Lebo Mashile: Poetry, passion, intellect and beauty personified

Three words that come to mind when I meet South African poet, performer, actress and presenter Lebogang Mashile are art, warmth and life. Her brown eyes are twinkling, her skin is glowing—though she is eight months pregnant and has spent the last three nights performing— and her infectious laugh rings out across the Shire Highlands’ reception.


As soon as we start talking about art, her eyes light up and each word she speaks is poetry in motion, infused with so much passion and grace; it’s as if she’s putting up a private performance, just for me.

When did you start writing poetry?

I did not consciously start writing poetry until I was around 20-21, while studying law and international relations at Wits University in Johannesburg, but I’ve always been a writer. I started keeping my first journal when I was eight and I loved literature so much, I always got into trouble for reading at the dinner table! (Laughs). When I was a teenager, I went through a lot of personal changes which impacted on my writing.

For starters, my parents divorced and I moved from America, where I grew up, to South Africa when I was 16. Dealing with a different country, community and society was quite hard for me. Soon  after I got to South Africa, a close American friend of mine committed suicide and it was all too much for me. Writing in my journal became a lifeline of sorts as I could pour out all my feelings onto paper.

What does the writing process usually involve for you?

The process is different with each poem but I usually start with writing down my thoughts and then let them develop into poetry. Sometimes I gather images of the things I am writing about; pictures from magazines and newspapers and lay them out in front of me just so I can see the direction my work is taking. Sometimes, the emotion is so strong, I write everything within one to three hours. Others take years to complete. Even now, I have ideas marinating in my head that I haven’t developed yet. I have learnt that you can’t force poetry; it has to come out when the time is right.

Which poets inspire you?

I am inspired by so many people but the two that come to mind right now are Keropetse Kgositsile, South Africa’s Poet Laureate and Audre Lorde. At the moment, I am very grateful and humbled to be on tour with so many well-established poets on the Poetry Africa tour.

What’s going through your mind right before a performance?

I am always nervous!  South African jazz singer Letta Mbulu once said that once you stop being nervous before performances, it means the work doesn’t matter to you anymore. I think Mirriam Makeba said something similar. I don’t want to get to that point where I approach my work with nonchalance. During a performance, I am in a heightened state of awareness; I use my senses the most. I can see who is connecting with me and who isn’t. I am aware of people’s movements and facial expressions. I look for energy that I can feed off.

What does it take it get to the status of “working poet”?

Discipline, consistency and flexibility. You also need to be versatile.  You can’t stick to one genre of art if you want to make a name for yourself and if you want to make money, especially in Africa. I write, do film and theatre and I perform. but I am lucky that 70 percent of the time, I am a poet. You also need to have a strong work ethic in terms of writing, being relevant and disciplining your craft. I consider myself a student of the arts, a student of literature and stage because I am always learning.

What would you advise budding writers?

Start by wanting to say something true to who you are in the best way that only you can say it. Study the work of people before you and people around you so that you have an idea of the best way of expressing yourself. Don’t rush it; don’t put pressure on yourself to be out there to be known, put pressure on yourself to be the best because paper does not forget.” If you publish something that’s not to the best of your abilities today, five, 10 years down the line, it  will still exist and you will be embarrassed to have your name associated with such mediocrity.

Your mother Prudence is your manager; how do the two of you work together?

I feel very privileged to be working with my mum and I feel blessed that I am able to pay her for working with me. I trust her with my life, which is why I chose to work with her. In the cut-throat entertainment industry, you meet so many people who want to take advantage of artists. I find that people have a certain amount of respect for mothers and that they are careful when dealing with mine. Apart from that, she is skilled, educated, professional and intuitive. She is a spiritual person so she keeps me rooted. She has taught me a lot of things, one of them being that there is nothing I can’t solve.

You have always been vocal about “shady” African men and infidelity…

As much as our societies are held together by women, fathers have always been the head. They are the police, the legislator, the judge. Men manipulate culture so that it suits them, so they can do whatever they want to, regardless of the fact that they are married or in a committed relationship. I once dated a man who told me point blank that there are more women out there than men and that I needed to accept reality. When I expressed dissatisfaction with his need to indulge  his propensity for skirt chasing, he said I was insecure and immature so I ended that drama. Which leads me to the point that women are also part of this problem.

