- South Africa -
Siphokazi Jonas is a writer, poet, performer, and producer with a strong national footprint and growing international presence.
She holds an MA in English Literature and a BA in Drama and English from the University of Cape Town. Her background in the theatre is what makes her a truly captivating performer whose work leaves a lasting impression on audiences across the world.
Siphokazi has written and performed in numerous productions including #WeAreDyingHere (2020) at Artscape and Joburg Theatre, and Around the Fire (2018) at Artscape Theatre.
She is a co-producer, co-writer and performer on the short film adaptation of the #WeAreDyingHere film. In 2016 she was the first African ever to perform at Rhetoric, the biggest poetry event in the world, in Los Angeles, California.
In 2015 she was crowned the Cape Town Ultimate Slam Champion. Her poetry education project won Western Cape Top Achiever at the DAC Debut Awards in 2019.
Siphokazi’s stage work includes Natalia Da Rocha’s Adam Small Festival in 2015 and Mandla Mbothwe’s Oratorio of a Forgotten Youth in 2016. She was nominated for a 2016 Broadwayworld.com South African Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance in Around the Fire.
She was the runner-up in the prestigious 2016 Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award, coming second out of 600 poems submitted nationally. Her work was longlisted again in 2017.
In 2018 Siphokazi delivered The Widow, her directorial debut, as part of Artscape’s New Voices programme; returning the following year to present the production once more.
In February 2019 she toured as the headline act on the first-ever South African national poetry tour, the Fresh Poetry Tour. Siphokazi has shared the stage with South African legends such as Thembi Mtshali-Jones, Celeste Matthews-Wannenburgh, Natalia da Rocha and musicians Hotstix Mabuse, Pops Mohamed, Zolani Mahola, and Freshlyground. She was also one of the storytellers invited to perform for Yo-Yo Ma on his visit to South Africa.
In February 2021 Siphokazi was invited to the South African State of the Nation Address, where she delivered a captivating poem prior to the presidential address.
Her commissioned work includes writing poetry for Google, SA Tourism, the University of Cape Town, an artist exhibition in Milan, Italy, and the Swedish Embassy in South Africa.
She has also created work for a school project in South America that uses poetry to make STEM subjects appealing to young students.
She has also been a featured performer at the Open Book Festival, Naked Word Festival, Word and Sound International Youth Festival, the 21st Poetry Africa Festival, the SA Book Fair and the Abantu Book Festival. Here she has been featured along with international poets, including Alysia Harris and Miles Hodges.
Siphokaza has also co-curated the Open Book Festival and the Time of the Writer Festival poetry competition. In her capacity as a speaker, she’s contributed to national and academic conferences, including Music Exchange and The Justice Conference South Africa, presenting on issues ranging from writing, the art business, art and activism, and social justice.
Her most recent multi-genre production, #WeAreDyingHere, was co-written with poet Hope Netshivhambe and award-winning musician Babalwa Makwetu. It debuted at the Artscape Theatre in November 2019 and was performed at the Joburg Theatre in February 2020, where both runs received rave reviews. The recorded stage version was later streamed on the Covid-Zero streaming site to over 20 countries. The production was mentioned in Time Out New York as one of the best productions to stream during the lockdown.
In 2020, #WeAreDyingHere was adapted into a poetry short film with Optical Films, in partnership with Executive Producers Siya Kolisi and Rachel Kolisi. The film debuted at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles and was nominated for Best Narrative Short.
She has been profiled on both print, radio, and television media including the Daily Maverick, Sunday Times, IOL, Hectic Nine-9, Expresso, eNCA, SABC, eTV, Cape Talk, 702, and many others. Siphokazi teaches spoken word and theatre online at an elementary school in Florida, USA, and is the current English Poetry editor for New Contrast.
/ Big Shoes
Do you remember playing dress-up
in Mama's too big shoes and bag,
and how her satin blouse wore you to the knees?
Eventually, you grow into her
then outgrow things neither of you are willing to undress.
You are still an imposter in your mother's tongue.
There are things you want to unpack
out of this bag
but you don't have the language to do so.
