Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture Zizi Kodwa kicked off Heritage Month 2023 with the vibrant Limpopo launch of five sparkling new additions to the Living Human Treasures series of books – all produced from start to finish by Flow Communications.
The books, commissioned by the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture (DSAC), detail the life stories, work, achievements and legacies of five identified “living legends”: Tsonga poet and novelist Themba Patrick Magaisa; Venda traditional musician and dancer Tshimangadzo Esther Sinyegwe; Tsonga traditional musician Dr Thomas Hasani Chauke; ‡Khomani San traditional leader Oom Petrus Vaalbooi; and the late indigenous knowledge systems specialist Meiki Grace Masuku.
Masuku, who sadly passed away in June 2023, was represented by her son, Mathibe Masuku. All four of the other “human treasures” were present at the event, held at the Moletjie Moshate Tribal Authority near Polokwane on 31 August 2023.
Community members were excited to meet and photograph their cultural heroes in person. Among the dignitaries present were Deputy Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture Nocawe Mafu, local chief Kgoši Kgabo Moloto III, Mayor of Polokwane John Mpe and Freedom Park CEO Jane Mufamadi.
The proceedings were joyful and the mood celebratory and electric. The approximately 3 000-strong crowd – many dressed in colourful, traditional attire – were thrilled when Dr Chauke and his famous back-up singer wives, the Shinyori Sisters, performed some of his hit songs. Other entertainment included traditional dance routines by local young people who kept the crowd entertained and ululating.
Minister Kodwa said: “We’re proud to celebrate the launch of the living treasures books. They are a celebration of our rich culture and heritage in South Africa. These legends remind us to promote and celebrate the diversity of our cultures and ensure that future generations have access to information about their cultures. They also carry indigenous knowledge that cannot be found anywhere else.”
Interviewed by Flow at the launch, Dr Chauke said, “I’m excited to be at the launch of a book that details my life, and I hope those who come into contact with it walk away understanding who I am and where I’m from.”
Vho Esther Sinyegwe said the event felt “surreal” to her and that she was “grateful that our culture is taking centre stage”, while Magaisa said he was grateful to be honoured as one of South Africa’s living human treasures and excited to be at the “wonderful” DSAC launch ceremony. He also thanked Flow for its time and commitment in producing the books.
Mathibe Masuku said he was grateful to have a book to remember his late mother by. “When the book was commissioned, we wondered if it would capture her essence, and it delivered. When I miss her, I will read her book and remember her smile.”
An emotional Oom Petrus Vaalbooi said it was a privilege to be at the launch and that he was thankful to those who helped to produce and make his book available, even though it was not written in his own mother tongue.
Labour of love
The books were produced between October 2022 and March 2023 by a team of Flow writers, editors, designers and photographers. The work included everything from conducting research and interviews to writing, photography, editing, design and layout, and printing.
The writers and photographers travelled to the homes of the subjects in different provinces for the interviews and photoshoots spanning several days, speaking to the human treasures, their families, friends, community members and others, and supplementing this with telephonic and online conversations with subject experts, to produce scholarly (yet accessible) 64-page full-colour, hardcover books in A5 size.
Flow has been involved with the DSAC Living Human Treasures project for several years, and was commissioned to produce six books between 2019 and 2021 (two a year).
In 2018/19, Flow produced books featuring artists Esther Mahlangu and Noria Mabasa, and, in 2019/20, on Ouma Katrina Esau, one of the last fluent speakers of the ancient San language N|uu, and the acclaimed late Xhosa musician Madosini Mpahleni.
The 2020/21 books profiled two KwaZulu-Natal artists, Mgwaqo Enoch Mabika and Beauty Nngxongo.
All the subjects selected for the ongoing series are seen as custodians of indigenous knowledge, heritage, traditions and skills – expressed through visual art, literature, music, dance or other indigenous artistic knowledge systems.
Flow senior writer and editor Willem Steenkamp, who has written four of the books in the series, including two from the latest batch – on Oom Petrus Vaalbooi and Tshimangadzo Esther Sinyegwe – says all have challenged him as a writer and nurtured his soul.
“It’s a singular privilege to get to tell the life stories of remarkable people, such as our subjects in the Living Human Treasures series. They are an integral part of South Africa’s cultural and artistic fabric, and their stories must be vividly told and remembered.
“I will never forget, for example, sitting under a camelthorn tree in the Kalahari Desert with Oom Petrus Vaalbooi, traditional leader of the San, or in a sweltering rondawel in rural KwaZulu-Natal with Mgwaqo Enoch Mabika, a woodcarver, taking in their verbal cadence and turn of phrase, their expressions and their passion.”
Fellow Flow senior writer and editor Christina Kennedy says being part of the project has been one of the highlights of her writing career.
“The three books I’ve contributed to the series – on Venda sculptor and woodcarver Noria Mabasa, Zulu basket weaver Beauty Ngxongo and the late Meiki Grace Masuku, doyenne of indigenous herbology in the Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela community – have been incredibly enriching to research and write.
“Going out into the rural parts of South Africa with our teams of translators, photographers and fellow writers and being welcomed so warmly into the subjects’ homes and villages has driven home how important it is to value these ‘treasures’, whose wisdom comes from a deep and innate connection with their communities, traditions and cultures.”