In South Africa, Womxn’s Month is a historic tribute to the thousands of womxn, from across the country, who marched to the Union Buildings, on 9 August 1956, to protest the extension of Apartheid Pass Laws to womxn. We celebrate Womxn’s Month as a commemoration of the resilient, remarkable, passionate, multi-faceted, inspirational womxn, that form the past, present, and future of our country.
This Womxn’s Month, in honour and celebration of South African womxn, we want to share with you a short series of conversations with a few inspirational, trailblazing South African womxn. We hope their stories and their words remind you of your own potential, as we continue to shape the future we hope for.
Today’s ‘Trailblazing Womxn’ is Zaza Hlalethwa. Zaza is a queer arts and culture journalist at Arts24. Her interests in the arts stem from a need to demystify the elitist and complex looking art world while her pop culture analyses look to facilitate critical thinking and challenge perpetuated social norms by using everyday references, multilingualism and prose. So far feature writing has earned her a 2018 Sikuvile commendation award as well as the 2019 Vodacom regional Journalist of the Year award. I had the honour of sharing a conversation with Zaza about her journey with writing, activism in the arts, using words to lure people into learning, and working to create positive change in an industry she is passionate about.
Where did your journey as a writer begin?
Zaza: The easy answer is to say that it started at university. But, I have always liked storytelling. Growing up, I got into the habit of telling myself stories to fall asleep – that habit continues today!
I kept the same group of friends in primary school and high school, and they always told me that I was good at explaining things. Then, I took a career quiz in a Bratz magazine, with my friends, and it said I should be a journalist. As I got older, I went from Bratz and Barbie magazines to Seventeen magazine.
In one of their career guides, they mentioned that one of the places you should go to if you want to study journalism is Rhodes University. That was the only university I applied to, because it was the only university I wanted to go to. I got to Rhodes and studied English Literature, Journalism, Psychology and isiXhosa. Halfway through my first year, I got the opportunity to join one of the student press papers, and the only place they needed hands was the arts and culture section. Since then, that’s exactly where I have stayed!
Can you tell us about the first time your work was published, and how that felt?
Zaza: The first time I was published, I completely detached from arts and culture and it was a complete surprise! Each year, the university’s school of journalism expected us to get some experiential learning hours at an established newsroom. I went to job shadow at Pretoria News in my first year. I can’t remember how it happened, but I did a service delivery piece where I interviewed ward councillors in the area. I coupled it with a feature article about a man who made a living from being a waste picker. When I wrote the piece, I thought they were just making me do it as practice. Then, the next day, I came in, and on my desk was an open newspaper and there was an entire page with my story on it! It was scary but it felt good! After that, I knew that that was what I wanted – I wanted to keep having a byline.
How did you turn your love for writing into a career? And how has the experience of turning a passion
into a career been for you?
Zaza: I didn’t plan to start working when I started working. I remember, in 2016, when I was in my third year, I went home during the July holidays and my older brother told me that I needed to start looking for bursaries, scholarships or a job, because our parents couldn’t afford to pay for anything beyond my undergrad years. I really wanted to do my post-graduate, so I started looking for bursaries and scholarships. I was applying for a job here and there, but not seriously, because I didn’t want a job, yet.
By November of my third year, I realised that I needed to go into job-hunting mode, because I was not getting anything on the scholarship front. Journalism jobs were few and far between, especially for me, someone who had decided that arts and culture was where I wanted to stay.
The first job that I applied for, and got an interview for, was with the Huffington Post. Verashni Pillay interviewed me and the interview went well. But, then I had to email her a bunch of things and the email didn’t go through. It felt like universal sabotage! That was in December of 2016. Finally, I made peace with the fact that I would be going back home, doing side-hustles, and freelancing here and there, while looking for a job.
Then, around March of 2017, a friend of mine sent me a link and told me that the Mail & Guardian’s Friday section was looking for an intern. And I was like, “Yes!” I applied, all went well, and by August, I started working there.
In terms of why I decided to stick with arts and culture, it was because it was very intimidating. I’m from a Black, middle-class suburb in Pretoria. There are no theatres or galleries there. We only really had a cinema and a mall. So, moving to an art hub like Makhanda, I was exposed to a whole lot of new terms, people, and conversations around arts and culture. Even though it was very white and very male-centric they had my attention. That is when I decided that I wanted to be one of those people - I wanted to do what they were doing. I remember thinking, “I really want to get into this world, and I want to open it up. I want to break everything open..” So, I decided I was going to stick to it – no matter what happens - and that is how I got my job.
Now, do you feel like you belong in this industry? And, do you feel like you have done what you set out to do and broken everything open?
Zaza: I’m still trying to break it apart. I don’t think that is something that will end with me. I don’t think I will reach the roof. I think, when I get to my roof, someone is going to take it from there and see things that I didn’t see.
