Share Their Story

Keletso Mopai, 27

BlackBird Books

With the publication of her first book, If You Keep Digging, Keletso Mopai joined the growing ranks of young, local authors winning wide critical acclaim. The book, a collection of short stories set in South Africa, highlights marginalised identities and looks at the daily lives of people who may otherwise be forgotten.

Mopai says, “My work mostly focuses on social issues that affect South Africans — young South Africans in particular — including domestic abuse, mental health, homophobia, racism, colourism and other issues that I’m passionate about.” Winner of the Igby Prize for Nonfiction for her essay on social anxiety, she’s also been shortlisted for short story prizes such as The Brittle Paper Award for Fiction, The Writivism Prize and The Africa Book Club Competition.

Mopai studied chemistry and geology, and got a Bachelor of Science Honours degree in the latter, both from the University of Limpopo, but for now is planning ahead for a future in literature. How does she see herself in the coming years? “Telling more stories. I believe writing is my purpose and it’s the one thing that motivates me to better myself and to look forward to the future.”

When asked about her successes, Mopai says:

“My proudest moment was seeing my debut book in a bookshop.” As for regrets? “I don’t think I’ve made life-changing mistakes so far, but if I did i think they have worked well for me later in life.”

Considering her plans to continue her studies with a Master’s in Creative Writing, we can only hope to read many more stories by Keletso Mopai in the not-too-distant future. Her advice for aspiring authors is: “Follow your gut, read as many books you can grab, and don’t listen to anyone who discourages your dreams.”

Author - Max Dylan Lazarus
Phumlani Pikoli, 32

Phumlani Pikoli, 32

Multi-disciplinary artist

Writer Phumlani Pikoli has ambitions that go beyond being the author of a couple of popular books.

He’s shaping himself as a multi-disciplinary artist by working with theatre makers too.

Right now he’s best known for his book of short stories, The Fatuous State of Severity, and his debut novel, Born Freeloaders. He initially self-published his short stories, which were then picked up by Pan Macmillan. They’re tales with illustrations exploring the experiences of urban youngsters as they grapple with the absurdities of present-day South Africa. “I guess I’m just trying to make sense of my own existence by playing around with the chosen themes,” he says. He also released a short film featuring some friends reading the stories aloud.

His follow-up novel Born Freeloaders is a cheeky twist on the term “Born Frees” that describes the generation born into democracy, and the first to experience racially integrated education. “I figured I’d use the title to explore ideas of the entitlement people often think that they have,” he says.

His writing is bold and uncompromising, and he doesn’t mind if that gets him into trouble occasionally.

On the multi-media front, Pikoli contributed to Carla Fonseca’s play The Same Pain at the Soweto Theatre, and collaborated with visual artists and Johannesburg’s TMRW Gallery to create a multi-sensory exhibition around his stories. He’s now developing Born Freeloaders into a film with Diprente Films, writing another story, and working on another virtual reality project.

As an outspoken advocate for mental health awareness, he’s open about his struggles with depression and anxiety. Through his honesty he hopes to encourage more discussions among young black people about mental health, a subject that’s often taboo. He says the biggest mistake he has learnt from was not taking his mental health seriously enough.

Lesley Stones |
Ami Faku, 27

Ami Faku, 27

Vth Season

Rising star Ami Faku has a rich, soulful voice that beguilingly draws you in, even if you don’t understand the words.
Faku comes from Port Elizabeth and often sings in isiXhosa, but loves to explain the stories behind her music.

For her song Inde Lendlela (I’ve come a long way) the video shows a couple sitting in sad silence by a swimming pool. “It’s about relationships and feeling like you don’t want to let go, even though the person isn’t good for you. The reflection in the water allows me to reflect on myself and reflect on the pain I’m in,” she says.

Her songs certainly touch a nerve with those who hear them, with people sharing comments on social media about how her music has helped them to heal.

