Ngwana Phakwe senna o ipolela motho o motle ha a bolelwa ke batho ba bang is a Sesotho expression that can loosely be translated to mean that it is better to avoid self-praise, and to give room for others to sing your praises. However, this brings mixed feelings to me in relation to our celebrations this year and beyond. Please stay with me; I am battling to adhere to the principle of this expression today, because who else can tell our story with all its complexity, but us? Perhaps it is better that I should tell another story that may shed light on how we got here.
This story involves Kgudu le None (Tortoise and Blesbok). One day None saw Kgudu with some girls, happy. Blesbok got envious and asked, “how can you be with such beautiful girls when you walk with your stomach?” Kgudu replied by asking if None could be faster than him, and he replied that if Kgudu could be faster, it would drown itself. Therefore, Kgudu took him up on this challenge and immediately started to strategize. He organized other Tortoises and planted them along the racing route and across the river. Then Kgudu suggested that None should keep on “calling me because I am small, I can’t see through the grass”. After some time, None asked “where are you?” and the next Kgudu placed ahead of None would respond, “I am here”. This continued until None had to cross the river; “where are you?” he asked, and the Tortoise across the river replied, “I am here”. Feeling mortified, None drowned himself.
Perhaps this is a story of how the advantage of being small (or different or young, I mean we are teenagers right?) may create innovative strategies? If one looks back and reflects on the struggle that theatre for young audiences endured in gaining recognition, perhaps it needed an innovative strategy to get ahead of the more established forms.
From an ASSITEJ SA perspective, the strategy included making an invitation to anyone to join us, who shares the vision of ensuring that South African children have access to “quality performing arts especially designed for them, contributing to a more empathetic, engaged and creative society”. ASSITEJ SA was able to attract, nurture and develop membership all over the country. Figuratively and literally, if anyone were to look for us, we are everywhere; online and on-site. Moreover, we have built alliances and affiliations.
15 years ago, we joined the Association Internationale du Theatre de l’Enfance et la Jeunesse/International Association of Children and Young People (ASSITEJ International – formed in May 1964) as an official National Center and ASSITEJ International never questioned our capability based on age, size or difference (of course due diligence was done).
We may never know the intentions of the Blesbok to mock the Tortoise in front of the girls. In my lived experience, what I do know is that sometimes perceptions cloud our judgments and possibilities to grow. In instances like those, the easiest strategy is the unkindness of words and/or actions. We may choose to maintain our worldviews even if these may not be inclusive. In South Africa, history tells an ugly story of how Apartheid sustained itself based on ideologies that led to its own demise. Celebrating our growth this month is particularly poignant in that we are being reminded about the role that young people played in influencing the course of history towards human dignity and respect. Therefore, I never take the experiences of young people lightly.
You may note that we are only 15 years old this year, but let me share something very important regarding our genesis.
In 2007, with support from fellow Board Member, Janet Watts, Yvette Hardie saw an opportunity to enter the challenge of making the voices of children heard. Today, we take this moment to commend them for their visionary attitude and resilience, because we now have an organization that is rooted in international and regional instruments aimed at amplifying the well-being of children and young people. Such instruments include the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), which amongst other things proposes rights and duties to consider the best interests of the child (Article 4) as well as the right to Leisure, recreation, and Cultural Activities (Article 12).
An African adage suggests; it takes a village to raise a child and as we celebrate 15 years of existence, we are reminded that after 10 years of being a member of ASSITEJ International, we hosted the 19th ASSITEJ World Congress in 2017 (the first on African Soil We are reminded that in 2019, Yvette Hardie was awarded a Lifetime Achievement by the International Performing Arts for Youth (IPAY) for her sustained and meaningful impact to the arts and is now an Honorary President of ASSITEJ International. We are reminded that my fellow Board Member Omphile Molusi won the 2020 ASSITEJ Playwriting award for his commitment to theatre that nurtures young audiences by Write Local, Play Global (WLPG). We are reminded that we have a world class programme; Kickstarter Creative Arts Empowerment Project, that has trained a number of facilitators and teachers across the country. We are reminded that ASSITEJ SA took the lead in technologically transforming theatre and education to the palm of our hands, and so initiatives such as those undertaken by Faye Kabali-Kagwa do not go unnoticed. We have seen storytelling transformed into an online platform (iStimela Sendaba) led by Tsholofelo Shounyane and Thembile Tshuma. We have seen the organization taking the lead in research, foregrounding play as a meaningful phenomenon to strengthen critical thinking, led by Alison Green.
We have seen Board Member Lindiwe Msiza leading transformation in human resource development. Even in the recent wage platinum mining industry negotiations, we witnessed her strategic prowess in enabling the economy to recover, inevitably benefiting the children. With the ever developments in technology, Board Member Tshepo Mashiloane brings invaluable experience that ensures that our policies are a step in dealing with technology matters. In difficult policy and collaborative matters across the globe, we have seen Board Member Ismail Mahomed decisively guiding us toward putting the best interests of the child first. While our growth as an organization expands our human resources (welcome to everyone new to the family), it also places a lot of financial responsibility and accountability on us. Towards this end, Board Member Zanele Ngwenya has done a sterling job in supporting the treasury toward clean audits. Board Member Siyabonga Nzimande brings a powerful global perspective in ensuring that the rights of children are considered in all matters. In a similar breadth, Board Member Obett Motaung brings exceptional energy and vision to meet the ideals of the association. We have seen how ASSITEJ SA played a pivotal role in inviting the National Arts Festival (NAF) expertise to ensure that the 20th ASSITEJ World Congress (held in Japan) ran smoothly. Another reminder here is that ASSITEJ SA was launched at NAF on 2 July (15 years ago). We have seen how collaborative programmes such as ‘In The Works’ have generated new stories, but most importantly teased the imagination. You know what?
Let me invite you to visit our website (https://assitej.org.za/about-us/) I am getting nervous that I may leave so many strategic and wonderful initiatives that you, our membership or partners, are doing for, with and by children and young people. Suffice it to say, as an organization, we will continue to advocate for the role of the arts as an essential right for every child.
And as a Board, we endeavor to ‘inspire and be inspired’. We would like to thank you very much for all that you do with and for the children of South Africa and beyond. Most importantly, we must continue to strategize. We remain open to taking on diverse challenges, not for competition, but for cooperation. Not to prove any point, but to simply assert that the arts are invaluable for children and young people’s development.
Those who have benefited from ASSITEJ SA sing praises. So maybe I should not have mixed feelings about respecting the principles of the expression I started with. Never, ever! Motho o motle ha a bolelwa ke batho ba bang. Rea Leboha, Enkosi, Dankie, Rea leboga, Siyabonga, Thank you, Ro Livhuwa, Merci, Si Ya Thokoza.
The speech was made by Lalu Mokuku is the chairperson of ASSITEJ SA and Executive Committee Member of ASSITEJ International at the 15th birthday celebrations of ASSITEJ SA. She co-wrote Dipalo with Ginni Manning, whom she met at the 2017 Cradle of Creativity in Cape Town. Their play won a 2021 Standard Bank Ovation Award at NAF.
*Phakwe is a Lanner Falcon. Ngwana is a child.