Mandla Langa was born in apartheid South Africa in 1950. His family, friends, and his own life were made in and developed by this program that killed, endangered, and punished all who were not White in South Africa. He was and still is a well-known South African writer who, while in exile in Botswana in 1977 and Lesotho in 1980 and after, did not cease to work with the African National Congress (ANC) to end apartheid and write as well as encourage others to write to show the strength of individuals in the face of struggle. He still holds an important spot in South today as a literary leader who continues to encourage South Africans not to forget what they have been through and what he has seen firsthand. He encourages all people to counter racism's dehumanization of people and make a better future so as not to repeat White powers' unforgivable manifestation under apartheid.
Mandla Langa was born in Stanger in Northern KwaZulu-Natal in 1950, but he was raised on the outskirts of Durban where he attended Gardner Memorial School and Sibonelo High School. He was brought up in a large family with nine siblings. His family was poor and his parents struggled to give an education to their children, but they were able to do so with perseverance. Langa received a BA at the University of Fort Hare in 1972.[i] He was well educated for a Black South African of the time with the having a very different view from most schools of apartheid. It was well-known for its rejection of the idea that Black South Africans required a different, inferior education.[ii] His family had an unspoken support for the ANC and would allow the children to read forbidden books and listen to anti-apartheid broadcasts like Radio Freedom. This led many of them, especially Ben, Langa's older brother, to pursue lives that were dangerous in conflict with the apartheid regime. Ben would bring forbidden books home and encourage their reading by every member, so unsurprisingly he and Langa became outspoken writers and members of anti-apartheid organizations like the South African Student Association (SASO) and the ANC.[iii]
This commitment to the ANC and the struggle led to Langa's arrest in 1976 for trying to leave the country without a permit. He was in prison for 101 days and, upon his release, immediately escaped to Botswana where he went into exile. Many artists and ANC members at the time would go into exile because of the apartheid government's banning of the ANC and the need to mobilize an international front. While in exile, Langa continued to write, perhaps even more than before with an increased motivation after his imprisonment and need to flee. He also became a member of uMkhonto weSizwe(MK) and trained South Africans while in exile in Lesotho.[iv] He held a variety of ANC posts while abroad; travelling to various parts of the African continent to mobilize the world against apartheid.
While in exile, Langa wrote stories and poems that highlighted the suffering and abuse of South Africans under apartheid and their need to accept violent resistance, at times. Some of his poems, short stories, and books stand out among the rest in showing how he felt about what was going on in South Africa at the time of his exile: "There Will be no Songs This Year" (1985), "On the Road to the City" (1985), A Rainbow on the Paper Sky (1989), and "The Shelter of Memories" (1990).
His poem "There Will be no Songs This Year," published in Dawn, an MK journal, in 1985, includes two characters-the brother and the widow of a man who died for the struggle against apartheid-and the irony and suffering that life under apartheid holds. Langa's own brother died 20 May 1984 under accusations of being an informer. In his poem, Langa shows the cruelty of the fights under apartheid rule. He depicts people being killed during times that are celebrated like Jesus' birth which he looks at condescendingly in his writing as a birth that is ironically celebrated, as thousands of people lay dead. He also shows the difficulty of being a Black South African under apartheid as he describes Thoko, the narrator's sister-in-law, who works in a well-known company in which she is exposed to the luxuries that Black South Africans must struggle to and usually do not achieve. Thoko suffers with her husband when alive because of his commitment to the struggle against apartheid leading to his ignorance of finances. She feels responsible for his death because she was unable to stay with him, as he became a part of the resistance. The narrator holds pride for what his brother did yet knows that his brother was not the same man when he left their free state of Bethlehem to join the struggle. He struggles to forgive Thoko for leaving his brother, but, in the end, offers to help her and does not leave her alone.[v] This reveals daily struggles to survive both financially and physically, and reveals how Langa feels in coming to terms with his own family's loss. It also depicts two sides of apartheid resistance, passivity and action, and encourages them both to help one another through apartheid and understand each other's views. He encourages MK members and others against apartheid to support one another in response to these difficulties, though they may have diverging opinions on the struggle and what it entails.