How so?

We are afraid of being alone, of being taunted by other women and of being unloved so we stick around even when he treats us bad. The “other woman” is a woman and she is to blame for running after or accepting the advances of a married or committed man! We tell lies to cover up our brothers and male friends and in so doing encourage men to keep at it.

What do you think causes this?

It has a lot to do with low self-esteem. I would love to see more women investing in themselves in terms of education, personal growth and beauty so that they have a sense of self-worth and know that they are worth a lot more than lies and drama.

Does this mean you have completely lost faith in African men?

No. I genuinely  love men and I genuinely love being a woman; I just don’t like the bad ones. There are a couple of good men out there, but unfortunately they are overshadowed by the bad ones.

You are expecting a little boy. How do you intend to raise him so he doesn’t turn into another “shady” character?

I’d like my son to not be afraid of being a different kind of man. I want him to respect others, to respect who he is and where he comes from. I want to teach him how to be a good man so he can be a good man to his woman. If I have a little daughter later on, I will teach both of them to be self-sufficient so that when they grow up, they will be able to take care of themselves. I do not want my son to get into relationships because he is looking for a mother, someone to take care of him. Similarly, I would like my daughter (if I have one) to be mother to her children, not to her man.

You recently made a renowned magazine apologise for making you look thinner on their cover…

It’s sad that magazines and television stations in my country are trying to play to the Western standards of beauty because when I move around Africa, I see that African men love African women. They love the way we are shaped, our thighs and hips. The idea of conforming to this skinny ideal that we see on television and music videos from the West is promoting self-hatred. We can never truly be productive and live our dreams if we keep at this. However, I must add that I feel blessed to be living and working here, where there is still so much space to be ourselves. The overwhelming majority of my fans are happy to see, hear, to be mirrored by women who look like them.

Has being pregnant changed the relationship you have with your body?

Yes. It has completely changed my perspective of my body. I am in awe of the fact that it is producing this life. I eat well, drink lots of water and exercise so that I give birth to a healthy child. It’s simply mind-blowing that this child is growing inside me all the time, every minute of every day. I am seeing my body as a miraculous work of God. It has taken  me a lot to get here. I have had my struggles with the weight and I have let people’s negativity get to me but right now, my body is my business.

Is the birth going to be natural?

First prize would be a natural birth but with an epidural of course because I don’t want to feel the pain! (Laughs) I am due end November or early December so this is my last trip until mid-next year. After the birth, I am planning on staying on and enjoying quiet time with my baby and my partner.

Speaking of your partner, it is rumoured he is an American hunk…

All I will say is he is a good guy and he is very happy about the baby. He is very supportive of the baby and my career and that’s all that matters. (Laughs)

What’s in the pipeline for you?

This has been a busy year for me. My first poetry anthology, In Ribbon Of Rythm was translated into German. We are now busy with the French translation. My poetry was also published in a Chinese anthology and I am working on audio books of the work that I have published so baby and I have been flying around a lot this year. I realise that I spent so much of my 20s on working hard to establish myself. Now that I am 31 and pregnant, I would like to focus on something personal. Right now I plan on being there for the baby and giving him the best of me. I will still  write, but the only thing I will stress over is being a good mum and partner.

Reading Lebo

Debuted as a film actress in 2004 with a role in Hotel Rwanda.

Was the presenter and producer of the television programme L’Atitude aired on SABC.

Has published two poetry anthologies: In A Ribbon of Rhythm (2005) and Flying Above the Sky (2008)

Returned to the theatre at 2008’s Standard Bank National Arts Festival in the stage adaptation of K. Sello Duiker’s The Quiet Violence of Dreams.

Is the presenter of ‘Drawing the Line’, a game show on SABC.

Wrote a monthly column for True Love called In Her Shoes.

Has featured on numerous covers of South African entertainment and lifestyle magazines.

In 2006 and 2007, she was named one of the Top 100 youth in South Africa by the Mail & Guardian.

In 2006, she was awarded the prestigious Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, the premier prize for African literature.

In 2007, she was the recipient of the City Press/ Rapport Woman of Prestige Award.

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