Cantos of a Life in Exile

Writer, performer, director: Makhaola Ndebele
Where: Theatre Arts, Methodist Church Hall at Cnr Milton Road and Wesley Street, Observatory, Cape Town
When: August 15-20, 2023  (eight performances)

Cantos of a Life in Exile, written and performed by multi-disciplinary creative, Makhaola Ndebele is a beautifully poignant theatre experience. The writing is exquisitely beautiful (yes, using ‘beautiful’ again), with enthralling storytelling, song and praise poetry. Cantos of a Life in Exile is threaded with vivid leitmotifs and images of a family in exile from Apartheid; home, family, language, heritage; land, memory, smell, taste. Ndebele, currently lives in Johannesburg and it has been a long time since he was on stage in the Mother City. Cantos of a Life in Exile is on at Theatre Arts in Cape Town, until August 20, 2023. There are moments when one steps into a sacred space of theatre/storytelling and Cantos of a Life in Exile is all of that.

Ndebele invites us in Cantos of a Life in Exile, to “an encounter”. It is an “encounter” between us [the audience] and Ndebele in the village of his birth – Roma Valley, Ha Maama- in Lesotho. He goes on to say that if this encounter was taking place in the village of his birth, it would probably be in the “language of his birth”. But we are not in the village. The language- words, culture and ancestry – linger as palimpsests, in Cantos of a life in Exile.

As he tells his story, Ndebele chants and sings –with lingering refrains in Sesotho and isiZulu. A ‘cantos’ is a section of an epic or long/large scale narrative poem and its origin, etymology (I Googled it), is from the Latin –‘cantus’- ‘song’. Homer is credited as being an early user of the cantos but Dante, and Italian poets seem to be the ones who consecrated the term. In Cantos of a Life in Exile, Ndebele braids song, spoken word, melody into his story- which is intensely personal and private. Within the personal, the story is achingly knotted with ‘the political’; the politics of Africa- Lesotho and South Africa. Cantos of A Life in Exile is the story of family and exile; the yearning and searching for home and belonging -physical/emotional/cultural- the pangs of exclusion, displacement; the pull of going back and returning. And what then? It is complicated to go ‘back’, to ‘return’.

Exile has underscored the trajectory of the Ndebele family. Cantos of a Life in Exile is very much a homage to his parents who are academics. His parents were both born in South Africa and went to Lesotho in the 1960s, fleeing the Apartheid regime. His mother, Mpho (‘gift’) had roots in Lesotho but it was a question of going anywhere which would offer an alternative to mediocre Bantu Education. His parents met at the university in Lesotho – on the Roma campus of UBLS. [The University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland as it was called. It is now the National University of Lesotho]. They did not return to South Africa, until 1991- thirty years away from home. [His mom was ‘allowed’ back, briefly, to bury her mother].

Ndebele’s father is Zulu and his mother is Sotho. They furthered their studies abroad: An MA and PhD (creative writing) for his father and his mom received her MA (social work). Mpho Ndebele is a social justice activist. His father, Professor Njabulo S. Ndebele is a former Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Cape Town. In Cantos of a Life in Exile, he says mother was “fierce and brave”. Love that.  

Makhaola Ndebele was born in Lesotho – away from ‘home’ which he had never encountered. His name, Makhaola may be translated as “arbitrator – of disputes. He was exiled from the village of his birth, when his parents, left Lesotho, to further their studies. When they returned in 1983, to Lesotho, after three years abroad, Ndebele was 12. There was political unrest in Lesotho. Young Ndebele felt an outsider at school. He had attended seven different schools; in five educational systems; on three different continents. He felt that he did not belong and fit in.  There was emporia and disbelief when it was announced that Nelson Mandela was to be released from prison. Ahh- they could finally go ‘home’- to South Africa. It was his country by descent but not a country that he knew.

The family moved in 1991, to Johannesburg, to the suburb of Kensington. He relates a wonderful story of a crustless loaf of bread, sold at a cafe in Kensington but I am not going to narrative spoil. The bread story conjures up a heart-breaking cantos capsule of racism and intolerance. The life of exile continued. In a recent interview, he said to me:” I imagined South Africa to be the place I would find the belonging that I so longed for. But, upon my return, I quickly found that it was more an experience of moving to yet another new place rather than an experience of returning home.”

After a year in Joburg, the family moved to Cape Town in 1992. In Cape Town, enrolling at university, young Ndebele and his peers were told to take bridging classes in English as English was apparently not their first language. And what about those who spoke Afrikaans as their first language? They were not instructed to go for English lessons. After his studies, seeking a space of diversity, a place to feel at home, he moved to Joburg – alone. It was a place that no-one cares where you are from, he thought but the reality was another story. “People grouped themselves… those that were in exile… those who were not in exile.” He ponders in Cantos: “The new South Africa, in reality, is being built on old allegiances”. 

The story unfurls and wraps itself around Makhaola Ndebele as he bears witness to “a life in exile” and at exile at “home” which included fear (being lost at night in a township- it had a happy ending). And now? The past and its proverbial baggage must be dealt and engaged with, sure but, “we are here”. There is “no yesterday or tomorrow” as we embrace the moment, communing together. As for ‘home’, he said in our interview: “Home is the feeling of serenity for me. I’m at the stage in my life where I am at home wherever I am.”

Conceptually, Cantos of a Life in Exile is rooted in Ndebele’s interest in performance auto-ethnography “as a method to explore personal experiences and reflections within a broader cultural context.” [See interview]. In excavating the past, we can hopefully engage and become in a sense our own liberators, taking ownership of our narratives. Cantos of A Life in Exile is a call to engage and reflect with our own stories as Ndebele takes us to the village of his birth and through his peregrinations which has led him to here and now. I think that as South Africans, it is very much an invitation to reflect on our stories and our families and to “see” each other and “listen” carefully.

Aesthetically the performance has been stripped back, with minimal props, with Ndebele telling his story from a place of deep humanity- with grace, kindness and compassion – with pauses and sequences through his cantos string– singing and chanting through lament to a place of healing. His performance is enthralling -beautifully textured as he draws us in through words, poetry, melody; pauses and repetitions of his cantos. Please do not miss Cantos of a Life in Exile. It is a very special piece of theatre. I hope that this script will be published. It needs to be read by learners at school and at university. It theatre of testimony and excavation- theatre of witness – which is inspirational and hopeful. We need that – in Africa – and globally as people seek a place to feel at ‘home’.

Watch until the end

After the performance, family photos are screened onto a wall at Theatre Arts- documenting and the “life in exile”. This was before Instagram and TikTok, before people archived every aspect of their lives and here we have imaging of this family’s life – moments caught on camera. For instance, there is a photo, inscribed Columbine (USA).Watch as Ndebele packs up his props (blanket, head covering), neatly into a wheelie suitcase – so emblematic of a life in exile – living out of a suitcase- packing one’s life into a container. Yes, on a practical level, it is theatre packed into a suitcase, portable and quick to set up but it resonates so much in terms of exile and boxing and packing up what one can as one goes somewhere else. What does one take with and what does one leave behind?

Homecoming: Makhaola Ndebele, after the opening performance of Cantos of a Life in Exile in Cape Town, at Theatre Arts in Observatory. The season is on August 15-20, 2023. © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen, August 15, 2023.

✳ Images of Makhaola Ndebele © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen, August 15, 2023. Related coverage on TheCapeRobyn:

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