Historian and writer Zikhona Valela is one of the five storytellers featured on the seminal ORIGINS series by the MultiChoice Group and Showmax. Having a conversation with Zikhona, one quickly gets a genuine sense of wisdom, curiosity and responsibility to champion the forgotten using her pen and research to exhibit the untold stories of historical figures like Mapetla Mohapi. In the same breath, there is a sharp awareness of the current conditions facing the everyday person and the neglect of the arts and creative industry. Read on as we explore her writing process, the role of popular culture and music in her work, collaboration, what the everyday person can do to honour collective memory and more.
Writing is a beautiful craft, yet at times agonising. What does your creative process look like?
Writing comes in waves. I try to allow that feeling to settle and pass, especially when I don’t feel like writing. It’s nice to sit and read to get the motivation to write because words are beautiful. Sometimes, when we refresh ourselves with other words and ideas from other people, we’re able to replenish that part of ourselves that’s run dry. So I would say that helps my process of writing
Walk us through the influence that music has had on your work, then and now?
There’s so much to learn from popular culture. It’s one of those very accessible tools in terms of, you know, documenting our times. So from people like Mirriam Makeba, who sings ‘Bahleli Bonke kwaNongqongqo‘ and a host of other songs, you know, that’s an archival work. That kind of body of work from the likes of oMakeba, oMasuku, Dolly Rathebe and others is an archive. And before people access books, they tend to access music and film work; they tend to access art first. And so for me in my process of writing this particular book, because Mapetla isn’t here and, therefore, is not actively participating in a story about his life and death: his music taste was, I felt, a beneficial portal into this person that was, unfortunately, brutally murdered almost around 46 years ago. And so it also allows me to access the human part of this historical figure.
When we write about figures like Mapetla, or when you write about someone like Winnie Mandela, you know, it’s always the hard political stuff and hard facts about their lives. And not really the things that made them human and the things that they drew from: because I think the thing about the black consciousness movement, particularly, there’s a creative energy there that’s just undeniable, you know, they actively worked with poets and, and playwrights and actors and actresses, and all of that and all those people who are practitioners in the creative spaces.
And, you know, Mapetla wasn’t an artist, but he used his Sundays to listen to jazz and to Nina Simone and Roberta Flack, two of his very favourite jazz and soul artists. And that is how he replenished himself at the end of a gruelling week of assisting newly released or former political prisoners. Further, it’s also why it shouldn’t come as a surprise when you look at state-of-the-art and creative spaces in South Africa. I feel those spaces are neglected and defunded; they are defrauded far more than any other space because that creative energy fuels revolution. And so I think with people like Mapetla recognising and accessing his music taste is how I’m able to get a sense that this is what fueled him to continue to express his love for black people and do the work through black consciousness.
Speaking about the archive, in the ORIGINS short film, you mentioned that “the archive will surprise you” Can you give us a few things that you never expected to find through this process of digging into the archive.
I mean, I never expected to find the pathology report detailing Mapetla’s wounds, something that even his own family had never seen. So that was one of the surprises of the archive. I think, because of the ways we tell history right now, there is this narrative that’s being pushed that centres a particular man, that centres a specific political organisation, and so a lot of things have disappeared from, like your mainstream public spaces.
So when you go into the archive, you go in there with a specific idea that you should find something. Or you make assumptions that you maybe won’t find anything. But, still, there are so many things, as problematic as the archive is, as well because there’s still a lot that’s missing, you know. That is not documented and recorded or kept. So many things get lost, and many things get thrown out. Because they were dismissed as unimportant, be it the voices of black women or Black LGBTQI+ people. So there’s still a lot that needs to be corrected and remedied regarding how we document and archive. But, still, I think, you know, there are certain things that you’ll find there that will connect you to a missing puzzle or whatever that you had in your mind as you go through the process, as you write your own research and write about a specific aspect of history.
You’ve mentioned that growing up, your dad told stories and recited iziduko zenu (clan names). Who are some of your other greatest inspirations, dead or alive?
A big inspiration for me is Winnie Mandela. Growing up in the time of the Rainbow euphoria in South Africa, Winnie was painted as a cautionary tale. And, you know, the antithesis to this whole reconciliation process, which is very ironic, considering how she reconciled with somebody who was a spy. That process is not even told and explored in detail because, obviously, you’ve got to paint this woman as a hater of everything who is just there to destroy and not actually to rebuild. She did a lot of rebuilding. This image of her was shoved down our throats. That this is not somebody, you’re supposed to be inspired by. This is not the kind of woman you should ever dream of aspiring to. And knowing how, in our own smaller spaces, black women tend to be silenced and easily misunderstood; to me, that drew me even closer to her to see: is this narrative really true? Is this narrative of a cautionary tale accurate, is this narrative of a monster true? Especially knowing what we know about the ways black women are discarded and how black women are painted callously. And drawing closer to her made me appreciate it; it opened up a history that is not often told. A record that shows Winnie to have been the one person who, you know, prevented her former husband and the organisation to which she belonged from drifting into an abyss of irrelevance during those dark years of Apartheid. And so, for me, she’s so multifaceted as well. So doing the work of telling her story, being privileged to meet her, hearing her own words about her work and contributions, and feelings on the post-Apartheid dispensation: makes me excited. Excited about the kind of work that will come from so many people inspired by her. People who will do the work of correcting misinformation that is out there in mainstream media and sometimes even in those archives.
