Sunflowers and Revolutions: A Dialogue with Mpho Ndaba
Mpho Ndaba is a scholar, environmental activist, producer and writer. As an undergrad he studied International Relations and Media Studies, followed by an honours degree in development studies at UCT. In 2015 Ndaba joined the Wits Global Citizenship programme, which introduced him to environmentalism and the South African climate justice movement. Currently he is an MPhil fellow and his work centres around issues of food policy and food systems in South Africa and the Global South, advancing the southern development discourses and ways of being. he was awarded the Andrew Mellon Mays Scholarship to form part of the UCT Centre for Environmental Humanities South, researching the Anthropocene in the Global South.
BY LINDA MASILELA
This conversation took place in South Africa.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Earth laughs in flowers.” And this is where we start. With laughter. And the manifestation of it, beautiful flowers. As I go through Mpho Ndaba’s work, I realise that earth has been laughing. But not a simple laugh, one that leads to small revolutions finding habitat inside Mpho’s heart. A garden of achievements and inspiration and grace and gentleness. A bouquet of compassion and passion. He lives. We see the thorns especially when he says, “I am deeply flawed.” But the petals are the ones that stand out. Revolution comes in flowers and this time, it was a sunflower. A sea of yellowness that grows and continues to manifest every time Mpho breathes.
Linda: It’s a privilege and an honour to finally have a conversation with you. Firstly, who is Mpho Ndaba?
Mpho: Thanks for asking. Mpho has always been in the periphery, and this is the place I have carved for myself. Here the quest is to be free, a realization that comes by doing the mundane and appreciating nothingness. I am my mother’s son, a lover, comrade, and friend. I am deeply flawed, uncontainable and soft, always. I love Sundays, loitering, the color Yellow and Miss Nina Simone.
Linda: Most of your work is centred around advocacy for social climate, environmental activism, public media policy, education and climate policy in SA. On top of that you produce and host Free Media Free Minds. You also write poetry and think pieces for different media outlets. Then there is an MPhil. How do you juggle all this? Do you have 48 hours instead of 24? (laughs).
Mpho: The current rise of personal branding in the age of neoliberal capitalism demands that one must pick one thing and run with it, yet to me this moment has allowed me to instead appreciate my complexity. That I am nothing and something at the same time, and it’s okay. I believe this is the reason why I have done more than one thing since my arrival in this city, Johannesburg. All these are things I find important: a thriving public interest media is about us and our sense of being in the world, because I believe that archiving the past and passing those narratives through authentic storytelling can be revolutionary, if done well. The same applies to the question of nature and the environment; it is essentially about recognizing that with settler colonialism we are removed from forming relations with other beings, that instead, “nature” is monetized for the few capitalist elite. Not only that, at the level of society, black people are excluded from experiencing what is considered to be nature and the natural environment.
“We are all here; queer people have always been here, we have advanced different struggles for the benefit of black people as a social group.“
Linda: On environmental activism. What are we currently doing wrong in terms of protecting our environment?
Mpho: Through Changing The Lense, a company I founded in 2018, the biggest platform we have had was at the Club of Rome’s 51st conference in Stellenbosch, engaging youth from across the continent and beyond. Here we not only engaged on how to rethink climate finance but went on to form new collaborations with those who were present at the conference. Youth from Asia and here at home. Some of the areas we are exploring include sustainable cities, and the place of food in development policy.
Linda: In her speech for the 6th Parliament, Minister of Forestry and Fisheries and Environmental Affairs, Honourable Barbara Creecy, mentioned that about 2 million of South Africans are dependent on Natural resources and the natural environment for their income. But we all know that these resources are slowly being depleted. We live on borrowed time. Take us through measures we can take to ensure that we help avoid this ticking time bomb.
Mpho: The country’s mineral industrial complex is the starting point; it defines the advent of South Africa as a racist and anti-black society, whose survival depends of black cheap labor and the slow deaths of people like us. We must recognize this, and shift from over-reliance on coal use, coming up with innovative ideas that not only center black people but allow direct democratic participation in energy production. If you look at South Africa’s carbon footprint at a regional level, it is terrible. Coal use does not only contribute 80% of our carbon footprint but also causes deaths every year. Communities are dying from respiratory diseases and no one is doing anything about it. Being the world’s 14th largest emitter is something that is alarming.
