Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni Mda (Zakes), was born in Herschel, Eastern Cape, South Africa, in 1948 to Rose Nompumelelo, a nurse, and Ashbey Peter Solomzi Mda, a school teacher, who later became a lawyer. His father was a founding member and later became the President of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) in 1947. In the 1960s, while he was still a pupil at primary school, the police would take him in to interrogate him about his father who had gone into exile. The family was forced to leave South Africa for Lesotho. Mda’s first short story Igqira lase Mvubase appeared in a youth magazine called Wamba, in 1963, when he was only 15 years old. He adopted the pen name Zakes Mda when he began writing.
In January 1964, after completing Standard Six in the Eastern Cape, Mda packed his clothes in a tin trunk and crossed the Telle River into Lesotho. On the other side of the river his father was waiting for him. After joining his father in exile, he continued with his writing in Lesotho.
Mda, was a student at Peka High School, Lesotho, from 1965 and became a political activist. At the age of seventeen, he was sworn into the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) by its president, Potlako Leballo , at Bonhomme House, Maseru, Lesotho in the presence of John Pokela, who later became President of the PAC, and stalwarts Sipho Shabalala and Ntlabathi Mbuli.
His disillusionment with the PAC happened soon after he had been drafted into Poqo, the armed wing of the PAC. President Leballo dispatched a small group of teenagers to kidnap Afrikaner babies from farms in the Orange Free State (now Free State Province). He refused to participate and the operation was botched.
Between 1971 and 1972, after completing his studies at high school he taught at a rural school. He then joined a bank as a clerk, resigned after two years and established his own sales promotions and marketing agency in Leribe, Lesotho. In the meantime he was studying to be a lawyer, and preparing for what was then known as the Attorney’s Admission examination. He joined a law firm in Maseru as an articled clerk but the call of the arts was too strong. He gave up his law studies and concentrated on painting and writing.
In 1972 the Ministry of Education in Lesotho appointed him to a post at Mabathoana High School, Maseru teaching Literature in English, and then from 1972 to 1979 to various other high schools. From 1973 to 1976 he followed a course with the International Academy of Arts and Letters in Zurich, Switzerland, adding the degree of Bachelor Fine Arts (Visual Arts and Literature) to his Cambridge Overseas School Certificate. He had opted to study with this Swiss academy as it specialised in distance education.
He was employed as a Cultural Affairs Specialist at the American Cultural Centre in Maseru, Lesotho from 1980 to 1981. His radio play Banned! featured in the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) World Service African Theatre on 28 November 1982 and he was admitted as a member of the South African Writers’ Association.
In 1981, Mda travelled to the United States of America (USA) and upon his return in 1984, lived for six months in the mountain village of Sehonghong in Lesotho, where he collected data on folk media. There he participated in the production and enjoyment of traditional performance.
He was appointed Controller of Programmes and Consultant to the Lesotho National Broadcasting Corporation’s Television Project in Maseru. As a sideline to his Television Project, Mda became Director of the Screenwriters’ Institute, members being consultants and producers of films and videos on a range of subjects including Development Communication that he was particularly interested –. He retained this position from 1984 to 1992.
Mda achieved a Masters Degree in Theatre in 1982 and another Masters Degree in Communication and Television in 1983.He then joined the National University of Lesotho as a lecturer in 1985. Within eight years he was Senior, then Head, then Professor of English. After eight years in the Department of English, National University of Lesotho, Mda left to take up an appointment at Yale University as a Visiting Research Fellow, Southern African Research Programme in 1992. This pre-empted an appointment he had accepted in Cape Town as Director of Cape Town’s Community Arts Project (CAP). On 30 May 2002, he took up the position as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Cape Town.
He registered to undertake doctoral studies with the Department of Drama, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Cape Town, studying part-time until he presented his thesis for assessment on 8 December 1987. His thesis was entitled, The Utilisation of Theatre as a Medium for Development Communication: An Examination of the Lesotho Experience. On his graduation as a Doctor of Philosophy in 1989, he became a Member of the Library Board, was made Head of the English Department, held a Chair as Professor, and joined the University Senate.
In 1987, he was commissioned by the Lesotho government’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to produce a film to mark the 20th Anniversary of Lesotho’s independence, the script he produced, In Celebration of our National Arrogance, was a satire which he directed.
He gave his time and talent as consultant to the United Nations Children’s Fund, participating in that organisation’s Second Pan-African Symposium of Artists and Intellectuals for African Children held in 1988 in Harare, Zimbabwe.
In 1996, he received the ultimate accolade of the English Academy of Southern Africa: the Olive Schreiner Prize for Drama. He became Dramaturge and Writer-in-Residence at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in 1995. He has conducted play-writing sessions with Award Winning Young Playwrights on his return to South Africa from Ohio University, USA for his Summer-Vacations-In-Winter in June, July and August each year.
He was appointed, in 1988, to contribute to the Weekly Mail (now Mail & Guardian) on a freelance basis. In 1996, he wrote several articles on mass communication and culture in the New Nation, the Sunday Independent, City Press, Sunday Times, The Star and Insig. For three years, from 1997 to 2000, he was a regular guest writer for Mail & Guardian.
