A life remembered on the stage


Ntsako Mkhabela is a dreamer, a feminist, a playwright and a creative spirit. Her play, By the Apricot Tree, based on her mother’s experiences in prison, is a story of courage and love and forgetting. (Image: Ntsako Mkhabela)

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Melissa Jane Cook

Ntsako Mkhabela is a dreamer, a feminist, a playwright and a creative spirit. Her play, By the Apricot Tree, based on her mother’s experiences in prison, is a story of courage and love and forgetting.

Describing her mother as “crazy, daring and incredibly courageous”, Mkhabela says the play describes the mechanisms her mother used to cope during nearly two years in solitary confinement. “She had to forget,” Mkhabela says simply.

Sibongile Mkhabela’s journey has taken her from Soweto’s burning streets during the 1976 student uprisings to chief executive officer of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital. Growing up in Zola, one of the poorest areas in Soweto, Sibongile says she has always had a desire for change. A former student leader, executive member of the Soweto Students’ Representative Council and general secretary of the South African Students’ Movement, she was one of many responsible for driving the students’ march through Soweto on 16 June 1976. That uprising lead to a nationwide revolt.

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Inspiration for her play

Mkhabela is fascinated by the idea of memory. “We live in a country that both lives with and negates the notion that memory is a powerful part of who and what we are. What I like [is] that memory is the act and process of putting back the past in [our] mind as best as possible what we remember or recall. I am fascinated by the omissions, the lapses, the exaggerations, the blind spots that are a natural part of remembering.”

Her mother has a notoriously bad memory when it comes to people and places, she says. “After making fun of her I began to realise that she has little memory of the people she grew up with, people she went to school with, and it struck me that there is some degree of will in the act of forgetting. She was intentionally forgetful of some parts of her life. I realise now that one of the things she had to do to survive her almost two years in an isolation cell was to forget – to force forgetfulness on her mind.”

Blossoming of the play

The first impulse for By The Apricot Tree was the idea that “everything is, is in relation to everything it is not”. Mkhabela explains: we derive a sense of self from useful external points of reference; the people we love, where we live, how the world see us – everything in the world serves to place you in that world. “So when in isolation you lose sense of self – there is only a brick wall to relate to. Memory becomes the only concrete thing, memory which is both fluid and lives in the imaginary.”

The inspiration was to imagine her mother relating only to a wall that gave her no sense of self; she could only be KC, her struggle identity. She could only be tough, rough, hard, and solid. “The play is a two-hander of the hard KC confronted by the soft parts of her self, derived from a self made at home. It is the struggle for survival where you want to keep the soft parts of your from the hard walls. The challenge, too, is for the soft parts of you to fight to live in you, despite the tough situations. How do you keep all the parts of you alive where all you have to hang on to is a fluid sense of self?”

She knows how loving her mother is, how dearly she values her family: “I tried to imagine what could have happened that would make her force herself to forget her beloved while in isolation.”

The layers of an individual

“I think the most humbling thing was for my mother to let me know that I got it. I got what she went through and she appreciated being heard for what she went through,” Mkhabela explains. “I think [that] being a woman, I can tell a story from a perspective most men or historians may not. I did not want to write about the girl arrested for organising the student uprising. I wanted to tell the story of the child of Mozambican parents trying to make a home in a foreign country. I wanted to write about the girl who lost her mother. I wanted to write about a girl giving up on love because a peaceful march she and her mates organised turned unexpectedly violent and changed their lives. I think when you tell that story, you move people. I have been humbled to have moved my mother and fellow comrades.”

People say they now want the post-apartheid narrative, adds the playwright. “I think they respond to this story because it is not a politics or history lesson; it is just a story about a girl loved away from herself.”

By The Apricot Tree has had a run at the Windybrow Theatre in Hillbrow, at Wits Theatre and at the National Arts Festival. It also earned Mkhabela Wits University’s Percy Tucker Prize for best student director. At each venue, the audience responses were powerful and moving. “I think there is space in South Africa for this kind of story.”

She believes stories like this bring true healing because at the end of the day, we all want to know we have been heard and our cries were not to the darkness.

Telling her mother’s story

Describing her mother as an archetypal rock and a very open person, Mkhabela says she is most grateful that her mother allowed her to undress her public image, to unhinge her and reveal her soft inner self. “I think the best thing would not be to tell this big story of a girl who jumps fences, gets beaten up by police and still rises strong.

“I wanted to tell her story of being left alone at John Foster [Square] in a room about 20 metres long with a broken leg and a weak chest. I wanted to tell the story of the girl who gets sick whenever she gets cold; if I put that girl in a freezing cell for two years, how did she feel? I think most South Africans who claim to be over the story of apartheid miss the fact that apartheid is an institution that more or less is gone, but the story – that lives in people.

“Maybe once we get over the over-inflated politics of hero stories, we can start to tell complex stories that can show how people lived with the beast and how they survived it.”

The mother

Mkhabela says her mother is the magician, the rock, the very best friend, the mother-less girl trying to be as good a mother as she thinks a mother should be. “When I was little, my mother cut my apples so that the seeds in the middle looked like stars. So I thought she had a bit of magic about her. My mother allowed me to dream. Whenever I had a fight, my mother fought with me, sometimes for me, so she has been a hero for me too. When I was very young I realised what had happened to my parents and their sharing of their lives has also taught me the power of empathy.”

Sibongile raised dreamers, and also taught her daughter the very important lesson of letting people do for themselves. “The work I do is because my mother taught me that institutions like apartheid are fluid, that the power of people can break them down to dust.

“My mother raised a humanist feminist. I love the strength of woman that she demonstrates. I think many girls don’t always see strength in their mothers but mine taught me not to fear my strength, and to only love men who are not afraid of my strength.”

Living in the now

Mkhabela runs a non-profit organisation called Miyela that works to get youth to recognise the pools of power around them that make it possible for them to change themselves and their communities. It starts educational programmes that use local and basic resources to show how much can be done with very little. The Mzansi Spelling Bee came out of this, promoting the idea of youth who are thinkers and doers.

She also writes plays and aims to return to directing at the State Theatre in Pretoria. Therein lies her true passion, in the idea of storytelling. “I am now working on republishing my mother’s book, Open Earth and Black Roses. I am also working on a living history project telling the stories of women who were part of the fight for liberation and imprisoned. It is really exciting stuff; we just have to make the public interested. People think you have an apartheid guilt trip when all you want is to make society more humane by allowing stories to be told so people can heal.”

And if that is not enough, Mkhabela is also setting up Random Jam, a line of gourmet jam and biscuits. “There is a lot going on and I like that; that is the only way my mother taught me to live.”