Thokozani Ndaba.
Thokozani Ndaba.
Image: Steve Tanchel for Wanted.

This June, Wanted explores the complex world of masculinity through conversations, personal essays and interviews.

Thokozani Ndaba is the founder and executive director of Ntethelelo Foundation (NF) in Alexandra, Johannesburg. The trained drama and theatre practitioner — BA (Wits), MA (New York University Steinhardt Educational Theatre) — activist and facilitator uses theatre methodologies and techniques to facilitate healing, empowerment and support within vulnerable communities, creating safe spaces that enable dialogues and social change, empower youngsters, and break the chains of abuse, poverty and control.

“Ntethelelo” means forgiveness and the core values of Ndaba and her work are about healing, personal growth and self-love and self-respect.

Who are you?

A human being. I’m just Thokozani; I like being called Thokozani. I don’t like being put in any boxes or anything like that — it’s not part of my nature. I’m a human rights activist and I’m somebody who tries to dismantle all the things that have been boxed. I’m Thokozani. I can go as “she” or “her”, I just have an issue with being boxed into something.

Your foundation refers to women with a ‘Y’. Can you elaborate on that?

I always talk about how everybody says “wo-men” and “fe-male”; it’s used even in the Bible. They say women originate from men. It is the other way around; men originate from women.

You can be you with a “Y” without having originated from anything. We are all a creation of some higher power, so the "Y” is for “you”. It stands for “you”, not coming from a man or whatever, but we know that every species comes from a [female’s] vagina. Nobody comes from a man. “Fe-male”, “wo-men” — it’s all patriarchy and manmade.

How would you personally define masculinity?

As beings, we are all born with a soul, with some kind of masculinity within us or masculine energy. [In] any being, whatever sex you fall under, there will be a form of masculinity. I define masculinity as human behaviour and actions, but it also lies on social constructs and other forms of construction that were built for certain reasons. Masculinity is within you as a human being and all of us have it.

Tell me about your methods of activism?

Paulo Freire is the father of pedagogy; in the classroom, everybody’s equal. Children hold a form of knowledge. When teachers come into the classroom and think they hold all the knowledge, the children bunk in their minds. By saying “let’s meet halfway” and “what do you have?” you’ll have less school drop-outs. In the classroom, I use [Freire’s] Pedagogy of the Oppressed. When I work with young people, we are all equals; we stand in a circle that shows equality, their voices are heard and seen — I am not leading or in charge.

Thokozani Ndaba.
Thokozani Ndaba.
Image: Steve Tanchel for Wanted.

In the community, I use [guidance by] Augusto Boal, who is the founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed. It works well with our society and the communities, because of their marginalisation. It gives people a voice, because they take part; they become “spectactors” (the dual role of those involved in forum theatre as both spectator and actor) and find their own possible solutions.

In SA, in my Zulu culture, it’s called “imbizo”. In the Theatre of the Oppressed, it’s called “forum theatre”; there’s always a joker who facilitates the conversation, so that it goes in the right way and people are honest.

In other cultures in SA, we have similar things; people gather around the tree and address whatever social issues communities are going through. So, we are using that as a form of raising awareness in the community about the state of gender-based violence that we face in this country.

Could you elaborate on your work dismantling and unpacking ideas of masculinity?

At the foundation, we unpack masculinity a lot; through theatre, through visual arts. We discuss gender identities and gender norms that influence human sexual behaviours, unpacking how culture influences masculinity. Many of the boys [at the foundation] never learnt that they could, and should, also wash dishes and do chores in the house until they came to us. They were like, “Thokozani, we didn’t know, only when we came here [we learnt] that we have to do chores.”

By having proper conversations and using different tools, like theatre, but also [helping them to] find their voice in a respectful manner, we can change and dismantle the toxic norms that the [older] generations have been using to oppress us.

Masculinity in this country is seen as aggression; you have to be aggressive, you have to be forceful, you have to be take action. Femininity is looked at as having to be soft; as if women [being] feminine can’t be masculine.

Everybody can be masculine without being aggressive; it’s about behaviour and action, it’s all ingrained and forced and a part of patriarchy. We embody it differently as humans. There could be five males in the room and they embody masculinity in different forms and shapes; the way they dress, the way they speak and the way they do things.

