Station of freedom

2013-03-17 10:01

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Steve Kwena Mokwena is carving out a cultural hub in Westdene in the same way his grandad grooved out in Sophiatown in the 1950s, writes Percy Mabandu

A station implies a place of movement where different people, various ?energies and agendas meet in transit.

All of them are involved in their journeys and trajectories. But for a moment in time, they are in a form of contingent congregation.

This is one layer of meaning employed to define a new left-leaning cultural hub quietly taking shape in Westdene on the edges of the old Sophiatown, west of Joburg.

Trendily called the Afrikan Freedom Station, it functions as a multipurpose gallery, a video screening and jazz-jam session venue. It’s also an all-round cool place to hang out, which I discovered while chatting to Steve Kwena Mokwena, who runs the place with his wife, Nirvana Singh.

As the Joburg day slouches towards a pleasant autumn dusk, I arrive to find him standing at the glass door fiddling with a piece of chalk. He’s joined by his daughter, Kiné, who’s helping him write new signage for forthcoming events.

Mokwena nurses an unlit cigarette in one hand and a cup of black coffee in the other. He wears his denim shirts, a black pair of high-top All Star sneakers and paint-stained khaki chinos.

Soft-spoken and unhurried in his manner, Mokwena reminds me of the proverbial man in one of Seitlhamo Motsapi’s poems. He greets with a genial smile and an unassuming radiance beaming from his face, like that of a blushing angel.

Just like Motsapi’s poetic muse, it can be said of Mokwena:

“Growing up, we all wanted / to be doctors, lawyers and teachers / so the blood could ebb out of the village / my friend had much more sober dreams / He asked the heavens to grant him / the imposing peace of the bluegum in his back yard / and that all the poor send him their tears / so he could be humble like the sun.”

We settle at the back of the gallery near cleaning utensils and other housekeeping tools. Here, Mokwena begins talking in earnest.

“Don’t let anyone lie to you and tell you nothing happens in Westdene,” he says as he finally gestures towards lighting up his cigarette, but doesn’t. This as he points out that people almost always feel a need to qualify the location in relation to its more famous adjacent neighbourhoods.

“So they’ll say we are right next to Melville or just before Sophiatown,” he explains, adding: “This is where creative young Africa is gathering now and making magic happen.”

He points to the frequent jazz-jam sessions hosted there, including bands like Malcolm Jiyane’s project along with pianist Nduduzo Makhathini and rising drummer Tumi Mogorosi’s respective bands.

Theatre activist and poet Kgafela oa Magogodi and Marabela are also scheduled to gig there to mark the Sharpeville massacre later this month. Even Andile Yenana is planning to use the space to launch the Johannesburg Jazz Summit.

Mokwena tells me his parents used to live in Westbury, before the historic forced removals took them to Rockville in Soweto, where he was born. His grandfather, Jacob Madumo, was an alto sax player with the Jazz Maniacs, one of Sof’town’s staple jazz bands.

“I carry his blood, but not his name because he left my father when he was very young, and only returned when my dad was a married man. This creates a gap in my family memory,” Mokwena says. He shares this information to explain his forays into jazz and art: “This gig is a kind of a spiritual journey. You can say I’m trying to connect with that memory through this multimedia shrine for our jazz ancestors. The broken history also becomes the raw materials out of which my art emerges.”

Mokwena is exhibiting a series of portraits of his loved jazz musicians and writers. Late bassist Johnny Dyani, who died in exile, Kippie Moeketsi and E’skia Mphahlele are a few of those represented in the catalogue. This morphs personal narratives into collective identity politics. Where private memories fail, composite identities come in – just as music fills in where language cannot suffice to carry an expression.

But Mokwena wasn’t always such an ardent art enthusiast. After graduating with an honours degree in histology (the study of the tissues of an animal or plant) from Wits University in 1989, he joined the then newly launched Centre for the Study of Violence. He specialised in researching youth-related violence.

Notable among his work was a paper he wrote while at Wits titled The Era of the Jackrollers: Contextualising the Rise of Youth Gangs in Soweto. It continues to be used in various studies on the subject.

Then he was called on to become the first chief executive of the National Youth Commission, a post he occupied for a number of years before joining the International Youth Foundation based in Baltimore, Maryland, US.

Interestingly, it was while in Baltimore that Mokwena started painting.

He found his creative spark at the birthplace of Billie Holiday, the grand matriarch of jazz, also the place where Edgar Allan Poe, the poet and architect of the modern short story, died.

Upon his return home, Mokwena’s creative journey saw him produce a number of films.

These include Driving with Fanon, a documentary in which Mokwena travels through Freetown, Sierra Leone, with the ghost of Frantz Fanon. He engages a new generation of citizens there about the radical black scholar, psychiatrist and revolutionary thinker in the wake of the west African country’s civil war.

He also directed A Blues for Tiro, a poetic motion picture that pays tribute to the black consciousness activist and inspirational leader who was murdered in 1974.

“I returned to South Africa in 2000 to work not as a cheerleader for bureaucratic ideas,” Mokwena says. This is not to say he disdains official efforts to organise youth development. Mokwena says he is still in conversation with government. He shares a nugget of a conversation he had with Planning Minister Trevor Manuel, who agreed that a perspective missing in the diagnostic document of the National Planning Commission was the unique agency and creativity of the youth. Mokwena contends that “given the right enabling space, young people, no matter how troubled, will almost always figure themselves out”.

This is where the Afrikan Freedom Station comes in. “We are not part of a gated cultural precinct; we are a street-level intervention for young Africans,” Mokwena says. This becomes evident as different people come in and go to greet him during our conversation.

Our chat wanes as the night catches up with us. Mokwena looks silently at his cigarette, still toying with it like a cat does a dead mouse, and then he finally lights it up.

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