Her debut single, Imali, was released in 2018 and last year she had five different songs in the Top 100 on local radio stations. Music-streaming service Deezer named her its most popular South African female artist in 2019 and she’s among the top 10 most streamed female South African artists on Spotify.

Faku shares her personal life through her songs, which is why they’re so relatable. “When you are being real, there’s no one like you, and there’s so much power in that,” she says.

She first discovered she could sing at church, and auditioned for The Voice TV show. She didn’t win, but she made contact with a record label.

“The proudest moment in my life would be when I finally decided to challenge myself musically and audition for a singing competition,” she says. “If I didn’t challenge myself I would’ve been stuck in one place. My biggest mistake was not trusting my potential because of fear, which held me back from living my life to the fullest. Now I fear nothing.”

Lesley Stones |
Nelisiwe Nkosi, 21

Nelisiwe Nkosi, 21

Freelance photographer

After Nelisiwe Nkosi was raped, she was unable to talk about it for months. She silently carried the burden alone and retreated into her mind until the trauma began to break her.

When she was raped a second time, she found a way to end her silence and work towards healing through photography.

The first, tentative pictures of her body gradually built up into a powerful collection called Breakeven that was exhibited at The Market Photo Workshop. Her work speaks about rape and the enduring trauma, with many photos of her hiding her face to reflect her initial silence.

“Photography is a way of telling the untold stories and showing information I can’t really put into words,” she says.

“This thing happened to the body but it’s so much more than that — it’s also about the mental issues that came thereafter.”

Nkosi has completed foundation, intermediate and advanced courses at the Market Photo Workshop. Breakeven was displayed when she graduated in 2019.

During the exhibition, she said she hoped the photos would say to other women that they’re not alone. “But mostly it’s directly to the male gaze to say ‘look, I’m here. This is happening. And it’s about time you own up and look at it’.”

Nkosi looks back on that exhibition as her proudest moment so far, when she was surprised and gratified by the response.

As well as positive feedback on the photos themselves, many people felt safe enough to share their own stories with her.

Now she’s striving to make a living as a freelance photographer and become known for her talent, not her history, although the two are intertwined. “I believe that because of what I’ve been through, I am constantly pushing myself to be better — to be so much more,” she says.

Lesley Stones |
Refilwe Nkomo, 35

Refilwe Nkomo, 35

Director, Visual Arts Network of South Africa
Visual Arts Network of South Africa

Sometimes life has a funny way of working out when you listen to your intuition and follow your passions. Refilwe Nkomo learned this lesson first-hand and has developed a niche for herself that allows her to do what she loves and satisfy her internal drive to make a meaningful contribution to society.

After a stint in the corporate world and a long stay in civil society, she realised that no matter what she did, art would always call out to her. Her awakening arrived when she realised she had the power to use it as a force of good.

“My work is at the intersection of arts and social justice,” Nkomo says. “I always thought those things had to be separate but I have realised over the last few years that each step was leading me to the next one, each experience and opportunity building and scaffolding on the other to create an authentic practice rooted in creativity, arts, culture, equity, justice and fairness.”

As the director of the Visual Arts Network of SA, this multidisciplinary artist and curator creates programmes and installations throughout the country and elsewhere. Her work has received recognition from such places as South Korea, Brazil, Ghana, Germany and the United States.

Nkomo has excelled academically, too. In 2014 she got a master’s in arts and politics from New York University before going on to attend the German Development Institute’s Managing Global Governance Academy in 2017. Most recently, she was chosen as a Clore Chevening Fellow for 2019/2020.

Luke Feltham |
MoAfrika wa Mokgathi, 32

MoAfrika wa Mokgathi, 32

Co-Founder and director
Hear My Voice

Poet and radio show host MoAfrika wa Mokgathi is the co-founder and director of Hear My Voice.

The nonprofit organisation that uses poetry as a catalyst to address social issues. One issue she recently tackled was the lack of income for performing artists during the Covid-19 lockdown.

“My proudest moment has to be assisting 45 poets during Covid-19 through our project the Poetry Relief Fund,” she says.

