Giant Steps – from a film by Aryan Kaganof and Geoff Mphakati

By Aryan Kaganof & Geoff Mphakati

We’re only preparing you to get to the less hellish part of hell. Heaven, you’re not going!

Father Mathias to Lefifi Tladi

January 12, 2008

Geoff Mphakati: I managed Dashiki until it was banned and went underground, until some of its members had to leave the country and go abroad, the others went underground within the country. I was managing Dashiki then because it was important and highly imperative for me or somebody with the understanding and the consciousness of the political dynamic involving Dashiki… and Dashiki became vocal as far as the arts were concerned, opening up and saying what they felt about the state. They didn’t now go into the back rooms and the back yard and hide themselves – they came open. All of their performances they were very, very vocal and this is why they started burning their fingers.

 Lefifi Tladi: ’Cause now we were going to schools really motivating the kids, and when 1976 happened in Soweto then we said well if it’s in Soweto we’ll take it out here. We were burning all these buses and some schools and we were highly causing commotion …ultimately we were picked up, all of us, but then we went on trial and we got the bail….but during this period of this bail, Shahn Sheti, who was our lawyer, said that you know your case has been changed from public violence and arson to sabotage, so the mildest sentence you’ll get is about eighteen years.

 January 10, 2008

Rude Boy Paul: A gentleman by the name of Lefifi Tladi will be joining us on the other side of the news bulletin, a world-renowned artist and poet who has been in exile for over thirty years so he definitely has a story to tell.

 Kgafela oa Magogodi: Lefifi, as you may know came out of what we call the Black Consciousness tradition, came out of the seventies, went to exile I think in 1976. Yes he has been based in Sweden I think for thirty years, since 1980… it’s great to be here with him and, you know, and share him with the Y generation. He’s from the Toyi Toyi generation.

Lefifi Tladi: …We didn’t know much about ourselves and instead of looking to others, to Europe, then I was collecting a lot of material of contemporary African artists and then from there we had few exhibitions all over the place and from 1980 I got a scholarship to study in Sweden.

 Rude Boy Paul: What did you study exactly?

Lefifi Tladi: Art history, but it’s a wrong name actually. It’s European art history because there are no Africans in those books of theirs… But I think it’s unfortunate, it’s a very sad period for me today because the day before yesterday my guru Geoff Mphakati passed away… so that is the thing that has put my energy levels at quite a low level, because he’s a guy who actually uplifted our consciousness as artists….he made us understand the meaning of being an artist because we have this simple kind of negative tradition of if a child is dull-witted let him go into the arts…

 Geoff Mphakati: Lefifi and company, but mostly Lefifi, is what my wife calls my instant children. Lefifi was dumped on my lap by his uncle after he was kicked out of school because they thought he was dumb, they said he was stupid. So I took him on and started piling book after book on him. He lapped them up like nobody’s business. Right now the mentor is like the student and the student is like the mentor.


 Geoff Mphakati: I think one of the most crucial issues, now this I’m directing at artists, whether they be poets, dancers, visual artists you know, all of the art forms, literary arts. It boils down to one thing – freedom means money. In other words artists create for an elitist group. Artists have never been able to address themselves from a socio-economic and a political perspective because if they had artists wouldn’t be in the limbo they caught up in right now. It’s who do I sell my work to next, to get a couple of dimes.

 January 8, 2008

Lefifi Tladi: The way Kgafela reads poetry inspires me. I’ll read a short poem that I like. It illustrates the depth of seTswana, it goes like this.

Toro, a Thorn fig, not toro, a dream.
To vomit God is to cut off the wings of angels, is to make a hole out of dreams of slavery.
It is to free ourselves to breathe through the third eye, unpicked by the thorns of the thorn fig (Foreign elements)…
…or to put it another way.
When God vomits I cut off the wings of angels…
… I drill holes for you to dream in.

 Kgafela oa Magogodi: That was the motherfucking tongue!

 January 7, 2008

Otsile Ntsoane: Lefifi Tladi has written fantastic seSotho, seTswana poems; I mean metaphorically, he’s galactic-travelling above the cosmological levels…but unfortunately the professors of seTswana and seSotho don’t want to open their brains and say bring those poems home to be published, read and be taught in school. Now another question some of the guys were asking: hey now I’m struggling to publish indigenous language, to publish an anthology, I want to know how am I going to publish. Lefifi says ‘Well look I have written poetry many years ago, I mean I’ve never published, but if you get published in twenty years…’

 Lesego Rampolokeng: …or if by 2050 you are not published, you have failed! To be honest I don’t think that I would have attempted to take the first step into the poetic word… or into that terrain where the mind gets to be pulled apart, gets to be dissected and opened out, and left bleeding and pumping for people to eat off, were it not for him…(points to Lefifi) … I doubt it very much, because at the time I had of course been exposed to the Shakespeares, to the dead white romantics and such like and I hated poetry…I don’t know if I’ve changed, I perhaps still hate or perhaps still hate even much more… because for me it was something that was alienating for me even the nursery rhymes that we were taught ‘bah, bah, black sheep’…I looked at that stuff and I could not identify with the sheep. I was much more of a mountain goat…(laughter) …you know so when he burst upon the scene and into my consciousness I had to embrace that and get myself married to it and that’s why I’m here…

