The first time I saw Ayanda Nondlwana he was strolling around Grahamstown. Dreadlocks. Backpack. Laughing and making conversation with the locals. I saw him about a year later at a local pub called Olde 65. Overalls. Checked shirt. Converse sneakers. He shook up the small, smoky venue with the wildest pantsula steps I’ve ever seen. Now I’m sitting opposite him at a café outside the Rhodes University Drama Department. Head scarf. Orange shirt. Haile Selassie button. He’s just finished a rehearsal for the Makana Drama Development Festival (MDDF), it’s a wonder he’s found the time.
Nondlwana (30) recently returned to South Africa after performing in Finland, with his pantsula crew The Via Kasi Movers. Showcasing Via Kasi Movers and the pantsula movement to an international market in the Finnish ‘Faces Festival’, saw one of Nondlwana’s lifelong dreams finally being realised. But the international attention does not detract from his love for the local arts community in Grahamstown.
“If they called me up now and asked me to come back, I’d cut this interview short and get on the plane. I’d be back soon though,” Nondlwana says with a smile. “Everything is so clean and it’s because people care about each other and their shared home over there. It’s a welcoming, friendly place. We need more of that here. We need to care for one another more, ” he says before greeting a friend who’s walking alongside the road across from where we’re sitting.
“Hola mfwethu! Have a blessed day.” The friend returns the greeting and Nondlwana’s back with me explaining how he came to be so passionately involved with the Grahamstown community. He describes growing up in Soweto, moving to Grahamstown and how a background of drugs, alcohol and small-scale crime found him on the wrong side of a divided city. An ever present love for community-based arts is what Nondlwana says kept him alive.
“I finished matric and I promised my mother I’d get a job, but I found myself doing things I hated. I was helping build the Kingswood College rugby field, I was doing hard labour, I was behind a desk saying ‘Yes ma’am, no ma’am’ and I hated it. I started smoking drugs, breaking into houses and doing bad things like that. But I was always dancing.”
He started dancing with spindly legs in the streets of Soweto at the age of nine, and his constant passion for pantsula awarded him a sizeable following in the township where he and a few friends would regularly stage performances and dance-offs on the weekends. When he moved to Grahamstown, it was a local community activist by the name of Xolile Madinda who took note of Nondlwana and his growing celebrity within the community. Madinda subsequently opened the door to the greater Grahamstown arts scene for Nondlwana through the Fingo Festival, a creative platform aimed at promoting social cohesion and transformation within the Fingo township and greater Grahamstown community.
Nondlwana started holding dance workshops with local schools through the Fingo Festival which is where he got in touch with award winning director, Janet Buckland, who introduced him to the Rhodes University Drama Department. ‘Mama’ as he affectionately calls Buckland, helped Nondlwana become a part of Ubom! Eastern Cape Drama Company.
He pauses, grins and places a hand on the wall of the department, speaking as if memories were transmitting through the building itself. He had always enjoyed the taste of local fame in Grahamstown, but for the first time in his life he was starting to become a role model. The kids he performed for through Ubom! were looking to put their time and creativity into something worthwhile and looked to him for inspiration.
Nondlwana started “cleaning up his act” by dropping the booze and drugs, eating healthy and keeping his body in good shape in order to perform.
“This is when my life really changed. Mama was keeping me busy and helping me grow and she was actually the one who helped me meet my brother.”
Performing overseas with Via Kasi Movers was a dream for Nondlwana. It was a dream shared with his best friend and self-proclaimed partner in crime, Thozamile ‘Rocky’ Mngcongo. Although Nondlwana and Rocky had known each other and danced in rival pantsula crews, it was Buckland who helped them form their friendship through rigorous Ubom! Rehearsals. It was a brotherhood formed through art and torn apart by violence.
“Hey, me and Rocky were always together. We did shows together in the township after we merged pantsula groups and formed Via Kasi Movers. Then we started performing at the National Arts Festival together. Performing our show, ‘Pantsula van Tuka Af’ is what got us attention from Finland so I owe Rocky everything,” he says.
Nondlwana’s grin is replaced with a look of absence and nostalgia.
“Rocky and I both knew Soweto and the Sophiatown roots, and we knew the same struggle. We were the same person actually,” Nondlwana says as he starts to fidget and stares off towards the street. “After he was stabbed, I didn’t know what to do. He died in my arms you know. I couldn’t describe it for a long time, but when he went, a part of me left too.”
“Every step we perform in Via Kasi Movers was choreographed by Rocky. He made me who I am and he continues to influence me every day. When I perform, I can feel him in my feet. He was always a better dancer than me and I can feel him helping me move now that he’s gone,” explains Nondlwana. “Even when I’m not performing, I can feel him. I talk to him constantly and people think I’m a bit crazy for talking to myself, but I know he can hear me.”
Hearing about the type of friendship that existed between the two dancers only helps to understand why Nondlwana dances and performs with such conviction. He wears a smile on and off stage, and will continue to boost his community through art until he ‘can’t dance anymore’.
He stands, wishes me a blessed afternoon and slings his backpack over his shoulders as he heads home. “Oh and what are you doing on Saturday?” he asks after turning back. “You should come to the MDDF show and write something. The kids would love to read it.”
All photos by Niamh Walsh-Vorster