Her birth name is Muriel Mokgathi-Mvubu, and her love of the arts was inspired by an uncle and grandfather. They played a key role in developing her style that mixes English and Sepedi.

She’s performed in China and Sweden and at numerous local festivals, and in venues such as Johannesburg’s Orbit Jazz Club, speaking to the music of a live band.

In 2019 she released her debut collection of poetry, My Tongue is a Rainbow, during the Azania to DC Poetry Tour and Cultural Exchange in Washington. The poems explore marginalised languages which are dying out, race, inequality and the abuse of women and children.

Every Sunday morning, MoAfrika wa Mokgathi produces and hosts The Jazz Sessions, a live three-hour programme on Transafrica 872 Radio. She was previously a content producer and presenter for Unisa Radio, and a producer and presenter at Ritevac TV.

In another role, she’s a director of Jazz Camp for Female Instrumentalists in Mamelodi, which teaches music, poetry, drama, dance and fine arts. She’s also on the board of the Association of Independent Record Companies.

For a long time she made the mistake of comparing herself to her peers, she says, which made her doubt her contributions. She’s put that behind her now, and urges other people to believe that their voices are worth hearing.

Lesley Stones |
Vuma Ian Levin, 33

Vuma Ian Levin, 33

Guitarist, improvising musician, composer and teacher

Vuma Levin has been described as a “virtuoso”. It’s a big designation to live up to, especially at such a young age, but so far the jazz artist has proven critics right.

First picking the guitar up at 14, Levin began an artistic journey that has seen him graduating from the prestigious Conservatorium van Amsterdam, being selected as a semifinalist at the Montreux Socar International Jazz Guitar competition in Switzerland, performing at some of the most sought-after venues and festivals in the world and releasing his fourth lead album to critical acclaim.

Along the way, he has performed with a slew of well-respected musicians, including Feya Faku, Herbie Tsoaeli, Nduduzo Makhathini and Kevin Davidson.

The son of a black Swati mother and a white South African father, Levin creates music that explores identity in the turmoil of post-apartheid South Africa.

This, he says, is relevant amid the cultural conversations the country, and the world, is having now “about what it means to be black … about the asymmetrical power relations that continue to plague our country; issues around race, around gender-based violence, around sexuality and nationality”.

As a teacher, Levin strives to provide the next generation of musicians with the tools they need “to empower themselves in an increasingly unforgiving labour market and world”.

“I want to help my students become the best version of themselves: to grow, remain inspired by life and to create,” he says.

Despite already coming a long way, it is this space for growth that Levin hopes to continue to find for himself. “I hope to find something outside of myself that I can use as the inspiration for my next work,” he says.

Sarah Smit |
Relebogile Mabotja, 34

Relebogile Mabotja, 34

Executive producer

Relebogile Mabotja is a dynamic media personality who’s managed to put various aspects of her talent to the test while staying at the top of her game, throughout her career. The executive producer was introduced to South African screens as an actress; she is now also a presenter, musician, radio host, writer and musical director.

The levels her excellence reaches surprise not only her audiences but sometimes even her: “I have achieved goals and dreams I never even imagined for myself. I wanted to sing but never knew I would be making a living as a composer and a publisher. I wanted to speak to people but didn’t know it would be on the radio, and that I would win an award for it. I wanted to be creative, but never imagined I would see my name in the credits of many different types of shows as a producer.”

Mabotja also attributes her wins to her attitude. Her road to success is a testament to what is achievable through love, effort, patience and discipline. These are lessons she was taught at home.

“I love that my parents and the people who raised me are bearing witness to the fruits of their labour. Every award and mind-blowing experience is exponentially greater having them — who came from far less with fewer opportunities, support and resources — getting to enjoy the achievements of the woman they shaped,” she says.

Ultimately, she wants to be a part of putting South Africa and Africa on more global stages and being a voice that helps create an inclusive entertainment industry. “There are still not enough people who look like me sitting at the tables of influence and decision-making, especially in the worlds of music, media and broadcasting. More people from minority groups need to have a say and be included in business and policies,” she adds.

