Khehla Chepape Makgato, 'Mantatisi  — The Tlokwa Queen'. Picture: SUPPLIED
Khehla Chepape Makgato, 'Mantatisi — The Tlokwa Queen'. Picture: SUPPLIED

THERE is a saying at Wits University, where I teach: "If you haven’t started studying for exams by the time the jacaranda trees bloom, then you’ve left it too late."

In 2015, the petals made a vivid purple backdrop as the #FeesMustFall protests coalesced into a national movement that shook the gates of state power.

A short-term solution (0% fee increase) was agreed on just in time for most students to complete their exams, but a new botanical marker had been set. In 2016, and for years to come, as Gauteng’s campuses became colourful with spring and summer flowers, #FeesMustFall would be #reloaded.

In fact, Higher Education and training Minister Blade Nzimande’s announcement that universities would be left to decide on fee increases triggered 2016’s protests with the jacaranda branches still bare. But, this is certainly no time to stop and smell the jasmine. This is a time, sadly, for arrested activists and broken glass; for empty classrooms and shouting matches in the street.

There are no heroes in this narrative. There are villains, certainly. Nzimande is chief among them — if only as a representative of a government that has failed its institutions of higher learning. And, of course, behind him (even if they have become his opponents in the backstabbing and infighting of the ruling alliance) are the real villains: those who acquire and fly in presidential jets, those who profit from mismanaged state-owned enterprises, those who are forcing a nuclear deal down our throats, those who fleece the fiscus of billions.

But, unlike 2015, I see no heroes rising to meet these foes. More specifically, I see no heroines. Masculinist violence from rock-throwing students and security forces alike has prevailed over the strong but calm "mbokodo" women who inspired so many as student leaders in the 2015 protests.

Perhaps we are asking too much of these young women. After all, being heroic does not mean being a saint. And, as suggested by the selection of figures portrayed in Khehla Chepape Makgato’s series of mixed media art works, The Heroines of Southern Africa, often enough being heroic means, ultimately, being judged harshly or even being neglected by posterity.

Makgato has not produced portraits per se. Some of his subjects have distinctive features; mostly, however, their faces and clothing offer texture and colour rather than individual identity. There is a sense in which they are variations on a single icon, although the historical persons depicted differ widely.

They range from controversial figures such as Nongqawuse the prophetess to favourites such as Miriam Makeba, and include a number of once prominent women: Nandi, Shaka Zulu’s mother; Modjadji, the second rain queen; and Mantatisi, queen of the Tlokwa people.

The Heroines of Southern Africa is being exhibited upstairs at the Market Theatre as a visual arts complement to the revival of Sesotho play Mosali Eo U ’Neileng Eena (The Woman that You have Given Me), directed by Selloane Lalu Mokuku.

Yet it is equally interesting to pair, or compare, Makgato’s historical and "public" heroines with the more intimate and private forms of heroism displayed in Jennie Reznek’s I Turned Away and She Was Gone, running throughout September at the Mannie Manim Theatre downstairs.

Reznek and her husband, Mark Fleishman (who directs the show), are celebrating 30 years of their Magnet Theatre company, and her bravura one-woman performance is an accomplishment to match this anniversary. Like Makgato, she draws on archetypes: in this case, the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, the mother-and-daughter goddesses of the garden and the harvest who are constantly separated and reunited as the seasons pass.

There is a poignancy to their story, and Reznek exploits its many interpretive possibilities. It represents the inevitable and necessary conflict between generations as a daughter grows apart from her mother.

But in SA, it also resonates with untold instances of young women who have been "stolen" — as when that arch-practitioner of ukuthwala, Hades, takes Persephone into the Underworld — or who have been oppressed and abused by our patriarchal society.