Two Fridays ago Muvhango creator Duma Ndlovu was awarded an honorary PhD in English from the University of Venda.
My impression of him has always been that he doesn't do a lot of interviews, often choosing to stay behind-the-scenes. He has an air of elusiveness to him - you only seem to hear what he's said through hearsay or a third party, instead of what he has to say himself.
When I heard the news that he was receiving his doctorate I thought it would be a perfect time for us to chat to him directly to find out more - and to ask the questions I've wondered about Muvhango. I caught up with him after the ceremony:Tashi:
What does it mean to be an honorary recipient?Duma:
It means that the institution feels that the body of work encompasses such stature that you're equivalent to somebody who's studied for a PhD.
In a body of study, you do your BA and your Masters and then you do your doctoral thesis or dissertation, so this time around they wave all of those things and award you a Doctor of Philosophy degree, this particular one was in English.Tashi:
So it's like your body of work is your thesis?Duma:
Exactly, it's like your dissertation over the years.
On the set of Muvhango.
It's interesting that it's in English and not for Drama - why?Duma:
It's the English department that decided that the plays that I've written - interestingly my plays are in English - so the University of Venda has said that most of my work has empowered the efforts to make people more literate in the English langauge.
For instance, one of the things that they cited is Muvhango and the multiplicity of the languges in it: English, Venda and other languages. Also, that the subtitles in English have helped the literacy rate among black people quite considerably.
I thought that was quite interesting because we never think of it like that. You never think that you'd increase the potential of people being able to read English with subtitles.
What's your personal relationship with English?Duma:
*laughs* I've never been asked that question before. I always say to people: "English is my eighth language so I'm allowed to mess up."
My relationship with it really started when I was a kid, in the township, when I went to school and I was introduced to the language. My view is that English forced it's way into my consciousness as some kind of a first or second langauge because I've found myself communicating with everyone else who is non-Zulu, in the English language.
Also, inadvertently, from when you're in high school, you kind of subconsciously start moving towards English. At the age of 19 I joined a newspaper called The World, which is now The Sowetan and I wrote in the English language.
Throughout my years as a journalist I wrote in the English language. The body of work that I've read, 90% of the books that I've read have been in English - and believe me I've read books in my life. I don't even know how many I've read.
So English took over the subconscious from my own home langauge, to the extent that at my age - I'm over 50 - most of my work and communication is in the English language. It's not by design but it's by default.
What's my relationship with the language? I think I'm in some kind of forced marriage with it. English and I are stuck with each other.
How do you see English in South African culture?Duma:
Interestingly - and I said this my speech (at the doctorate ceremony) - circumstances have forced English to be our stepmother. In order to educate anyone who is not within your home language, you have to use English, to communicate with anyone who doesn't speak your language you have to use it.
Some of us as Africans would prefer it if we had a common African langauge that we could use to communicate but we do not, and English has become the predominant langauge.
Inadvertantly, 80% of the communication that happens within the literary community happens in English. I use more English than I use Zulu - not
that that is preferred, not that one is boasting.
You know, we grew up in a culture where educated Africans used to boast about the fact that they're educated and the fact that they're literate but some of us, I am an African Nationalist, I am one who advocates an African aesthetic, however, as much as you advocate an African aesthetic, you use that body of English in the advocacy.
It's a relationship that is there, you can't do anything about it and it's a relationship that you then use and say: "Let me use it for the positive, to advance the causes that I'm doing," rather than bemoan the fact that we communicate in English.
Before Muvhango started, what made you decide to do the show?Duma:
My first major responsibility I thought, was to come up with a drama that would communicate the African consciousness, so that's what I wanted to do.
I wanted a drama that would say to Africans: "We are Africans and what is our place in society?" Very interesting then that one would come up with a Venda drama to communicate that.
The only way you could communicate an African perspective in the days when we came up with Muvhango was to challenge Africans because most of the stories we told then were American wannabes - I used to call them The Bold and the Beautiful, people wanting to be American.
We wanted to do a story that spoke to Africans in a language that they understood. The only way to do this was to compare African and Western values and traditions and to embody that we created an African man who had two wives, at a time when South Africa didn't have a consititution yet.
That's extremely important because when Nelson Mandela was president he asked Cyril Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer to create a new constitution and he said: "People need to be considerate of the fact that Africans have a way of life."
Suddenly women in polygamous relationships had to be taken into consideration so our story centred round a man who had a woman who lived in Soweto, who was the Western, modern wife married by Western law; and a woman who was in Venda, married by traditional rights.
By having these women fight against each other we were pitting African traditions against Western values - and that's how the drama was conceived.
Filming Thandaza's wedding earlier this year: 14 years after the premiere.
With your first language being Zulu - why isn't it a Zulu drama?Duma:
The organisation that is today known as ICASA, it was called IBA then, they called on the SABC to start featuring mariginalised languages.
I saw a gap, Zulu is not a marginalised langauge, in fact, Zulu is the majority language in South Africa so I then decided to write in the smallest South African langauge, Tshivenda, because I was familiar with it.
I'd learnt it as a child and I was familiar with the cultures. I thought it would make an impact, and it did so the reading of the situation was quite correct.
When it first started, did you write the whole script solo?Duma:
Ja, for the first 52 episodes I was the only writer. There were 13 episodes, then another 13, then 26.Tashi:
Then it extended to a team?Duma:
It became 104 episodes after the first 52, that's when we went to other writers.Tashi:
Are you still involved in the storylines?Duma:
Yes I'm still involved in the storylining, I come up with some of the stories and I also look at all the stories in terms of their relevance and whether they work in the Muvhango aesthetic. I still meet with the writers, attend their meetings, discuss things with them and some of the storylines are mine.Tashi:
Your official title ... you'll now be Dr?Duma
: *laughs* Well, I have been given the honour, that if I want to, I can put Dr in front of my name.Tashi:
Yes I think you should - you can do it to get stuff. People always do stuff for you if you say: "I'm Dr so-and-so."Duma:
*laughs* But I'm not that kind of a person. *laughs* I believe in working for what you get. Which is why I'm going back to school, I'm going to finish my Masters degree - I did a Masters degree and I didn't finish - after finsihing I'll see if I'll do a doctorate, another doctorate.Tashi:
Then you'll be Dr-Dr. What else will you be getting up to next?Duma:
I'm a storyteller so I'll keep telling stories but I've decided to dedicate my life to teaching young people acting and bringing it to their realisation that they need an education so I'm planning to start an acting academy, which is what will consume most of my time.
I'll continue to write but I'd like to start an academy where we take the acting fratenity to another level in South Africa. Ends