There’s nothing wrong with masculinity — we all have it — but toxic masculinity is what we are trying to dismantle

I personally [unpack masculinity] through the way I wear my clothes; I speak through art and clothing without having any words said. For example, I wore the Chembe male outfit at an art fair in Cape Town.

When I went into the Chembe church, which is one of the most patriarchal churches in SA, to buy a man’s outfit, they said, first of all, “you cannot get in here because you are a woman and you’re wearing pants”, and second of all, “you have to put something on your head, because a woman has to put something in her head”.

That didn’t make sense to me, because the people who are forcing this toxic masculinity and patriarchy are men in dresses, so men are allowed to wear dresses, but women are not allowed to wear pants? If you look at religion, it forces these toxic narratives.

There’s nothing wrong with masculinity — we all have it — but toxic masculinity is what we are trying to dismantle. It’s all constructed, but it’s the patriarchy that is fueling and perpetuating this toxic usage of culture and religion, the sources of humanity.

We use these sources to emphasise our values and beliefs, while they use them to oppress; they use culture and religion to make sure that men are seen as better than others, especially when it comes to women. Men are seen as better than women. Men are seen as the head of the house.

How has toxic masculinity affected you?

My personal experience was always “because you are in this body, in this sex, you’re supposed to behave in a certain way and do things in a certain way”, and my body influenced the level of violence and violation that I went through. [When I was young], I felt like I needed to be more aggressive and  forceful to make sure that men don’t take advantage of me because I’m in this body.

Now I embrace it differently. I’m able to play in both roles. Before, I didn’t want anything to do with femininity, because it makes me vulnerable to vultures who take advantage of that. Now I embrace everything. During Covid-19, I grew an afro, I had a James Brown look and my friends were like, “you are still so masculine, but so feminine in the same way”. You learn as a girl to embrace both.

How do you see us changing these notions of toxic masculinity?

There is power in asking “how do we come together and [hear] different voices in addressing this?” So this is one way of inspiring change, one way of building change and one way of shifting things if we continue to have this conversation within our households.

These [conversations] give young people tools to voice what they are feeling to their fathers, to say “this cannot go on” because it perpetuates violence and cycles of abuse. If we start changing how we talk, how we live, how we move around in these spaces; if we practice equality in our households and wherever we are and where we go; [if we] speak out to rally against these things, we can do it together. It’s about using our voices, using art as a tool, using whatever we can think of to dismantle toxic masculinity and institutions.

We need to spread love and kindness. My gospel is kindness and my religion is love. Everything else comes after that.

Talk about your foundation?

The foundation is based in an informal settlement, a squatter camp, outside Alexandra township, just by the Jukskei River. I’m a theatre practitioner and we gather people together to find solutions and to heal through forum theatre. We perform scenes and then [the community] can jump in and say, “no this is wrong” themselves. From there, we mobilised young women we’ve been working with, the same young women from 2017 to now.

We talk about finding their voices, helping to build resilience, not just to be strong to fight patriarchy, but also to fight themselves. [We want young people to know] that poverty doesn’t define you; you can triumph through all of that, you have resilience within, you can fight any situation. We also help them schoolwork.

In the Alex schools, there are sometimes no chairs or even teachers, so how do you say to somebody that education is power if the education they get is inadequate? There are no jobs in this country, so I help to teach them how to read, how to write. We help them with [education] and we also work with parents monthly, because our work is about behaviour change.

We cannot try to change [the life of a young person] if they go back into a toxic home. We say to parents, “you can love your children without having anything at home; love builds”.

A lot of our work is based on behaviour change, but also on self-love and self-respect; it’s what can build the community. That’s our motto: “self-love and self-respect is what builds community”.

Self-love is one of the most important tools used to build confidence and community and respect

Self-love is one of the most important tools used to build confidence and community and respect. If I don’t love myself, it’s impossible for me to love you; if I don't respect myself, there’s no way I’m going to respect you.

[During the Covid-19 lockdowns], there was a huge rise in rape, teenage pregnancy and domestic violence, because people were caged in boxes, in spaces [from which] they had nowhere to go.

In 2021, the young girls came back and said, “we think it’s important to bring in young men, because the young men we are dealing with now, they're growing. These young men are treating us like the old men who are touching our butts when we walk in the street. We need to do something!”

[The girls] run the foundation; they speak, their voice is so powerful. They make decisions, because we don't have leaders.

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