive at this time in South Africa.
What are some of the challenges young people are facing within the local creative industry how might we overcome these?
I speak as what I am when I say that as a young black artist, the fight to be seen is real for me. I face it and spit at it everyday, and I overcome that invisibility by being honest in my work. The industry doesn’t include enough women writers and even our sections on African literature no longer reprint books by women that are vital reading. I think that the only way forward is by women writers actively saturating the industry with our stories. If you are a writer, write. We have the internet and millions ready to read if we provide it.
How has the legacy of the struggle generation influenced your world view and do you ever feel any tension between fulfilling their expectations and achieving your own dreams?
I think that it would be presumptuous of me (to an extent) to assume what the struggle generations expectations of me would be. But what I do know I have inherited from them is an understanding that people died and fought and sacrificed to make way for my dreams. To that end, I have no choice BUT to fulfill my dreams.
Your recent activist and writing work has a strong feminist element to it. What do you think people misunderstand about young feminists and what can greater society do more of to empower women?
My understanding of feminism and its place in Africa is the direct result of how I was raised. I was raised by a shared womb of women because my mother was a single mother and raised us by herself. I watched my mother and all the women in my life work incredibly hard to provide me with opportunities so that I could break through the barriers of race as well as gender. Women in Africa are the bone of the continent, they carry and birth the children of the soil and are burdened and shackled with structural inequalities. So to me, if feminism ultimately is the advocacy of women’s rights based on the belief of equality for sexes, then surely feminism does have a home on a continent carried by women.
KaMatla, the NPO that you founded, aids the development of art in underprivileged communities. In what ways do you think the arts have power to bring about meaningful change in South Africa?
I think KaMatla’s mission lies in our outreach and workshop programmes aimed at educating youth while developing skills of creativity and giving tools on how to implement change within societies. This is inspired by the need to enhance the capacity among young leaders to engage with their place in the world, so that they may ultimately be able to address the variety of complexities and multi-layered problems facing South Africa and the world. These workshops offer a broad education on several themes which give the perspective of an individual’s place in the world and the voice they might discover to impact social change. Stories can and do change how we see the world, so we have to learn how to tell our own.
What would you like to be known for?
A storyteller. (And Beyonce’s tan).
Photographs of Buhle by Neo Baepi.
Meet the 16 young South Africans defining creative culture now. #BAYEZA16