His poem, "On the Road to the City," published in 1985, illustrates the death and struggle of apartheid as long lasting and ignored by other countries and people. He describes what one sees "On the Road to the City" with a woman whose child is punctured by bullets, walls haunted with posters and violence, and men trying to make sense of the need to kill. The people in his poem ask for help and meaning but receive no response. Through this, Langa shows how difficult it is to find meaning in all the destruction of apartheid and how help is scarcely found. He appeals to South Africans who feel alone and scared and encourages them to stand their ground with his last stanza that says, 'we/ are here and we will be here to see/ the other dawns on the horizon/ on the road to the city/ of our own creation' (Langa, 1985). He explains that the suffering is only part of the path to freedom; the city that will be built when freedom is achieved will be worth the constant struggle.[vi]
A Rainbow on the Paper Sky is one of Langa's longer stories that describes the struggles of apartheid, and its interpretation by readers shows how successful Langa is in conveying the difficulties of apartheid and the people who were suffering against it. In Jabulani Mkhize's review of A Rainbow on the Paper Sky, published in 1989, he describes how Langa democratizes cultural production in his writing. Mkhize writes in agreement with Langa's own goals for his writing, therefore, showing that Langa is truly able to write in a way that displays his goals. Mkhize describes Langa's writing as dream-like with places where race will not be an issue as the ulimate goal. Langa creates the utopia that his audience should fight for and, in doing so, shows the future that is not currently made but can be constructed if people continue to push for freedom. A Rainbow on the Paper Sky is mainly about bantustans and resistance to them. Langa shows the humans who suffered under apartheid, thereby contrasting the South African propaganda that portrayed Black South Africans as terrorists and less than human.[vii] He gives South Africans life and helps their resistance to be understood.
His poem, "The Shelter of Memories," published in Rixaka, an ANC journal, in 1990, shows the barbarity and difficulties of apartheid with descriptions of battles and references to various deaths for freedom. He describes warriors coming back 'bleeding, legs and hands lacerated' and their embraces upon surviving another day of battle (Langa, 1990). These embraces are then explained to young children and the readers as not embraces of love, but rather embraces of hope for a better future and acknowledgement of the reasons for so much suffering. Langa explains the need to have perseverance to his audience, mostly comprised of ANC and Black Consciousness MovementBlack Consciousness Movement members. He insists upon a need to keep going to reach the end goal that is the future: to be free.[viii]
These poems and stories were often published under the banner of the ANC and MK during apartheid and Langa's exile. They together describe the suffering apartheid held, its effects on the people who lived during it, and the need of those in it to continue living and fighting. Langa encourages people to have hope and continue on against apartheid trying to envision the future that they will have the freedom to create if they have perseverance.
In addition to writing against apartheid, Langa also was an active member of anti-apartheid organizations during exile. Langa held a variety of posts for the ANC and created groups that gathered artists of all sorts together to save South Africa by giving a voice to the struggles of apartheid. He helped establish Medu, a media arts ensemble in Botswana, where artists in exile and nationalists spread information about what was occurring in South Africa. He also, with the ANC, helped create Zabalaza in the UK, which held conferences with different artists to talk about current events, common strategies, and initiatives.[ix] Also with the ANC, he was trained with the MK in Angola and was a Cultural Representative in the UK and Western Europe.[x] He was in exile for ten years spreading the ANC's influence and philosophy, as well as his own of writing for the future.
In exile, Mandla Langa developed a belief of what he must do for his country and what it was, but when he returned in 1990, it was not the country that he had imagined and left. His brother's death and his writing, "The Naked Song" (1996), show the struggle that it was for him to cope with this different South Africa. The ANC was unable to fix South Africa while he was in exile, and his brother died at the hands of an unorganized ANC. While Langa was in exile, his brother was murdered by MK operatives who unjustly accused him of being an informer. One of the worst parts was that Langa had actually been trained with his brother's killer when in Angola. His story, "The Naked Song," describes a character that, much like himself, lost a loved one to the MK while abroad representing the ANC. The character, also like himself, falls to the temptations of alcoholism with the suffering of the loss of a loved one at the hands of people he thought he could trust. He feels 'naked' and unable to speak of his concerns with others because of this vulnerability that is made in not knowing who to trust, what one is fighting for, or when the suffering of apartheid will end (Langa, 1996).[xi] Langa submerged himself in his writing to organize his thoughts and feelings into characters with stories that could teach others of struggle and the wrong that was and still is occurring.