When you write in isiXhosa
you feel as if everyone is looking
at how tight and narrow English is on your feet -
rubbing you so raw you are now
a bone out of place, and
a bunion of cultures at war.
All you want is to wear your mothertongue around town
/ In Remission
340ml of Stoney ginger beer between my sister and me is
an effervescent ocean to be split without discrimination,
one sip at a time:
(A splash on your shirt is still a turn)
Then her, then me, then me, then her, then me.
It is a coup in the expansive stern of the 1988 Audi
Father’s first car.
In this scene,
at the threat of a rapidly drying seabed on the inside of the can,
even mother agrees, why does he buy one?
In another scene,
where I am looking back, and I can afford my own
340ml and his:
it is the end of the month
there is just enough for one
he makes us Moses, splitting a can of cooldrink in two.
my father does not ask for a turn
we do not offer.
That February summer I have reason to learn
that cancer and the colour green have the same root word
in isiXhosa, “hlaza”.
To be “green” is to be rude.
Cancer is rude.
2015 took the longest draught out of our lungs,
and we sip at breath.
We put the phone on loudspeaker after his chemotheraphy, and
speech bubbles between us
then him, then us, then him.
everyone took their turn to speak;
we are all still here.
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying,
“This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks,
he broke it and gave it to them, saying,
“This is my body, which is given for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”
Which is given for you, this is my body.
Saying, he broke it, and gave it to them,
and when he had given thanks, he took the bread
he took the body, and when he had given thanks,
he broke it and gave it to them, saying,
This is my bread, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
Do this in remembrance of me.
This is my thanks, which is given for you.
And he gave it to them, broke it,
this is my body.
This. This is my body.
You break it, then give thanks.
Do you remember? Saying, this is your bread you give for me.
In this body. Me, in remembrance,
Breaking. Thanks. Taking bread. You, doing this, saying this.
Me, remembering. How you break this body.
Given to me. You make it yours. And I do remembrance.
There is no thanks to be given for broken bread.
There is no thanks to be given for broken bodies.
/ In the anthology of black experiences
the Black-Father poem is always missing or leaving.
(that is meta for) absence.
Censored for violence and/or abuse.
This kind of Black-Father poem wins awards
and standing ovations
in theatres, if the Black-Father poem is also a play
(and has been to prison)
then he will return to be a punchline in a joke and a pun.
(As if there are no First-Time poems,
strapping firstborn daughters into car-seats,
and holding doors open for their wives.
Retired poems, like mine, who gardens with my mother,
threatens to leave but still waits in the car).
Where are the Detective poems,
to investigate the spine of torn out pages?
/ Making Bread
When all is mixed to dough,
I hold a pinch of every isiXhosa poem I write
up to my mother’s mouth
to knead between her teeth.
We deliberate on dry ingredients:
that idiom there
this translation here
these puns here, and those ones there.
But she is mum on substitution of self-rising flour for yeast –
knows it is the best I can do in the circumstance
of a tongue baked in surrogacy.
in exchange for a Tupperware dish full of roosterkoek tried over coals,
I present uMama with English poems
to match the decadence of the season.
(English with its heavy hand of sugar
corrodes my vernacular.
English poems do not let me forget
that this bowl I work in is borrowed).
When we break bread
at the kitchen table,
we slather slices of my mother’s tongue with margarine,
steer it along a steaming tide of Rooibos tea
or glass sweating with ice and Oros:
I do not know how to make this meal last all year long.
I want to pray in isiXhosa,
“give us this day, our daily bread. And
when we commune with you, never let us need grace again.”
/ MamBhele’s Harvest
My grandmother was a guardian
tending a kingdom of cabbages;
leafy, layered planets in constant orbit emasimini.
uMamBhele was a general, rearing
a battalion for survival at 50c a head.
In imitation of Genesis,
she could craft a field into her image long before the sun had sobered to rise.
Her husband, uNcotshe, was himself a spade
toiling in the tunnels of Jozi – the colon of Gauteng –
which is constipated with gold, and the bodies of black men.
Spewing them out on opposite ends:
one to the baas, the other to the grave.
My grandfather was an intercessory prayer, praying in picks;
his penance paid inside a rock.
