Prize-winning African author questions accessibility in South Africa

Writer, filmmaker and photographer Lidudumalingani Mqombothi says his work is about the little people.

Lidudumalingani Mqombothi

Winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing 2016, multidisciplinary South African artist Lidudumalingani Mqombothi grew up in the Zikhovane Village in the Transkei, Eastern Cape where he herded cattle “and later grew fond of words and images.” The son of a mineworker, Mqombothi says he was not immediately exposed to the idea of becoming a full-time writer and photographer. Instead, a love for fiction and imagery prompted the self-taught creative to write the stories of South Africa’s little people.

“I’m interested in minorities. Small communities. I’m interested in people in the lower classes, in people who are in spaces that they’re not supposed to be in by the standards set by society,” he explains. “I’m interested in the little people and their stories. I’m interested in how these people insert themselves into spaces that they might not be welcome and how they navigate those spaces.

“I mean. I’m one of those people. I grew up in the villages and left to the city and had to figure out what the fuck was going on. “

His award-winning short story “Memories We Lost” tells the tale of two sisters: one afflicted with a mental illness and the other, her self-appointed protector. The emotionally charged page-turner explores both the bond between two sisters and the tightrope of tradition, superstition and modern life as their village attributes the sister's mental illness to the supernatural. The young girls are forced to flee when a local man is called upon to rid her of her demons.

By Lidudumalingani Mqombothi

For Mqombothi, the onus is on local South Africans to tell their stories. But at the same time, the socio-economic factors that divide the country, such as the wage gap, inequality and racial tensions, still prevent underprivileged communities from accessing art.

“It becomes about the people I shoot in Khayelitsha or the people I shoot in Woodstock who are perhaps don’t have access to those spaces. Even the writing, the fact that it’s in English and it exists in an anthology that people have to buy for 200-and-something, already it cancels out a lot of people,” he says. “So accessibility is a huge problem for me and I have no idea how to make it right.”

Going forward, Mqombothi plans to take his exhibitions to the townships and make Xhosa literature accessible to English speakers. “There seems to be a thinking that when you take art to the townships you have to dumb things down. I don’t think so. People in the townships have the exact same abilities or capabilities as everyone else.”

As the winner of the Caine Prize, Mqombothi will be given the opportunity to take up a month’s residence at Georgetown University, as a Writer-in-Residence at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice. He was also invited to speak at the Library of Congress and is expected to take part in the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, Storymoja in Nairobi and Ake Festival in Abeokuta, Nigeria.