Tinyiko Sam Maluleke
Tinyiko Sam Maluleke

Born at the right time: Celebrating Antoinette

What would you pay for an evening in the company of Lebo Mashile and Don Matera – two of our country’s most gifted wordsmiths? I recently had such an evening at the home of Pitika and Antoinette Ntuli on July 30 2011. Pitika is a world renowned South African sculptor, poet and intellectual. Antoinette Ntuli, a brilliant art critic and curator in her own right, (see her chapter in Pitika’s book Scent of Invisible Footprints published by UNISA Press in 2010), is an integral and key part of the Pitika Ntuli story.

When I arrived at the house, I sought Antoinette out first because the occasion was to celebrate her birthday. I had a warm hug and good wishes to deliver to her. She was dressed simply but elegantly — and she looked gorgeous. Her hairdo brought to mind a line from Hugh Masekela’s song titled market place. She had ‘corn-row hair in a million braids’ even as her eyes lit up with joy. She was clearly enjoying every minute and every aspect of her role of being at once host and celebrant. Small groups of guests took turns to swirl around her. She basked in the warmth of the attention she was getting. Throughout the evening, a beautiful and permanent smile sat on Antoinette’s face.

As I walked in I saw some of the country’s best thinkers, visionaries, truth-sayers, truth-doers, former exiles and former ‘inxiles’, exiled ‘inxiles’ and ‘inxiled’ exiles, blacks and whites, top-notch artists across the fields – young and old. Almost immediately, I spotted a small rowdy crowd huddled around the petite and dynamic figure of Paul Simon. Yes that Paul Simon — the Graceland Paul Simon. Paul is a great admirer of the art work of Pitika Ntuli. At the other end I saw Hugh Masekela in conversation with Lebo Mashile and Ngila Mike Muendani. A few steps behind them, stood Phuthuma Nhleko, former MTN Group CEO — speaking to a bunch of friends and acquaintances. At the other extreme corner sat a group of women.

I have been in that house before, but this day the very floors felt sacred and the walls stood in reverent attention. The guest list consisted of beautiful minds, gifted hands, fearless lips and spirit voices — the last two words being the title of one of Paul Simon’s most beautifully written songs from the album Rhythm of the Saints. The themes woven into this song are not altogether irrelevant to how I felt at the Ntulis that Saturday. The song speaks of ‘sweetness in the air combined with the lightness in my head’ – exactly what and how I felt as we went deeper into the evening. The song also recounts an occasion in which the powerful haunting presence of spirit voices could be heard summoning rain water and river water to come and cause some healing.

Hovering between the sharp-angled living-room ceiling and the heads of the distinguished guests, were multi-coloured poems of hope and struggle, fluttering like winged bugs, jostling for voice, desperate for attachment, calling for re-membrance and hungry for embodiment. A little lower down, brilliant ideas bubbled and sizzled in the multiple simultaneous conversations – producing a prayer-like buzz akin to the one produced when the abazalwane (born-again Christians) pray together all at once. But the Ntuli house buzz of which I speak was inspired by the wines of Stellenbosch and by Scottish spirits far more mundane than the famous holy ghost.

Then suddenly, one of the poems seized old Donald Matera. His face broke into smile. He stood up and a poem titled this land delivered him. The pace was slow and deliberate; the words issued in musical staccato and spoken in crystal clear Sophiatown diction. The poem shone in his eyes even as its words danced delicately on his gesturing hands. Out of the blue, the mountains and rivers of our land burst into the Ntuli living room to narrate the tragedies and the triumphs, the follies and the wisdoms; the promises and the problems of us, our predecessors, our offspring and our legacy. The poem spoke of South Africa as a land like no other — a country worth living in and a country worth living for.

You should have heard Pitika introduce and extroduce Don before and after the poem. Pitika spoke as if he was reading from an ancient book of prose lodged somewhere between his ears. Then out of the blue, Pitika ‘ambushed’ his nephew and demanded a poem. In a few seconds the young man delivered an enchanting poem that had a refrain in which Jesus Christ is called ‘a wonderful guy’, delighting the crowd immensely.

Three brilliant tributes to Antoinette left an indelible mark on my consciousness. ‘I am so glad that my wife was born’ said Pitika. Enough said. Then came the tribute from her son. ‘Whereas most teenage boys would have taken offence at being called a ‘mummy’s boy’, I was proud of that appellation. I am happy to be the son of one of the greatest people in the world’, he said. ‘That’s my boy’, shouted Antoinette. ‘Mine too’, retorted Pitika. Not to be outdone, the legendary Hugh Masekela stepped forward and said; ‘In South Africa today, there are no more black people and no more white people — just people; and Antoinette is proof of that’.

The magnificent Lebo Mashile, arguably the pack-leader in contemporary South African poetry, performed briefly. Her stage presence is intoxicating. The words of her poems stand besides, behind, before, after, above, below and around one another like the million brush strokes that lie behind an exquisite oil painting. Born and steeped into African American English, this Mosotho woman is more than ‘just a colonised African who breaks down the queen’s language until Sesotho understands it’ as she declares tongue in cheek in a poem titled ABCs.

Lebo’s poem was brief and powerful. It was about the person in us whom we let be and the person in us whom we won’t let be — the ‘me’ inside whom we will not allow to ‘breathe on the outside’. She teased, probed, angered and stunned us with words that depicted the tragic life of the phenomenal persons banished to walk the deepest corridors of our minds. Few can match Lebo in her use of voice and emotion; her repertoire of facial expressions, her sudden changes of pace and volume, her amazing command of the queen’s language, her magician-like use of hand gestures and her ability to use her entire upper body to bob and weave like Muhammad Ali ans she engages in the complex art of drawing verbal pictures.

Lebo Mashile’s brief poem made me think of the South Africa that lies buried in our souls — the brave and beautiful South Africa we will not allow to ‘breathe on the outside’ — a constant refrain to which Lebo returned again and again in her poem.

Being there, in that eminent company, amidst the wise words and the music, I was persuaded that Antoinette – whose birthday we were celebrating – was born at the right time. So have we been – born at the right time. We live in the right country. Ours is the time of great opportunities to change, re-shape, transform and envision a truly better country, a better world and a more sustainable earth. These opportunities will not always be available and the window may be slowly shutting already.

It will be a pity if our leaders were to auction away our most valuable years to corruption, divisiveness, incompetence and a sheer failure to discern the meaning of this moment in our history. It will be an even greater pity if our citizenry outsources totally all to so-called leaders in the political and economic spheres. It is not enough to vote, once every five years. It is not enough to complain and to blame. Tolerating corruption and incompetence is certainly unhelpful. Not only must citizens do better than divisive and corrupt leaders, they must at all times, hold these leaders accountable.

I bet not many birthday celebrations make you think this long and hard. Then again, Antoinette Ntuli is no ordinary woman.