My mentor, Milisuthando Bongela, really encouraged me to get out my shell, connect with people, and form communities. I was fortunate to meet Banele Khoza, in 2018, after working for a year. Banele is the founder of BKhZ – the gallery in Braamfontein. I interviewed him and we completely clicked. When in close proximity to the people that I write about, I liked to go and deliver the paper to them. So, I went and delivered the paper to him at the gallery and there was a group of Black folk like me who looked at home at the gallery. That is what Banele wanted to do – he wanted to create a space that isn’t just a gallery, but a spot where we can hang out. We don’t necessarily have to talk about art, but we can be our full selves.
I ended up going there every Friday, after work. I met amazing artists, curators, and writers. Then that grew to include practitioners in Cape Town like Sinazo Chiya who is at Stevenson.
So, in creating a queer, Black, femme art community, inside the larger arts community, I do feel like I belong. I feel like I belong because there are so many people like me, who are struggling with the same things that I am struggling with, who are figuring things out, and I don’t have to do it alone.
I love reading your work, because I feel that it gives words to so many unfinished thoughts that I have had and delves into conversations that I have always wanted to hear. Has working in the media industry shifted the way you see the media world and your future career plans?
Zaza: This is a hard question! In terms of the broad, media industry, it has definitely changed the way I see things. I’ve seen this industry break a lot of people, because there’s an idea that when you work in the media industry, you always have to be on. And, it’s not the most financially lucrative business, so retrenchments happen all the time.
But it has taught me that nothing is impossible. If I have support there are no limits. It has shown me that I can do anything – young, queer, and Black. I can do it all.
It has also shown me that you need to love doing this, otherwise you are going to leave very quickly, because it is not easy.
It has also helped me unearth and address my very valid insecurities and fears around being visible.
In terms of wanting to change my career path, it has taught me to diversify and to cultivate my other interests, like film-making and crocheting.
In terms of working in the arts industry, I definitely don’t want to change that. I am forever going to be an arts and culture journalist. That’s because it's warfare. I will continue to wage war in this field. I have the responsibility to work at making this industry look Black, femme and queer. That is the reason I am going to stay.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Zaza: The first piece of advice is to read. Then, after reading, take notes. Then, take more notes. Find a community of other writers whose thought processes you enjoy. Get to know them and be influenced by them.
If you are interested in writing in a particular field, make sure your world is bigger than that field. When I write, get feedback and consult with people, it is only one step to consult arts writers and editors. But, when I go to my friends who are engineers; business, political, health and labour law journalists (who couldn’t care less about what is happening in the arts space) those are the people whose feedback will give you a completely different perspective. It will open up your writing, causing it to grow.
Another thing I would recommend is to get a mentor. I didn’t go and ask my mentor to be my mentor – it happened organically. She was the editor of Friday and I was the intern. If you can, find someone who is well established in the beat that you want to write for – sit at their feet, ask them questions, ask for feedback, and use it to grow.
As an arts writer, what does activism mean and look like for you (on and offline)?
Zaza: Firstly, I don’t really consider what I do to be activism. But, every morning, when I wake up, the most important thing for me is to make sure that I love, affirm and protect, first and foremost, Black, trans people. Then, Black, queer folk. And then, Black everything! That is the most important thing for me and the way that I can do this with the resources that I have is to write them into spaces.
I try to constantly remind people of the world’s social hierarchy by weaving it into everything, no matter what I write about. For example, I wrote a review about a Netflix documentary called, A Secret Love. I watched it, and while I was busy making notes, I started thinking, “This is so different from what this experience would have been like for their Black counterparts.” I got upset and I had to figure out how to take that ball of frustration and put it into a few lines. I use my words to lure people into learning.
What are you currently reading?
Zaza: After Arts24 published a Q&A between the authors, I am rereading two anthologies side by side: Maneo Mohale’s ‘Everything is a Deadly Flower’ and vangile gantsho’s ‘red cotton’. It feels like a sincere hug after a very long day.
Can you tell us about a womxn that inspires you?
Zaza: Too many womxn inspire me. But, going with what we have spoken about, it would have to be the womxn I had the opportunity to meet when I started at the Mail & Guardian: Milisuthando Bongela (my arts editor), Pontsho Pilane, Tebogo Tshwane, Nelisiwe Msomi, Athandiwe Saba, Maneo Mohale, BongekileMacupe and Sarah Smit.
Those womxn have taught me so many things. They have taught me how to incorporate love into what I do. When you think of writing and working for a newsroom, you are not thinking of love, but they have shown me how love should be at the centre of everything we do as human beings. If we are not loving, then we are wasting our time.
They have taught me how to be gentle and to not let the world take that away from me. But, they also taught me how to fight and take breaks. I can’t always be on.
Then there’s Khanya Mzongwana, Lindiwe Mngxitama, Lindokuhle Nkosi, Nombuso Mathibela, ThulileGamedze, Sinazo Chiya, Julie Nxadi, and and and. If you don’t stop me I’ll be going through my phone book soon. There are too many. Being Black is lit. Everyone is so amazing at what they do.