In 1998, Mda received the FNB Vita and the English Academy of Southern Africa Thomas Pringle Award for his year-long contributions to the feature, On The Small Screen in the Sunday Times.
Mda has been involved in HIV and AIDS activism for over twenty years. He initiated the Southern African Aids Multimedia Trust with a core of fifteen HIV-positive people in 1994. Each year he holds workshops and continues to train this group to write their own stories, adapting them as radio dramas for distribution to community radio stations, and then as video dramas.
In late November 2003, Zakes Mda returned to South Africa from the Ohio University during the Christmas holiday break to arrange the opening of the Lower Telle Beekeepers Collective Trust factory and production works, now extracting and bottling honey on the Lower Telle Mda ancestral site near Qoboshane in the Herschel District of the Eastern Cape. Mda has financed this project entirely by himself.
From 1995 he became a full time writer, painter and filmmaker. Mda formed his own company, Thapama Productions CC in Melville, Johannesburg and launched into film and television production. The company’s aim was to produce programmes for the SABC and e.tv, and to take part in a number of international co-productions.
He took up a post as a Professor of Drama at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng). He has also been a literary consultant at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg and Professor of Creative Writing at Ohio University in the USA.
Beginning with his early drama We Shall Sing for the Fatherland (1977) many of his around thirty plays have repeated the thought that a new government, being as corrupt and craving for power as the old one, would betray the ideals of resistance. In Mda’s style, the African oral narrative tradition is interwoven with elements of the Xhosa Intsomi Theatre, with magical realism and the European Theatre of the Absurd.
His plays have been awarded numerous prizes. The Plays of Zakes Mda (1990) has been translated into South Africa’s eleven official languages. Mda’s novels reflect the collective internal conflict of tradition and materialist consumerism prevalent in post-Apartheid South Africa. They are told from a Black perspective; Whites only play a peripheral role. The much acclaimed novel, Ways of Dying (1995) depicts Toloki, a self-proclaimed mourner, wandering from one township funeral to the next. Slowly, the reader learns that almost all the victims’ ways of dying were inflicted on them by their own fanatic, greedy and violent communities. Heart of Redness, published in 2000, looks at the colonial past. The Xhosa were led to believe that their ancestral spirits promised a victory over the British if they slew their cattle, which left the tribe ultimately divided. Mda vividly describes how the tragic effects of this rift have continued up to the present day. His Madonna of Excelsior (2002) is based on a sex scandal between White Africans and their Black maids in the 1970s and was awarded the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in 2005. His 2005, novel, The Whale Caller, tells of a love triangle consisting of a woman who loves a man who in turn tries to bewitch a female whale with the melodies of his horn.
Mda is a founding member and serves on the advisory board of African Writers Trust, “a non-profit entity which seeks to coordinate and bring together African writers in the Diaspora and writers on the continent to promote sharing of skills and other resources, and to foster knowledge and learning between the two groups.”
On 8 June 2012, Zakes Mda was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Cape Town for his contribution to world literature. His novels have been translated into 21 languages.
Mda was first married to Mpho and have three children together. He then married Adele Mavuso had two children with her. In September 2006, he married Gugu Nkosi at the Roodepoort Home Affairs office in Gauteng.
In April 2014, the South African Government conferred the Order of Ikhamanga, in Bronze, on Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni “Zakes” Mda, for his excellent contribution in the field of literature that has put South African stories on the world stage.
Mda has won a number of awards in South Africa, the USA and Italy, including the Amstel Playwright of the Year Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa, the M-Net Prize, the Sunday Times Literary Prize, the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award and the American Library Association Notable Book. His novel Cion, set in southeast Ohio, was nominated for the NAACP Image Award. His memoir titled Sometimes there is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider was published by Penguin Books in 2011 and Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2012 and was the New York Times Notable Book for 2012. He was an Artist in Residence at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies, Western Cape, South Africa, from July 15 to December 10, 2013. He is a Patron of the Market Theatre, Johannesburg. In April 2014, the South African Government conferred the Order of Ikhamanga, in Bronze, on Zanemvula Kizito Gatyeni “Zakes” Mda, for his excellent contribution in the field of literature that has put South African stories on the world stage.
Works by Zakes Mda
The following list includes Zakes Mda’s plays, novels and poetry.
New South African Writing (1977)
We Shall Sing for the Fatherland (1979)
Dead End (1979)
Dark Voices Ring (1979)
The Hill (1980)
Banned: A Play for Radio (1982)
Summer Fires (1982)
Bits of Debris: The Poetry of Zakes Mda (1986)
And the Girls in their Sunday Dresses (1988)
Joys of War (1989)
The Plays of Zakes Mda (1990)
The Nun’s Romantic Story (1991)
Soho Square (1992)
When People Play People: Development communication through theatre (1993)
And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses: Four Works (1993)
Ways of Dying (1995)
She Plays with the Darkness (1995)
Melville 67 (1998)
The Heart of Redness (2000)
The Madonna of Excelsior (2002)
Fools, Bells and the habit of eating: Three Satires (2002)
The Whale Caller (2005)
Black Diamond (2009)
Sometimes there is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider (2011)
The Sculptors of Mapungubwe (Kwela Books, 2013)