His sweat would flow like rivers of provision and sacrifice, but
sometimes like signals of smoke, all the way to Keiskammahoek
where they were funnelled into grandmother’s veins of steel,
and a back as broad as the mountains of uQoboqobo.
Here she would midwife a harvest, all Canaan-like,
all giant-headed paradise-like.
This cabbage connoisseur
could craft seven variations of cabbage dishes –
there were revelations between those leaves
chopped fine like sermons.
Umakhulu noTamkhulu babengabantu bomhlaba.
And my inheritance lay underneath their fingernails.
Even now, when it rains, I find that I crave the soil three times a day.
Some call it anaemia, but I know it to be communion.
My mother is a pillar of soil
with tendrils for fingers.
The plants at home gravitate towards her as if
she is the sun setting into the room.
Perhaps they are descendants of cabbages
packed solar system tight on the back of ibakkie yakwa Mampinga
on Saturday mornings, while grandmother’s soldiers
rattled along to the backtrack of an exhaust pipe harmonising,
“50 cents! 50 cents amakhaphetshu! 2 for R1!”
But now she must study Agriculture in Afrikaans.
This mother of mine who can swing a hoe in cursive
with more finesse than a pencil,
who learned of the cradle of land
from the canyons in her parents’ hands,
must learn the only thing she understands
in a language her tongue does not.
Grandfather’s body turns to gold.
Six feet deep.
But he will not be mined.
John Voster Primere Skool.
One of the first blacks in an Afrikaans school
all dolled up in white and blue,
a sign of a South Africa new.
Juffrou reads out the register and non-existent clicks intimidate her -
Sifo – disease. Kazi – big.
‘Big Disease Jonas’.
My father will explain.
Still in white and blue, now with added red;
English schools are the new means to an end.
On introduction night, our names sit on our tongues like trays.
Maybe a twang is the antidote?
“Hi, my name is Siphowkarzy Jonas.”
Laughter rolls off the other trays: She’s trying to be white.
My sister is a new recruit to a post-TRC world
where searching for a better life still left us sitting on the back
of Oom Koos’ red botsotso bakkie as red as our school ties.
Nathi singamakhaphetshu. We too are cabbages.
Two for R1!
Grandmother is planted.
Six feet deep.
She will not be harvested.
My mother is proud of how finely I chop cabbages.
She says, it’s the time and care I take to disassemble planets.
Things you have never seen your mother do:
sitting at a sewing machine,
making kingdom of table and chair.
Brown paper patterns and chalk
spread before her like maps or battle plans,
dividing fabric along its natural borders
to style clothes into the countries
of her imagination.
Things in which you have never heard your mother speak:
the language of pencil sketches and scissors
with the resonance of a polyglot
soothing the stuttering tongues of
cashmere and cotton, satin or silk,
along some unseen dreamscapes.
Things you cannot count about your mother:
the number of buttons restored,
the splits she has sealed, seams under strain, and
the lengths she has hemmed,
needle in one hand and thread in the other.
How many times she has licked one end of that thread
into a point sharp enough to fit through an eye.
Things you do know about your mother:
she never mends without first unravelling.
She listens to both sides of the wound, and
lets it breathe until it can speak,
until it tells her the kind of stich needed for healing.
You also know that after all the unravelling and speaking,
and speaking and unravelling,
she ties a knot so tight; it is a living will.
That knot holds together what is lost between two pieces of fabric
between your woven worlds.
It is how I know your mother is a storyteller,
by how she seeks the best point from which
to pierce a narrative without wounding it again.
The pathways she finds between characters as stubborn as denim
the new ones she must make.
The healing that comes with new thread
making its way through ancient hurt;
how she follows the path of piercing.
There are other things she has stitched in you with the same precision
along the seam of tearing skin.
She turns you inside out and stiches from within.
She grapples with the fraying, reconciling
threads imperfectly, but always
on the end of this story is a knot as tight as a prayer.
I would have to tear myself up again to undo it.
My grandmother, my mother and I are turned inside out and pierced.
Tracing the torn places and finding
how they might speak to each other again.
