Siphokazi Jonas is a writer, poet, performer, and producer with a laudable national footprint and growing international presence.
One simply needs to consider what Siphokazi has contributed towards and delivered on in 2021 to realise she’s confirming her worth at every turn, both at home and around the world.
Whether it’s her Sunday World Unsung Hero Award, her participation at Lviv International Book Forum in Ukraine, or the fact that she not only featured and was awarded for the first time by the Poet at Poetry Africa Festival, she headlined the event, now in its 25th year, too.
Siphokazi holds an MA in English Literature and a BA in Drama and English from the University of Cape Town. Her background in the theatre is what makes her a truly captivating performer whose work leaves a lasting impression on audiences across the world.
She has written and performed in numerous productions including #WeAreDyingHere (2020) at Artscape and Joburg Theatre, and Around the Fire (2018) at Artscape Theatre.
Siphokazi is also the co-producer, co-writer, and performer on the short film adaptation of the #WeAreDyingHere film. In 2016 she was the first African ever to perform at Rhetoric, the biggest poetry event in the world, in Los Angeles, California.
In 2015 she was crowned the Cape Town Ultimate Slam Champion. Her poetry education project won Western Cape Top Achiever at the DAC Debut Awards in 2019.
Siphokazi’s stage work includes Natalia Da Rocha’s Adam Small Festival in 2015 and Mandla Mbothwe’s Oratorio of a Forgotten Youth in 2016. She was nominated for a 2016 Broadwayworld.com South African Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance in Around the Fire.
She was the runner-up in the prestigious 2016 Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award, coming second out of 600 poems submitted nationally. Her work was longlisted again in 2017.
In 2018 Siphokazi delivered The Widow, her directorial debut, as part of Artscape’s New Voices programme; returning the following year to present the production once more.
In February 2019 she toured as the headline act on the first-ever South African national poetry tour, the Fresh Poetry Tour. Siphokazi has shared the stage with South African legends such as Thembi Mtshali-Jones, Celeste Matthews-Wannenburgh, Natalia da Rocha and musicians Hotstix Mabuse, Pops Mohamed, Zolani Mahola, and Freshlyground. She was also one of the storytellers invited to perform for Yo-Yo Ma on his visit to South Africa.
Her commissioned work includes writing poetry for Google, SA Tourism, the University of Cape Town, an artist exhibition in Milan, Italy, and the Swedish Embassy in South Africa.
She has also created work for a school project in South America that uses poetry to make STEM subjects appealing to young students.
She has also been a featured performer at the Open Book Festival, Naked Word Festival, Word and Sound International Youth Festival, the 21st Poetry Africa Festival, the SA Book Fair and the Abantu Book Festival. Here she has been featured along with international poets, including Alysia Harris and Miles Hodges.
Siphokazi has also co-curated the Open Book Festival and the Time of the Writer Festival poetry competition. In her capacity as a speaker, she’s contributed to national and academic conferences, including Music Exchange and The Justice Conference South Africa, presenting on issues ranging from writing, the art business, art and activism, and social justice.
Her most recent multi-genre production, #WeAreDyingHere, was co-written with poet Hope Netshivhambe and award-winning musician Babalwa Makwetu. It debuted at the Artscape Theatre in November 2019 and was performed at the Joburg Theatre in February 2020, where both runs received rave reviews. The recorded stage version was later streamed on the Covid-Zero streaming site to over 20 countries. The production was mentioned in Time Out New York as one of the best productions to stream during the lockdown.
In 2020, #WeAreDyingHere was adapted into a poetry short film with Optical Films, in partnership with Executive Producers Siya Kolisi and Rachel Kolisi. The film debuted at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles and was nominated for Best Narrative Short.
In February 2021 Siphokazi was invited to the South African State of the Nation Address, where she delivered a captivating poem prior to the presidential address.
She has been profiled on both print, radio, and television media including the Daily Maverick, Sunday Times, IOL, Hectic Nine-9, Expresso, eNCA, SABC, eTV, Cape Talk, 702, and many others. Siphokazi teaches spoken word and theatre online at an elementary school in Florida, USA, and is the current English Poetry editor for New Contrast.
What does not sink
Ufikile unogumbe, ugalelekile,
akankqonkqozi, udiliza umgubasi.
There is a flood inside our house.
The water climbs up the walls when we weep;
it does not let us breath.
Everything is wet with grief.
Before this pandemic we would cast a funeral song into the dark like a flare,
and the neighbours would come to strengthen our arms as we drove the water
out the door.
Before grief reached out ankles
Before it swept us to our knees
Before it flowed into the pots, and our beds.
To mourn meant a community gathered
like a bank between you and the river of death.
Now death has dampened this ritual –
We mourn alone.
The neighbours lift their own arms to relieve the water in their lungs –
We are all drowning.
This flood has reached into the inner rooms
and quenched lives young and old.
It has taken what we are not ready to lose.
It spits the stories of the living into the street as injured furniture:
Like the pensioner in line for a social grant
whose life has no space to protest a beach,
still she returns home, clothes soaked.
Or the man who dies for a beer in his own backyard.
The nurse tying a tattered mask together with prayer, and is still unprotected.
Or the artist who contemplates eating her own words to ease her hunger – and art starves.
This flood ruins us all.
But what of the after,
when the depth of this moment is absorbed
Who will we be?
We are a people who know how to rebuild out of the remnants of disaster,
and we will do it again, and again.
When we salvage what is usable,
may we find ourselves baptised into something new:
New ways of mourning,
a people who have learned to breathe under water,
reciting the names of those we have lost, and memories that never sink.
By Siphokazi Jonas
Copyright – all rights reserved 5 February 2021
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