Zukiswa Wanner on Leading with Her Literary Voice

Zukiswa Wanner on Leading with Her Literary Voice

Join me as I chat to Zukiswa Wanner on claiming one’s authentic voice as a tool for self-leadership.


Zukiswa Wanner, award-winning wanderlust-filled journalist and Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s JIAS, is author of:

The Madams, Behind Every Successful Man, London-Cape Town-Joburg, Men of the South, Refilwe, Jama Loves Bananas, 8115: A Prisoner’s Home with Alf Kumalo, Maid in SA: 30 Ways to Leave Your Madam and as Editor with Rohini Chowdhury, Behind the Shadows: Contemporary Stories from Africa and Asia and with Amelie Debray, L’Esprit du Sport. She has contributed articles to: New African, Mail & Guardian, Elle, New Statesman, The Guardian, Marie Claire, The Afropolitan, City Press, Sunday Times, The Weekend Star, Sunday Independent, African Review, Baobab, O Magazine, Observer and has conducted writer’s workshops in Africa and Europe. As an Essayist, Ms. Wanner has written, The Politics of Race, Class, and Identity in Education and Being a Woman in South Africa for the Mail and Guardian’s Book of Women.


Zukiswa Wanner is also the Founder of ReadSA, whose objective is to get South Africans reading more African literature, donating local books to school libraries and starting libraries where they do not exist.


Honours: South African Literary Awards (shortlisted), K Sello Duiker Memorial Literary Award (London-Cape Town-Joburg), Commonwealth Writer’s Prize (shortlisted); Herman Charles Bosman Award (shortlisted), Africa39 39 Sub-Saharan Writers Under 40 With Potential and Talent to define trends in African Literature.


Residence: The Continent of Africa (usually in Nairobi sipping Nigerian palm wine when not crisscrossing Africa)

In the personal development space, self-leadership is a big thing. Leading self primarily means finding and owning your authentic voice and purpose. Leadership does not mean having a title, it means owning and living your truth, good and “bad” consequences and all.

Ms Wanner joined me in the Tree House Suite at the Fairlawns to share on using her literary voice as an instrument of self -leadership.

In Behind Every Successful Man, the lead character, Nobantu, in all respects initially a voiceless, kept woman, undergoes a metamorphosis and reclaims her authentic voice at cost to her marriage and her children’s well-being. Does reclaiming one’s real identity always come at great cost and why do you think that is?


I can’t begin to claim that Nobantu is representative of everybody in the world. I wanted her to be representative of the particular woman that she is, in the particular relationship that she is in, so yes there is certainly an amount of cost that comes with what she undergoes but the thing is, at the end of the day who really pays the price? Is it just her or is it Andile as well? So, she gets what she wants to a certain extent and in a way Andile grows in a way that he had not in the whole relationship prior.

So, you wouldn’t say reclaiming one’s authentic voice comes at a cost then even if initially there are growing pains and adjustments to be made? Are we all the better for it if people are authentic?


I don’t think there is any real growth without any pain. So, many of us look back at certain things that we thought we were not going to survive such as our first little heartbreaks when were teenagers, “oh my God I’m not going to survive this!” but we learnt, and it made us the type of men and women that we are and now you look back and think, I can’t believe that I was even really hurt about this! I think there’s a reason why there’s the term “growing pains”; it’s precisely because as we grow there are certain things that happen, certain downfalls, certain pitfalls that we have to deal with and our growth comes from that.

At your book launch you did say that some of the questions that you raise or explore in your books are actually questions that you are grappling with, please share some of the questions that you as an African Child grapple with?


Being a writer means I’m always asking questions. I remember when my third novel, Men of the South, came out and the one question that I was grappling with was the question of manhood, and I was having a lot of conversations with my male friends and my female friends about what constitutes manhood. Like if a man does not have a day job but he cooks and cleans, and he does everything that traditionally we kind of think of women doing, is he any less of a man? If a man is not heterosexual, is he any less of a man? So, is there such a thing as “African manhood” anyway? Should we just not be talking about humanity, like treating another person as you would like to be treated, with the same type of respect and dignity? Should we judge you if you decide to be married to a Caucasian or somebody else that maybe I might not necessarily date, but shouldn’t I respect your choice as an individual and your happiness most importantly?