Jabulile Dlamini-Qwesha |
Lehlohonolo Peega, 24

Lehlohonolo Peega, 24

Founder and Principal
Music Is Joy
<a href="" target="_blank">@LehlohonoloPeega</a>

Musician Lehlohonolo Peega has no burning ambition to be a big star.

He’d rather make his mark by giving kids in Soweto an opportunity of their own to find their voice through music.

Peega (24) is studying for a music degree at Wits University, but he’s a teacher too, running a free school every Saturday called Music Is Joy. He opened it in 2018 and teaches a variety of instruments to kids and occasionally adults.

“My proudest moment was establishing Music Is Joy, and the joy of seeing my first students walk in was a special moment. I knew this was the beginning of something bigger than me,” he says.

Before opening his own school he volunteered as a teacher at Welcome Soweto School of Music for seven years. “As you move around the community and see the realities, like any other concerned black person you try to make your small contribution to change,” he says. “For me the best way is through music. I’m not interested in being a big star. I’d rather be the guy that makes my contribution at this level, changing innocent and ordinary lives.”

Music Is Joy is based in a church in Orlando West, using instruments that Peega has begged, borrowed or bought. He’s good at calling in favours and persuading people to donate instruments for the youngsters.

Learning music also teaches confidence, discipline, commitment and other life skills, and several of his students have the talent to become professional musicians themselves, he believes.

Peega plays and composes music for about a dozen different instruments, including the trumpet and djembe drums. He performs with his band called Abantu, enjoys theatre work, and has performed with musicians including Mandla Mlangeni, Vuyo Manige, the marimba band Khay’ Afrika and Rand Symphony Orchestra.

Lesley Stones |
Neo Mahlangu, 28

Neo Mahlangu, 28

Fine artist and designer
Neo Mahlangu Studio

If you’re ever holding a R2 commemorative coin, study at it carefully. It might be the work of Neo Mahlangu, 28, the youngest black woman to have ever designed coins for the South African Mint.

This self-employed fine artist designed two coins in 2019 depicting children’s rights and the right to fducation to mark 25 years of South Africa’s democracy.

That was her proudest moment so far; on the other side of the coin, she admits that one of her biggest career learnings stems from not taking financial literacy seriously when she started out. “I had to stomach a few losses that have woken me up to the importance of taking the financial details of my business extremely seriously,” she says. Now, a serious business streak supports the artistic talent behind her one-woman business, Neo Mahlangu Studio.

Mahlangu also aims to become a role model for artistic black girls, because she never had a role model to inspire her. “The only form of the arts I was exposed to was the likes of Lebo Mathosa and Brenda Fassie being unapologetic about their talents on TV. I always wondered where the painters and designers were,” she says. “Not having a physical example of the woman I wanted to be made it hard to convince myself and my parents that I wanted to be an artist.”

Thankfully, she followed her dream, and was named as a Design Indaba Emerging Creative in 2018.

She’s now working towards a society in which women — including herself — are encouraged to pursue whatever they want to achieve. “I need to believe in the power of my potential and feed my dreams with action and faith and audacity!” she says.

“I want to live in a future where women are comfortable expressing their talents at the top of their lungs. I want to see more women-led exhibitions.”

Lesley Stones |
uNocebo Bucibo, 33

uNocebo Bucibo, 33

Phd Candidate, Lecturer & Photographer
University of Pretoria, Market Photo Workshop & Vega, KJNS STUDIO

uNocebo Bucibo despises the narrative of the starving artist. Young South Africans, she believes, should not be inhibited by the fear that following their passions may one day leave them destitute.

The photographic researcher and lecturer at the Market Photo Workshop and Vega School has learned first-hand just how empowering her chosen profession can be — for both the artist and the subject. Her biggest project to date — A Just Image: South African Hostels and Contemporary South African Photography, exhibited at the Workers’ Museum in Johannesburg in 2018 — is just one example of this.