January 6, 2008

Motlhabane Mashiangwako: I became a visual artist in Bra Geoff’s house you know. One day we paid Geoff a visit and we found these artists in Geoff’s house and look, it was fantastic. They were using Geoff’s main bedroom as a studio… and that is where I first picked up a piece of paper. I mean I was among the heavy guys like Winston Saodi, Fikile Magadlela…and a lot more others like Lefifi Tladi, Gilbert Mabale and so on, there was music happening, there was the visual arts happening and…somebody gave me, allowed me a piece of paper which I took and I started drawing…and what I drew on that piece of paper was a foot with an eye, you know, and roots coming out of the foot. So the next painting, what I later entitled ‘Nkosi SikeleliAfrika’, it was a head of a woman with parted hairs, you know, and a lot of lips around it, you know which represented the islands around Africa and this face was in tears. That was the African continent, or the matriarchal Africa, mourning the loss and the suffering of her children and that was in 1974 in Geoff’s house.

 January 5, 2008

Lefifi Tladi: What we were doing in terms of this kind of paintings was that we were laying a foundation that gives a broader scope of how we perceive our future, you get it? And unfortunately it didn’t filter down because we got independence; what the imperialists do is when they see that you’re about to get your freedom they give you independence, and independence simply means they give you the machinery that they were oppressing you with so you oppress yourself.

 November 20, 2007

Lefifi Tladi: Each and every generation has to define itself in the context of its role in the development of its own society. And I could just take a, for example in the context of South Africa at the time of Black Consciousness, that was a generation who had to define its role within the development of the society and our point of departure was based on consciousness. The uplifting of a consciousness that is anchored in Africa and on that basis we began to find out: what is this Africa? What is its history? What is its contribution to world development? And as Ngugi wa Thiong’o would say we were shifting the centre…

 May 7, 2007

Geoff Mphakati: What inspired us? We are artists. We are forever creating. We are innovative people…We are dynamic, we are volatile; we are a combination of a volcanic eruption…an earthquake, a hurricane, a typhoon, put them all together – That’s who we are.

 Motlhabane Mashiangwako: So you don’t become an artist out of choice you become an artist out of…if I was say maybe a Christian I would say out of a call… you get a calling.

 April 27, 2007

Don Laka: And Geoff Mpakhati introduced me to the real new world of Jazz, you know hard bop and all the new modern jazz musicians you know…the African jazz, avant garde jazz. He really, I mean he used to take us into his house, you know buy us snacks and stuff. We sit there and play, he said now the concert begins and he would play a record from the first track up to the last track. That’s how you, I remember in 1976 when he just came with a LP and, it was on a Friday he called me I went to him with a friend of mine. We sat there listening to a LP from Friday until Saturday the next day. That’s how important that music became to me and I was introduced to it by Bra Geoff.

 March 19, 2007

Geoff Mphakati: And the poetry came into place because of the Last Poets merging or fusing African musical forms with poetry.

Lefifi Tladi: Actually funnily enough the first time we heard the Last Poets was in Alexandra at Wally Serote’s place, and then actually the name ‘Last Poets’ was given to them by Willie Kgositsile, and the Last Poets also were a group that were there because their purpose was to uplift the consciousness of the ordinary working class into a kind of an aesthetic level of appreciating what black people can do.


November 24, 2006

Geoff Mphakati: And the indigenous perspective really took off from the very onset with Dashiki because they had poetry in Tswana, Pedi.

 Lesego Rampolokeng: We are going to Church.

 Kgafela oa Magogodi: They disgrace us. They fight over meat at funerals, they have no
respect… insulting each other’s mother.
They shame us by fighting for meat at funerals, giving each other the smell of their armpits.
They stab him with a knife in the eye and when he runs he falls into a pot of samp.
He hits the black pot and falls onto the fire with his belly. Everybody screams.
The congregation gossips…
The priest gives them a sermon…
He says ‘Hey you people, which one messed with the other one’s wife?’


August 14, 2006

TITLE OVER SCREEN: Giant Steps is dedicated to Bra Geoff Mphakati who passed away during the shooting of this, his first documentary as director.

 Lefifi Tladi: So now we don’t make poems we create, for Brother Geoff. A spontaneous reflection of our soul steps…you have trembled beyond the illusion of political manifestations.

Bra’ Geoff Mphakati: You need to revisit your past, to be able, to be able to move ahead. Until you revisit your past, you are moving into a void.


This story is in print as part of Chimurenga Vol. 15: The Curriculum is Everything (available here).

Presented in the form of a textbook, Chimurenga 15 asks what could the curriculum be – if it was designed by the people who dropped out of school so that they could breathe?


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