And then with The Madams which was my first novel, we live in a world where African women, Black women in general, have been more than holding up the other half of the sky, but at what cost to us? The idea of being perfect in the boardroom, perfect in the bedroom, perfect in the kitchen, perfect mother etc, what price are we paying as women? Do we really need to be Imbhokodo? Can we just say, right now I’m just going to be weak and it’s okay?

So, where are you in 2018 in terms of deconstructing and reconstructing these questions for yourself since Men of the South and The Madams in terms of the way we define manhood, the perfect woman and so on?


The reason I asked the questions was because I wanted us to start a conversation as a people. You know when I was 25 for instance, when I was 20, when I was 16, I thought I had all the answers as you do at that age but now I find I have more questions than I do have answers. But I think one of the things that growing up has helped me with is also the ability to be less judgmental and to understand the importance of living and letting live, it makes for a much better world I think.

Talking about being less judgmental and living and letting live, I think that our conversations are not productive because we are coming from different angles of our pain, for example men feeling alienated, then we have the racial issues, the fast-changing world we are living in and so on. I’m just wondering, what will it take for us to have sane conversations that are actually going to take us somewhere?


I think sane conversations are often followed by actions. One of the biggest issues that we have as Black people is that we love to talk, follow through we don’t. We need to do as much as we say, and we’ll be getting somewhere. Everybody is waiting for somebody else to start. Because we are so damaged by our history, by slavery, by colonialism, by apartheid, what happens is, if you start something, instead of me supporting you, I find a way of trying to critique and pulling you down. It shouldn’t be like that. We should hold each other in love. Black people don’t hold each other in love, even some of the more conscious people that you think should don’t.  Could you not allow some space for your brother or sister to do abc or xyz? Could we be less harsh with each other? After 1994, collectively as a people we found it easier to forgive our oppressors, but it wasn’t as easy for us to forgive the former Bantustan leaders for instance. So that’s the question, why are we always hurting each other? When we do act, we act against each other, we’ve got a lot of unlearning to do, the legacy really dug deep in us. I’m constantly checking myself against being too harsh with other black people. On the other hand, the beneficiaries of apartheid should understand that apology goes with action. If you’re sorry, okay you’re sorry, but you need to understand that I need redress.

What are some of the issues that you have to self-check against specifically being a writer in this context, in terms of not judging and trying to conscientize without being harsh?


Our engagement with art in general, not just literature, is problematic. So, we’ll not have a problem with a Diasporic African like Lauryn Hill or Erykah Badu making demands of the money that they want, and we pay it. But if a Simphiwe Dana or a Thandiswa Mazwai says, this is what I want, we say, ah you think you’re so special! Should charity not begin at home? Should we not be the ones uplifting each other first?


Many of us went to watch Black Panther but how many of us went to watch Inxeba for instance? We’ve been made to believe that anything that comes from us is so inferior that we have begun to believe it.


As a writer, I’ll go to Nigeria and I’ll be lauded, I’ll be invited to the US or to Berlin to do speaking engagements and they pay me for it. And then I’ll get into a space here at home where I’m asked to write something, and I say, okay this is what I charge, and the response is, oh but we’re going to give you exposure. And I ask, what type of exposure exactly are you giving me? And this exposure of yours, do you think I can exchange it to pay electricity and rent? And can I say to my child’s school, my baby’s mother has exposure, please just let him go to school for free? It’s tiring, the lack of understanding that art is work! Whether it’s literature or music or painting or photography or dancing and I think this is where we miss the boat.


There might be a notion that because you are this prolific producer of written words you are on this never-ending burst of creativity; how do you show up for your art consistently?


It takes a lot of dedication, but it also helps that I love my job. I’m not an artist because I expected a big pay cheque. I’m an artist because it’s something that I love a lot and it’s something that I respect. But, of course I also do expect to get paid for it because it’s work, it’s not just a hobby for me. So, what I try to do, in the same way that people have 9 to 5 jobs, I try to get into a space where I put in the same number of hours per day in my work. I might split them because I tend to write better late at night or in the early hours of the morning, but I try to put in all the hours and match it.


In wrapping up, what personal attributes stand you in good stead in terms of expressing your voice authentically?


Expressing myself authentically has gotten me into trouble to be honest. I believe in being honest, I don’t like to buy face. It is important for me to tell you the truth about something but even when I tell you the truth I should recognize your humanity and do it with respect and with the understanding that you are a human being with feelings. So, empathy is very important.