Post-Apartheid, Mandla Langa has created and worked in groups that encourage writing of history so that it is not forgotten or repeated. These groups also encourage the appreciation of the arts for their role in highlighting the humanity and lives of people. He ensures that South Africans and others remember their history with groups like Koketso Growth, which he directs. It is a company that strives to conserve, share, and celebrate heritage[xii] . He also serves as chairperson of Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA), in which he keeps voices of the people of South Africa from being prohibited to speak on the radio by discouraging media censorship. ICASA also prevents financial situations from taking away South Africans' access to the radio and to the voices that speak against apartheid and remember its existence.
Langa also gives voices to people with his writing and encouragement to carry on. He writes to bring out the human in each character and believes in the power of 'self-reflection' (Langa, 2016). His goal is to tell stories that keep history from repeating itself. When speaking at STIAS (Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study), where he is currently an Artist-in-Resident, Langa described his work to his colleagues. In doing so, he revealed his goal to show regular people's everyday lives and struggles, to 'bring out the fact that these were human beings with complexities and all sorts of sides to them' [ibid] .[xiii] He writes about people who he can relate to but makes sure to give them the personality and actions that make them truly human. He tells his colleagues that the blessing of a writer is the ability to tell the stories of the people and, in this way, reconstruct the past in South Africa, so a new, bright future may be made. He writes as a call to action and humanity to convince people of their own strength, rather than to talk of the struggle of apartheid. He thinks writers have a duty not to be politicians but instead, to convince people of the beauty that can be and is present in some parts of the world and to push people to construct the future with this beauty. [xiv]
Mandla Langa's post-apartheid writing focuses more on the humanity of South Africa and everyday struggles of regular people. When writing, a Gathering of Bald Men in 1996, Mandla Langa describes his characters; Caleb, his wife, and Ranger; in detail with characteristics and struggles that show their humanity and writes away from the social struggle that may be occurring on the outside, only slightly hinting at it with descriptions of the setting. This is a bit of a shift from his writing during apartheid. He writes of a man who loses all confidence and want to live because of a bald spot that for him symbolizes weakness and failure. Langa makes this trivial issue of utter importance and ends the story on a good note in which the man regains confidence and helps others to have that confidence too with a company for bald people. Mandla Langa's writing gives hope with its happy ending, and it allows people to be human with consciousness of trivial things causing difficulties.[xv] This is evident in most of his post-apartheid writing. He no longer shows the graphic struggle of apartheid but instead shows the struggles and lives of regular people and helps them to get through these problems in his stories, therefore, helping people to cope with and understand that it is okay to be human and be flawed.
Mandla Langa is a powerful figure in South African history who, during and post-apartheid, pushes people to write and fight for the sake of the future generations and the sake of the struggle by gathering these people in groups that encourage this enlightenment and by advocating for certain steps of violence and action to be taken. For many, it is difficult to understand why certain measurements were taken during this time in history, but Langa understands the struggle and its impact on the people that led them to do things that others might not support or understand like fight and kill for the sake of their freedoms and that of the future generations. He encourages all to see the human in every one of us so that we can understand where people are coming from and how there must not be any suffering or cruelty inflicted upon others because of race or status.
[i] “Mandla Langa,” The Presidency, 2016, http://www.thepresidency.gov.za/pebble.asp?relid=7847. ↵
[ii] "University of Fort Hare (1916 - )," The Presidency, 2016. http://www.thepresidency.gov.za/pebble.asp?relid=7571. ↵
[iv] “Mandla Langa,” The Presidency, 2016. http://www.thepresidency.gov.za/pebble.asp?relid=7847. ↵
[ix] Ulrike Ernst, From Anti-Apartheid to African Renaissance: Interviews with South African Writers and Critics on Cultural Politics Beyond the Cultural Struggle (Hamburg: LIT, 2002), 50-65. ↵
[xi] "Mandla Langa, author of The Naked Song," Mail&Guardian, August 1996. http://mg.co.za/article/1996-08-30-mandla-langa-author-of-the-naked-song. ↵
[xii] "Mandla Langa," Kohetso Growth. 2016. http://www.koketso.co.za/key-personell/mandla-langa/. ↵
[xiv] Ernst, From Anti-Apartheid to African Renaissance, 50-65. ↵
[xv] Mandla Langa, "A Gathering of Bald Men," in Under African Skies Modern African Stories, ed. Charles Larson (Canada: Harper Collins, 1997), 292-311. ↵