We currently perceive you as a true north into the archive and a storyteller giving insights on these forgotten heroes such as Mapetla. How has the experience been for you in terms of having this responsibility? Is it something you embrace as part of your journey? Or is it heavy for you?
During my process of writing the book and thinking about what I’d want next, for myself, in terms of writing, I got that profound sense that when you’re a historian or a writer, you join an elite circle of people. People who get to decide which stories are told and which are not, what is remembered and what isn’t.
And that infuriates me because so much of what should be known isn’t. It’s shocking to me that someone like Mapetla, who was the very first- because history tends to glorify firsts, right? So he’s the first guy to die, the first black consciousness guy to die in detention on August 5 1976, and no one remembers that? No one wants to stop and observe that and the implications of that death because Steve Biko died a year later, and it’s closely connected to Mapetla. It infuriated me that somebody decided not to tell this person’s story and to also disappear the story of his wife, who refused to accept the state’s lies. The account we have and how we can gather information- because I don’t believe the work I’ve done on Mapetla is complete; it’s only just getting started. And the only way you can even attempt to tell his story is through this woman, Nohle Mohapi-Mbetshu, who refused to accept the lies because the inquest is heard in the magistrate court in King William’s Town. The thing about inquests heard in the magistrate court is that they don’t last; the documents aren’t kept after 10 years. This is in 1977; 10 years later is 1987, which is still at a time where the death of a black person is neither here nor there. But because she went and took this case further to the High Court, we have documents because of that refusal. So when people decide not to tell this person’s story, they also choose not to highlight how women were the bearers of memory, especially during that time. Because part of this refusal of this woman is to say, “you’re not going to forget my husband, and you’re not going to forget what this system is doing to all of us, how it’s altering the histories, of not just our organisations that we serve, and black people’s lives in general,”
Even in the intimate detail, where Mapetla has daughters, and they were babies when he died, Mapetla is a grandfather, and he has never met and will never meet those grandkids of his because of how history was altered. And, right now, I’m fueled by disappointment, rage, and urgency because we need to start bringing so many of these stories to the fore. And so that we can do this thing and undo and disrupt the elitism in history where certain people are honoured and others are not.
What role does the everyday person play in shaping history or remembering history?
I genuinely think people are doing that already. Every day we are breathing, we’re shifting history forward. So at the core of my desire in terms of the kind of historian I want to be is one of collaborating with those people that don’t necessarily have the opportunity to write and publish because they may be doing other things. And this is why I owe so much of the work I’ve done so far to collaboration. Respectfully going to people, speaking with them, asking them to avail their time so we can tell the stories we tell together. In how I plan to do things: write it down, and hopefully, later, transition into being able to film certain things. I want that intention at the centre of the kind of historian I want to be.
I find it shocking that even though it’s -I mean, it’s not illegal or anything – a book can be out there without a single family member being asked about the particular person. I find it so strange. When I interviewed uMam’ Winnie, I remember bringing a book, the biography Winnie Mandela: A Life by du Preez Bezrob. I went because I wanted her to autograph that book and the autobiography 491 Days. And she looked at that book and said, “I’m seeing this for the very first time.” – that book came out in 2004. I thought to myself; I can’t believe there are books about people still breathing, and those people are not participating in telling the stories. They don’t get to share their side; communities are being talked about, and there’s no one approaching them to say, “we’d like to do this, and hopefully, we’d like to get your voice featured in the work.”
I find that strange because we owe much of the events that have happened in our country to ordinary people. We owe June 16 to normal children; no one wants to talk to them. No one wants to talk to their families about that moment? No one wants to find some way to engage them. I’m a writer, so for someone else, an artist, or you might be a journalist – imagine going into a space and not engaging any of those people. But collaboration is how we bring people who don’t necessarily want to write or won’t necessarily have the time to write into the process of writing and the process of documenting. You know, even people with no problems with not participating at that level can offer some support and assistance in connecting you to others who can collaborate with you. So I think that is the role that ordinary people play in shaping how we remember.
What do you do for fun?
I don’t know if I can answer that question (laughs). But, unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 Pandemic and everything, I need to remember how to have time to do something outside of being cooped up in the house. I read. I enjoy spending time with family and friends when it’s possible. The other thing I realised, and I had yet to really appreciate, is that when you do this kind of work, you don’t have many days off to do other things. Because writers are so undervalued, you live with the sense of, you know, you feel like that you are in a perpetually precarious position, financially and so on. So, you think you must constantly work to feel like your head is above water. But, more than anything, I enjoy spending time, where possible, with family and friends and doing my best to pour into those relationships.