THAMI MNYELE & THE REVOLUTION OF THE ARTS

After going through a solemn service to lay down yet another one former Azanian Peoples Liberation Army (APLA) guerrilla to his final resting place, this time at the Tembisa township cemetery’s allocated site for national liberation heroes, I afterwards sauntered nearby to pay my respects at the memorial stone of Thamsanqa Harrison Mnyele (1948 – 1985): a friend of all four seasons, a comrade and a gifted artist. 

Mnyele’s grave is almost four hundred meters away from his former home in eMangweni Section, where he lived with his first wife, Naniwe and their baby daughter Nomathamsanqa, from 1977 until he had to skip the country in 1980.

The memorial stone quotes him as saying: ‘For me as a crafts man the act of creating art should complement the act of creating shelter for my family or liberating the country of my people.’ 

The comment first appeared in an interview with Medu Art Ensemble’s magazine that was produced in Gaborone, Botswana, in September 1980 to promote a solo exhibition of his art works at the national gallery. 

Thami Mnyele was subsequently killed in a cross border raid of the South African Defence Force (SADF) into Botswana on 14 June 1985. News reports stated that the lights of his room were still on when the local police came to investigate the crime scene in the morning, and it seemed that Mnyele had tried to escape the invasion. His corpse was found a few metres outside the house. Indian ink, pastels, broken easels, brushes and his canvasses were scattered all over the floor, but his art work was missing. 

The Thami Mnyele I personally knew, loved to work at his art drawings in the stillness of the night. His work enabled him to wrestle the ghosts within and made him wrangle with any doubts and anxieties he was confronted with.  The midnight bug, I surmised, must have kept him awake on that fateful night. 

Mnyele’s body was exhumed in Gaborone, Botswana, and then reburied in his hometown of Tembisa, City of Ekurhuleni, in South Africa in the year 2004. 

His portrait picture is emblazoned on the memorial stone. I was here now to doff off my hat figuratively at this good enough comrade. We had chosen two different lines of struggle. He was in the African National Congress and I was a cadre of the PAC. 

Just then, one of my friends shook me out of my reverie when he called out to say we were now ready to go for the final rite back at deceased’s home in the present day burial.  

THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND 

Mnyele’s art pieces had appeared as book cover designs for the premier poet of Black resistance, Mongane Wallace Serote’s poetry volumes such as Yakhal’ inkomo (Ad Donker:1972), Tshetlo (Ad Donker: 1975) and No Baby Must Weep (Ad Donker: 1976). 

Mnyele had also held a group exhibition and art workshop at Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto in 1977, along with socially conscious artists Ben Arnold and Fikile Magadlela, as an alternative teaching program for high school pupils roaming the streets in protest against Bantu Education. 

The trio continued the glorious work of Music, Drama, Arts, and Literature (MDALI) even though its founding director, Molefe Phetoe, had been detained without trial at the notorious John Vorster Square, the Johannesburg regional headquarters of the security branch of the South African Police then. 

Mnyele was further roped in to work for the design unit of SACHED, an extention service for university correspondence students in Johannesburg. Mnyele worked at the institution with PAC luminaries like Klass Mashishi and Simon Ramogale. 

Mnyele’s friend, James Moleya, was branch chairperson of the Black Peoples Convention (BPC) in Tembisa. Moleya, also an artist, plied his wares for an adverting agency and lived in the same neighbourhood as that of my parents in Moteong Section in Tembisa. 

Whilst Moleya was detained indefinitely under Section 10 of the Internal Security Act at Modderbee Prison in 1977, Mnyele supported his family and made regular solidarity home visits. Black Consciousness organisations, all nineteen of them, were banned on October 19, 1977, and their leaders were kept under lock and key. 

I had started to write as cub reporter for the arts pages at The Voice ecumenical weekly. I later opted to coordinate content for Staffrider literary arts magazine, published by Ravan Press. I too was in the eye of the storm in the wake of the October 1977 clampdown and I have marks and bruises to show. But I digress. 

Moleya held an art exhibition of his prison drawings in 1978 soon after he was released.  It was held at the Methodist Central in Pritchard Street, Johannesburg. He sold all the pieces. 

In arts circles, the exhibition sparked a debate on whether Moleya’s work was simply agitprop or works of art with aesthetic merit.  

THE NECESSITY OF REVOLUTIONARY ART

Mnyele and I held private conversation on this aspect and couldn’t find an end to it. We discussed the need for art in society, and how writers and artists could find new roles in ‘conscientising’ the masses.  It was not possible for artists to decouple themselves from the vicissitudes of a turbulent society. 

As creatives, we carried angst against the oppressive system. Artists are the nerve centre of a nation. They follow the dictates of their conscience and true to that sensibility they portray in their work what ills society. 

We realised the existence of a thin line between ourselves as ordinary people in society and that of our creative work of the imagination, with the complexities of  defining the world we lived in. 

We ultimately had to question the role our produce as artistic craftsmen and women could do to run in the changes and transformation that society desperately needed. 

Thami Mnyele often asked the vexing question of art being created for art’s sake, that art was a universal utility to be enjoyed by all, and that should it really be seen as such. He juxtaposed this view with that of art as a cog in the wheel of the revolution. Was it possible to join the two into one? 

His humble home became the centre point of local discussions among comrades, friends and acquaintances on how meaningful contributions can be made by each one of us, in our own ways and abilities, to bring about positive changes. 

Circumstances of the post-October 19, 1977 repression enforced a pivotal moment for the culture of resistance.  

Artists carried out other roles assigned to them to carry out the destruction of apartheid and settler colonialism, while making their work in the arts an important mainstay to mobilise social awareness. 

I had stayed overnight in his eMangweni home when Naniwe came in from night shift at Tembisa Hospital and found a note from Mnyele on the marital bed stating he had been recalled to join the mission in exile. 

For me, Mnyele’s art reflect the life that he himself lived. His oeuvre is best reflected by the pencil drawing of a funeral by a very poor family in the dusty streets of Alexandra Township that he had witnessed. The drawing is of a coffin on a bicycle held firm by harrowed mourners walking it down to the cemetery in 22nd Avenue. The mourners are all dresses in black. This artwork was crafted circa 1972.  

This theme is also reflected in a piece he exhibited at the Botswana National Gallery in 1980. It is a silhouette image of skeletal bones underneath the earth. There is a dry prickly plant, to symbolize repression. The art work is in various shades of grey. Thami Mnyele then quotes from the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda: 

       Like a shipwreck
      We die to the core
       As if drowning inwards
       Of our hearts
       As if we had lived
       Falling from skin into soul

These poetic images and words truly reflect Thami Mnyele in his revolutionary commitment to pay the supreme sacrifice. It is a fatality he had conquered with his art work, and his verbal expressions on the art of resistance. 

By Jaki Seroke

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