Bucibo’s intention with this work was: “to give hostel residents a voice and restore dignity in their lives and their ‘homes’, since residents and hostels have a negative reputation. I would like my photographs to provide an opportunity for an outsider to the hostels to see what a hostel is and that it’s more than brick and mortar; that it has a spirit.”

Much of Bucibo’s work stands as an examination of modern-day South Africa and the nuances of life in a country less than three decades removed from the oppressive apartheid regime. Her journey in covering the less-seen aspects of life has also given her the confidence to launch her own company, the KJNS Studio.

Not content to stick to one discipline, Bucibo is also currently completing her PhD in development studies at the University of Pretoria. Indeed, if she could offer her younger self one bit of advice it would be: “Do not only go to events and spaces which are photographic or art-related. Attend conferences and other events outside your field to broaden your understanding of the world.”

Luke Feltham |
Sinethemba Twalo, 35

Sinethemba Twalo, 35

Artist and curator
NGO - Nothing Gets Organised

Sinethemba Twalo is an artist and curator who is completing a PhD in art history at the University of Johannesburg.

In 2014 Twalo was the artist in residency fellow at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany also a graduate of the Master of Public Spheres programme at the Ecole Cantonale d’art du Valais in Sierre, Switzerland.

Twalo has presented work on international platforms such as the 10th Berlin Biennale (2018), The Taktlos Free Jazz festival in Zurich (2018), the 3rd Black History Month Florence (2018), the 32nd São Paulo Bienal public programme (2016) and the 8th Jerusalem Show (2016). Most of these shows are as a result of an intervention created in collaboration with other leading practitioners in South Africa’s contemporary art landscape.

Established in 2016, in collaboration with artist Dineo Seshee Bopape and curator Gabi Ngcobo, the Nothing Gets Organised platform functions as an unconventional, defiant space for practitioners to unravel and detangle their practices free of commercial restraint. Here, research is ongoing, malleable and open ended.

In 2017, the platform was nominated for the Visible Award. Facilitated by the Cittadellarte — Fondazione Pistoletto, a nonprofit arts and cultural incubation in Italy, the award is devoted to artwork that aims to produce and sustain socially involved artistic practices.

Twalo’s art practice looks to facilitate a greater appreciation for slower, more analytical pieces of work that are less concerned with creating a spectacle.

Zaza Hlalethwa and Bongekile Macupe |
Lesedi Mafura, 25

Lesedi Mafura, 25

Author, poet, performer, radio news anchor and founder of an organisation working with children
Awoke in Words organisation/Sibanye-Stillwater/Merafong FM/Peu Arts foundation

When it comes to describing the effect of her work, only Lesedi Mafura herself can quite do it justice: “I want my work to liberate, to set a platform where we tell our African stories without fear of being cast aside or swallowed. I want to see it serving as a badge of honour to every South African woman that despite being too black, too strong, too loud, we are women enough.”

A poet, performer, and Merafong FM radio news anchor, Mafura is consistently in search of new challenges and opportunities for growth. In recent years that drive has materialised into serious recognition — she was nominated for the 2018 Ishashalazi Poetry Ensemble award in Gauteng and the 2019 Ishashalazi Poetry Ensemble award in the West Rand corridor. These nods served as affirmation that she was on the right track and encouraged her to keep pursuing her passions.

Still, it came as a great surprise when her poetry collection, Honey Moon, Honey Earth, Honey Fire, Honey Spirit, was published on Amazon this year. She wants to get it published in hardcopy given the demand for her works.

Mafura is also the founder of Awoke in Words, an organisation that works with children to improve their reading, leadership and public speaking skills. Although she feels that she should have nurtured the organisation differently, she recognises that it was a learning experience that has made her far wiser. She has some advice for her younger self embarking on that adventure: “The best way to live is to nurture what you have. Stop expecting fruits from a tree you didn’t plant and remember an investment in your dreams pays the best interest.”

