Updated: May 25
“As muted and marginal members of society how do they make their voices heard?”.
Isabel Hofmeyr (Opland, 2007)
Nontsizi Mgqwetho found and expressed her voice in an age when black women were marginalised, diminished and muted. Her writing is described by Opland (2007) as swaggering, urgent and confrontational. She challenged male dominance, ineffective leadership, black apathy, white malice and indifference, exploitation, territorial and cultural dispossession. As she wrote in her first poetic submission to Umteteli wa Bantu (a newspaper edited by Marshall Maxeke, Charlotte’s husband)
“Kuba tina simadoda nje asizange
Siyibone kowetu imbongikazi
Yenkazana kuba imbongi inyuka
Nenkundla ituke inkosi”
“No female poet
Came from our house:
The poet who rouses the court
And censures the king’s always a male.”
From Chizama the Poet (Opland, 2007)
For too long our women’s voices have been muted, literally and figuratively, by force or by choice. By now you probably know that I do not buy into the notion that this is all the fault of men. I regularly participate in online webinars on the Zoom platform. The organizer has the power to mute everyone and each participant has the power to mute themselves. But each participant also has the power to UNMUTE themselves irrespective of who muted them.
Whilst men certainly do need to change in order to become more egalitarian and inclusive, we cannot make that choice for them. We can only engage with them in such a way that they willingly choose to be different. Unmuting is a good start.
In order to unmute you must first find your voice. You must discover your authenticity, who you are in your soul, your core beliefs, the need which most anguishes your heart, the meaning which inspires your deep fervent energy and the best impression you can make on the world. Get really clear on the message that you want to be and the community to which you wish to convey it.
By “voice” I mean the message that you are to the world; your presence and impact.
Once you have clarified the words which you wish to embody, you must ensure that you have a voice. You can either wait for someone to give you a voice or you must find where and how you can express yourself such that you will be heard by those whom you seek to impact. In an increasingly clamorous world, being heard requires intentionality, artistry, originality and deft accuracy. To be heard you must somehow arrest attention. To capture attention you must pay attention - to your audience and to your tone of voice.
Know who you are, the power of your associations and your authority
Nontsizi named and positioned herself and her message in the context of her heritage. She understood her identity and claimed the stature of her upbringing. She embraced the value of the circumstances of her birth and who she was born to be, recognising that every aspect had contributed to her bearing and authority. She spoke and lived with conviction, demonstrating her willingness to actively live her message, participating in anti-pass demonstrations and getting herself arrested for her cause.
o What is the wealth of your experience and heritage?
o Which associations with credible people or organisations can you legitimately mention?
o How can you speak with more authority, clarity or power?
o What actions support your vocal message?
Identify your tribe and the platforms where you will get a voice
Nontsizi expressed herself in her mother tongue to the tribe who would most understand and respond to her voice. Not only did she stand out as the only prolific female poet to write in Xhosa, but she was able to speak with fluency and familiarity, using the words which were true to her traditions and her message. She was able to find a platform where she had a voice and used it consistently over a period of nearly a decade.
o What is the vocabulary with which you are most familiar? What do you know most about?
o Who is most likely to respond to your message?
o Which platforms are most available to you and how can you use them consistently and effectively?
Identify the voices within you, which clamour to be heard and vary your voice
One of the most fascinating characteristics of Nontsizi’s writing was how she used different voices to present herself. She wrote with a woman’s voice and sometimes with a man’s. She spoke as a “red-blanketed” rural traditionalist and as one of a small number of urbanized women familiar with the militarized upheavals in the territorial disputes for land and mining rights. Most notably, she wrote with the convicting, directing voices of the Manyano preacher, and of the Imbongi. The former were women preachers given a platform in female Christian prayer unions. The latter were the (always) male praise poets who were given licence to critique the rural chiefs and call them to account. These voices rose within Nontsizi and she embraced and honed each style authentically and with conviction. The variety which she employed also made her voice interesting and arrested attention in different ways and with different groups of people.
o Which voices inside you are the most urgent and difficult to repress?
o What is the tone of the messages you want to convey and the role of the speaker?
o What different voice might get a different response?
Define your core themes and repeat them
Nontsizi was not afraid to repeat herself and took a clear stand on some key issues. Whilst some may view this as forgetful or lazy, consistent repetition drew attention to some of her core messages. The powerful stanza below was repeated 8 times in her poems and spoke with haunting power of the desolation of the desecrated home and homes of the African people. Perhaps this was the deepest cry in Nontsizi’s heart.
Oh the homestead standing alone
With easy access through its gates
Whose people once had plenty
Now a sign of oppression (also translated “Become today a place of want”)
o What do you stand for?
o What are the core themes which will define your voice?
o How can you repeat these themes so that they become recognisable but not stale
Use critical thinking, imagery and the arts to capture imagination and transform thinking
Nontsizi was a critical thinker, who questioned and considered alternative perspectives. She used poetry and the imagery of the rural Eastern Cape to punctuate her message, including descriptions of familiar animals and of evocative sounds such as wailing and the roar of thunder and rivers. Art forms are particularly powerful transformative tools since they can challenge people physically, socially, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually and through multiple sensory portals. They also enable you to stand out from the crowd of other voices seeking the attention of your audience.
o How can you use creativity and different art forms to make your voice more impactful?
o How can you capture attention to challenge the core beliefs which drive behaviour?
o How can you more effectively stand out from the crowd of other voices?
The #MeToo Movement has demonstrated the power of voice so well. As early as 2006 one woman, Tarana Burke began to express a message to the world. Alyssa Milano joined her in 2017, followed by more and more women who already had a voice in the world speaking out their truth; ensuring that their powerful, transformative, cohesive, consistent message was heard. They have been heard in the media. They have been heard on red carpets and from prominent stages by influential people. They have been heard in the courts. They have been heard across the globe.
Unmute and impact the world.
Please send through any stories which you may have of unsung historical women or ideas you have for promoting their voices. Please mail me – email@example.com.
Oplund, J., 2007. The Nation’s Bounty: The Xhosa Poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho. Wits University Press.