SAFTA-winning director Mmabatho Montsho (Thula’s Vine) makes a pointed observation at the start of her new short film, Joko Ya Hao, which is set in apartheid South Africa. “Church lady” Nosizwe (Simphiwe Dana – who was cast for the role after Mmabatho saw her singing at Winnie Mandela's EFF memorial in Brandfort) is preparing to graduate from her theology class, with the aim of becoming a priest. She is set on teaching Sunday School as a way of making her young students aware of the true liberation theology: that everyone, black and white, male and female, is equal in God’s eyes.
But even within her own class, her lecturer, Mvelase (Elliot Makhubo), berates her for talking about politics, classifying it as “men’s matters” … as if political injustice doesn’t impact women. The same lecturer contemptuously segregates the women’s work portfolios from the men’s when they hand them in at the end of class, and actively works to silence Nosizwe. Nosizwe, though, will not be silenced.
A life of burdens
The title of the film, Joko Ya Hao (chosen by Mmabatho’s mom), comes from the hymn Joko Ya Hao e Bobebe, which is sung in the film itself and includes the lines, “Your burden is light, it lifts my heart. My belief is my shield that saves me from death.” And Nosizwe is fighting for freedom on many fronts. She will suffer a host of trials, not least of which is the looming apartheid-era eviction and forced removal of her church and her entire neighbourhood. She’ll have put her life on the line over seemingly small matters, and pay the cost in blood for every victory. Even Nosizwe’s token acts of defiance will be met with brutal violence by those in power.
Nosizwe has no guns to fire back, no resistance army to back her up. But no matter. In one of her speeches to her neighbours and church friends, she namechecks the biblical story of David, who took on a giant army with a sling and a stone.
All that Nosizwe has to help her bear the burden of taking on the system is her faith and the sympathy of her friends and allies, like Yeni (Jet Novuka). When Nosizwe speaks, her friends say of her words, “It’s giving me life.” Her courage in her theology class, her inspirational words, and her connectedness with the entire community have a group of political activists turning to her for help mobilising households to protest in the face of a planned eviction campaign.
Yet for the most part, her church’s authorities will not recognise their looked-for Moses among them in Nosizwe – and not because she stutters. Nosizwe speaks clearly, they just choose to be deaf because she can’t grow a beard.
Nosizwe’s story is inspired by the life of Winnie Mandela, her contributions to the liberation struggle, and the unacknowledged steep personal costs that she and every woman like her paid in that battle. “The movie is an effort to humanise girls and their struggles, and to not see them as appendages of males, to principally see them as singular entities whose contributions and lives mattered,” says Simphiwe. “Stories like these are important because they put all these mirrors to our faces and force us to rethink our attitudes towards women. To remember who women really are instead of our oppressive view of who they are supposed to be. The difference between a man writing a woman’s story and a woman doing it is that women see women as human beings with emotions and spirituality,” she adds.
But Joko Ya Hao isn’t just a tribute to a time passed. “The film was my way of contributing to the conversation about land and the landlessness of black people in South Africa,” Mmabatho says. I hope it will be a reminder that there is a land question to resolve. It is something I believe was important to Mama (Winnie)."
Watch Joko Ja Hao on Sunday, 20 September on Mzansi Magic (DStv 161) at 20:00