Luke Feltham |
Mutinta Bbenkele Simelane, 27

Mutinta Bbenkele Simelane, 27

Project manager

Mutinta Simelane knows what it’s like to share a stage with greatness. After all, she performed poetry at the Global Citizen Festival in 2018 — an event where some of the most recognisable faces of the entertainment industry arrived on our shores.

Symbolically, this is where South Africa belongs: alongside the very best there is.

“In all the projects that I have been a part of, the world is in awe of the talent here and how vibrant the young people of South Africa are,” she says. “I believe that what I do is slowly starting the fire that will one day bring our leadership in this country to understand that the arts sector is vast and needs time, energy and passion to be fully understood.”

Much of Simelane’s personal mission revolves around creating a pathway for that abundance of talent to flourish. In addition to being a project manager, she is always keen to teach young artists business administration and digital skills.

The importance of artists, but especially poets, she says, goes far beyond June 16, Women’s Day and Heritage month; their stories are vital to the very fabric of society.

“I would like to see institutions that are dedicated to equipping young, marginalised communities with skills such as public speaking and creative writing. Those two skills alone boost confidence, broaden the emotional literacy in children and are tools that will eradicate so many societal ills at a grass roots level.”

A TEDx speaker who has taken part in projects across the world, she’s leading by example.

Luke Feltham |
Ayesha Mukadam, 32

Ayesha Mukadam, 32

Social designer and storyteller

Storytellers have the responsibility of documenting and archiving the time in which they and their family have lived, and producing work that has a positive effect on society. Much like Ayesha Mukadam, a social designer and storyteller, who is committed to having an effect on society through art, food and memory.

“I would like my creative work to be a form of activism, to tell stories, open discussions, connect and create social impact on ground level,” she says.

Her humility matches her ability to lead and is determined to honour the Earth and strengthen connections between people.

Mukadam works as an education and outreach volunteer at the Oranjezicht City Farm, where she hosts groups from schools all over Cape Town. Her concept of creating a kit for migrants to document the recipes of hope from their countries landed her an invitation to host a workshop on food and memory at the Design for Humanity Summit at Fordham University’s Lincoln Centre campus in New York in June last year. This year she was a finalist for the Rupert Art Foundation’s Social Impact Arts prize with The Long Table Project, which looks at sharing food between diverse groi[s as a way to build connections across geographical and social boundaries.

After working as a creative director at an advertising agency, she branched off to establish Studio Ayesha Mukadam.

Scott Dodds |
Manila von Teez, 30

Manila von Teez, 30

Drag artist and designer
Manila von Teez and Haus of Vjorn

There’s no doubting the impact of drag on popular culture. As an art form, it has spilled into fashion, music, make-up and activism. And Manila von Teez — a drag artist and designer from Elsies Rivier in Cape Town — has claimed her part in this zeitgeist.

In 2016, Von Teez blew audiences away, as she fought her way through to the finals of SA’s Got Talent. Recognising the importance of her voice, Levi’s invited her to collaborate with the denim megabrand in its Pride campaign earlier this year. In a video for the campaign, Von Teez says when she performs “it is a form of escapism… there is this unreal, ethereal moment, but it is also so real and so raw and so uncut and so passionate”. She also peels back the curtain to what really goes into putting together her flawless, exhilarating performances.

Financial struggles brought her training as a fashion designer to an early end, but this has not stopped her from putting together sickening looks. This dedication to her craft in the face of hardships is what makes Von Teez stand out in the drag world, where improvisation and a willingness to adapt is key.

Though the glitter and the glamour is what draws you in, at the heart of Von Teez’s brand is love: for her fans, for her family and community and for her art.

She counts having a loving and supportive family as her proudest achievement.

“It wasn’t always that way, but I am super grateful we are in the space we are now,” she says.

And though she still battles self-doubt, Von Teez continues to break boundaries by bringing drag into South Africa’s mainstream. So all that’s left to say is: Condragulations, Manila!

Sarah Smit |