South Africa: An Inherited Struggle for Dance

Nokuthula Qobongwana inherited her mother's passion for dance and hopes to make a living through it. Just as she was getting started, Covid-19 came and halted it all.

The tall grey walls that enclose the house belonging to Nokuthula Qobongwana's grandparents are topped with broken glass bottles to deter any would-be burglars from breaking in. The property is in Nyanga, the township which lies along the N2, directly across from the Cape Town International Airport. Qobongwana says it's a hotspot for robbery.

The aggressive exterior contrasts with the calm, welcoming feeling inside the home. In the living room, Qobongwana's grandmother Nombulelo Diba plays with her four-month-old great granddaughter. In a shaded back yard outside, Qobongwana's grandfather Velile Diba sits in his favourite chair and chats to his brother.

Qobongwana, 23, and her 18-year-old twin sisters share a room with their cousin in the two-bedroom house. They have been living in their grandparents' home for nearly three years, since their mother, Thobeka Qobongwana, died in April 2018.

Dance

"My mother was my first choreographer," Qobongwana says. Her first experience with dance was at the age of seven, when she attended a class her mother facilitated. "The class was very basic. We just repeated the same four steps, but we enjoyed it." In addition to experiencing the joy of dancing for the first time, it was also the first time Qobongwana saw her mother dance. "I was amazed," she said. "[My mother] wanted to be a dancer, but she had to quit the art thing to go hustle for us."

Having inherited the passion for dance from her mother, she began to excel at it. Qobongwana joined various dance groups and gained experience in many forms of dance. By the time she was in high school she was a competent dancer, specialising in African Contemporary, Kwela, Pantsula and Traditional Zulu Dance, which is her favourite. "It's like seeing heavens opening in the sky or seeing Jesus coming back. The traditional [Zulu] dance is like we are communicating with our ancestors. We sing traditional songs and do traditional movements," she says.

Qobongwana also remembers taking part in a theatre production on the theme of Fees Must Fall in 2017 while she was still in high school. "[Fees Must Fall] was important for us because we come from different backgrounds. Our homes are not all the same. All our families are not able to pay the registration fee. Some are gonna be able and some are not gonna be able. But we all want to be in university," she said.

Qobongwana failed her matric exams in 2017. In April 2018, while she was repeating matric, her mother died. "It was difficult for me because I had to act like everything is fine, for my sisters. If they saw me break down, they were also gonna break down. So that's why I had to stay strong," she says. Qobongwana then decided to drop out of school in order to start working, as she needed to support herself and her sisters.

Around the same time, she began performing with groups who were booked to entertain at weddings and other functions. At the end of 2018 she joined a group called Intsika Dance Project (IDP). They would choreograph bespoke performances based on the time and style requirements of their clients. IDP worked with Spotlight Entertainment, which fed them a steady stream of bookings, and for the first time Qobongwana was earning regular income.

Her passion for dance had soon become a profession, and she could now provide for herself and her sisters.

The money she made allowed her to buy toiletries, clothes and food. She now could help her grandparents pay for utilities too, electricity especially. The steady flow of income allowed Qobongwana to start thinking about her future. She wanted to return to school to finish her matric. She then would apply to study at UCT so she could follow her dream of becoming a choreographer. This would allow her to get a flat eventually, where she could have some privacy.

Then, just over a year after she began dancing with IDP, the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and everything changed.

'The covid money isn't making any difference'

"My heart broke," Qobongwana says. "I knew that there was nothing that we could do. [Intsika Dance Project] would no longer get performances and I would have no income. I had to stress about buying my toiletries for myself and my sisters." To add to the stress, one of her sisters fell pregnant and gave birth during the lockdown. "I was heartbroken because I wished I could support [my sister and her baby] with all that I have. But seeing the other people supporting them it's like I'm being left out."

The continued lack of income made her and her sisters completely dependent on her grandparents, whose only income is their old-age pension of R1800 a month each.

On 19 May 2020, Qobongwana began to receive some form of income again in the form of the R350 Covid-19 social relief of distress grant, but she says it hardly helps at all. She is only able to buy toiletries and to cut her hair, which she keeps short.

"The Covid money isn't making any difference. We are still depending on our grandparents," she says.

"If [the grant] was R500 it would be better. I'll know that this month I'm going to buy enough toiletries for the three of us; in the following month, I'll be able to lay-by some clothes. So that like, you see, the following month I'm taking the lay-by off. The other month I buy food. It would be enough. And then I would help my grandparents by buying electricity."

No solace in level one

When South Africa moved to level one of the lockdown, Qobongwana started trying to find work again but she has not been successful. "I've been to a few auditions but the clients didn't get back to me," she says.

In the meantime, in the absence of work or adequate government assistance, she and her sisters continue to depend on their grandparents. While Qobongwana and her sister, Aphelele, take a break from playing drums, their grandmother, Nombulelo Elizabeth Diba, says she is not stressed by having to support her grandchildren. Despite the meagre income she and her husband get in the form of their old-age grants, she says: "I'm happy [Qobongwana's] an artist, and not involved in the wrong kinds of things."

However, as both Qobongwana's grandparents are over 80 years old, their risk of getting seriously ill were they to contract Covid-19 is high. "My stress is that when I lose my grandparents I don't know what my life would be like. I'm always praying to God so that he can keep my grandparents alive because they are the only people who are supporting [us]," she says. The precariousness of the situation weighs heavily on her.

If she remains unsuccessful in her auditions, like her mother before her, Qobongwana says she will have to give up dance and try to find a different kind of job. This would mean joining the 11.1 million unemployed people in South Africa. Her situation might be worse because she does not even have a matric certificate.

"I can't say I'm waiting on the lockdown to end, because it's looking like it's not gonna end," she says.

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