Reminded that a stitch only follows an unravelling.
We are unravelling,
forced to gather at needlepoint, and
to remember all the days
we sat at our mothers’ feet,
not quite paying attention as she taught us
how to thread an eye,
how to tie a knot tight enough to hold our tongues,
to mend a village through its children.
We are remembering healing ways disguised as hemming stiches.
/ Ruminants at Cape Town Station
Every night, from platform 1-22 a herd of locomotives,
faces heavy and stomachs strained,
assemble to chew the cud
of stories grazed along the suburb and township lines that day:
Khayelitsha eats at 04:00,
a hot porridge of MamNantsika and her posse of domestic workers
who are stirred to the edges of the City Bowl.
A third-class monthly ticket, is a dompass incarnate,
it ferries them across the river Styx
that separates the ‘haves from ‘those-who-make-having-possible’
they raise madam’s dogs and walk her children.
Goodwood at tea
sluks the tannie with mercury hair and limbs like biltong
who “remembers when ‘first class’ seats meant white”
but now she thinks they mean money.
She hauls a varicose vein of nostalgia
to Pensioners’ Day at Grand West Casino.
Rosebank after lunch
is a Congolese boy in a kaleidoscope of skins:
a Kaapse accent wrestling French
(war follows him everywhere)
hair locs like centipedes burrowing under a snapback;
and Jordans designed for swag, not crossing borders.
Athlone at supper binges
on a nest of blue collar spidermen
swinging like coloured baubles from open doors and between carriages.
The sadism of the descendants of the First People
of this place,
touring ancestral hunting trails,
and where the old family lived before evictions in the 60s.
In this poem,
and in Constantia,
trains must keep off the grass.
/ Spring Cleaning
Though spring had ripened into summer,
the stampede of sunrays jostling past curtains and lace
was enough to rouse us into a quickstep of
dusting and sweeping and lifting and pushing.
The score was the radio, and your now-is-not-the-time voice,
as we coaxed packets of unused spices out of the kitchen
into the bin, like explosive remnants of war,
before weeding the wild garden of a bedroom cupboard
for clothes that could no longer fit.
The season’s dénouement was the wall unit,
a Sphinx squatting glass-eyed against the dining room wall.
How I gazed into that polished temple,
with toes crowded against calloused the wood,
my breath weeping like mercury and clouding my reflection,
gazed wondering what it took to be a disciple of the scriptures
entombed in those ancient depths. Wishing
them to be more than floral fantasy so we could make
an ordinary life special by eating from those plates.
It must be summer somewhere, and death has cleared out
her cupboards, swathed you like fine china—
a life lived in porcelain no longer on display. A feast of memories.
/ What does not sink
Ufikile unogumbe, ugalelekile,
akankqonkqozi, udiliza umgubasi.
There is a flood inside our house.
The water climbs up the walls when we weep;
it does not let us breath.
Everything is wet with grief.
Before this pandemic we would cast a funeral song into the dark like a flare,
and the neighbours would come to strengthen our arms as we drove the water
out the door.
Before grief reached out ankles
Before it swept us to our knees
Before it flowed into the pots, and our beds.
To mourn meant a community gathered
like a bank between you and the river of death.
Now death has dampened this ritual -
we mourn alone.
The neighbours lift their own arms to relieve the water in their lungs -
we are all drowning.
This flood has reached into the inner rooms
and quenched lives young and old.
It has taken what we are not ready to lose.
It spits the stories of the living into the street as injured furniture:
the pensioner in line for a social grant
whose life has no space to protest a beach,
still she returns home, clothes soaked
the man who dies for a beer in his own backyard
the nurse tying a tattered mask together with prayer, and is still unprotected
he artist who contemplates eating her own words to ease her hunger - and art starves.
This flood ruins us all.
But what of the after,
when the depth of this moment is absorbed by history?
Who will we be?
We are a people who know how to rebuild out of the remnants of disaster,
and we will do it again, and again.
When we salvage what is usable,
may we find ourselves baptised into something new:
with new ways of mourning,
a people who have learned to breathe under water,
reciting the names of those we have lost, and memories that never sink.