Here therefore, I think we need to cease the funding of new coal fired power stations and hold big corporations accountable. Another important thing is thinking about the country’s food system. Urban land ownership is at the heart of it. And coming up with alternative ways of thinking about food. Build capacity for cities to respond to the increased demand for it, but also capacitate people to plant their own food, while social policies are strengthened with the aim of reducing poverty and the levels of income inequality.
Linda: Four years post-FeesMustFall protests. Have we made progress?
Mpho: In post-1994 South Africa, movements like the Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall without thinking twice, have had significant influence. We definitely have had impact, there are lessons as well, that just because we are young people organizing, that does not mean we all have the same desire to have fresh ideas led by young and not folks who think their being old is a ticket to hogging positions of power.
The is pending trauma work, and rebuilding. By this I mean comrades’ lives changed. Many paid the ultimate price, insofar as mental health is concerned. At the same time, some gained fame and cushy jobs. Now that it has been a number of years, we must be reminded that organizing does not stop, for us and our survival. The quest is always to reimagine society, something we can do in different ways, including centering food, sex work, LGBTI issues, and the environmental justice question.
Linda: You wrote, in one of your articles on Campus Magazine, “Black hetero males in the movement become selective on what needs to be Decolonised and when must the Decolonisation process be carried out.” Powerful statement. But not only that; it holds so much truth. Within the same article you explore the concept of intersectionality and how the revolution nit-picks which struggles are important. Ultimately black women and the queer community are sidelined. How important is intersectionality, especially in revolutionary movements?
Mpho: Look at the time when the Fees Must fall happened, I had not publicly invited folks into my experience and life as a bisexual man. In many ways, that meant that I moved between spaces, seeing the patriarchal and anti-queer nature of the movement. Everything is connected. And the same systems that produce violence affect different social groups. Capitalism is racialized and has had the capacity to exert violence towards women and queer people. To then only focus on one aspect, which is education access, without thinking about how gendered that access will be once we’ve attained what we aimed for, is illogical. We are all here; queer people have always been here, we have advanced different struggles for the benefit of black people as a social group.
Linda: A light-hearted question. Kitchener’s or Great Dane, and why?
Mpho: Great Dane. I tend to enjoy going out alone. And the times I have, I have danced like no one is watching. It’s been glorious.
Linda: In “what the water did for me”, you wrote, “Today I did not want to accidentally drown in my bath water.” In another poem, Sunk , you wrote, ” Sink, how it is okay to see your life flash before your eyes.” The metaphor of water and drowning keeps reappearing. Is this intentional? And what is the relationship between your experience and the above-mentioned metaphor?
Mpho: In 2017, my friend died by drowning in a public pool. From there, my relationship (with water) changed. I could not swim anymore, yet in another context, the same water saved me and mine. While being away from home, water was the only medium through which I could remember my mother’s love for me, often when I was heavily depressed. And in a way, I was okaying the fact that that’s where I was.
Water is complex and has multiple meanings, which are all valid in their own ways. Bathing for me is a moment of silence and being with myself. Here, therefore, water enables me to re-member and be with myself.
Linda: You have written, extensively so, about your mother. From the poems she comes alive and we get to see how amazing she is. Is she aware of this endearment, especially in your writing?
Mpho: I love my mother, Dimakatso. She’s amazing and is an incredible woman. I am generally vocal about my feelings, so she knows.
Linda: It’s been an honour interacting with you. Last question. What are your favourite flowers?
Mpho: Sunflowers all the way. Get me sunflowers, that is how you win my heart.
This conversation was previously published on Linda Masilela’s blog. It is being republished at Africa in Dialogue as part of a series featuring guest interviewers. Read the original post here.
Linda Masilela is a poet, medical doctor, blogger, performance artist, tea connoisseur and script writer. Some of his work has been published in different platforms, such as the Sol Plaatje poetry anthology and Poetry Potion chapbook. He has performed in spaces such as Word and Sound, Current State of Poetry, Tshwane Speak Out Loud, World of Words and other stages. He uses his poetry as a medium to communicate clarity and healing. His poetry deals with issues of race, identity, pain, existence, memory and visibility. One day he hopes to collect all his thoughts and publish a book.