Inspired by smokey images of jazz artists as a youth Buyaphi Mdlele chose photography as his path but resisted the temptation of joining the big time and took a different path instead
Tshepiso Mabula ka Ndongeni
As the sun sets on the cracked streets of Klipspruit, Soweto. The silence that often welcomes the township’s twilight is disturbed by the joyful noise of children playing along the modest cul de sac which is also the humble home of Buyaphi University, or Inyuvesi yaka Buyaphi. Anyone who is familiar with this deeply memorable yet unconventional setting will attest to the many children who are fondly referred to as tortoises of the university.
This multifaceted cultural space looks meek and unostentatious on the outside; from the basket of imphepho being sold on the pavement outside, as well as prayer candles and moringa tea to the flower pots that line the walls of the passage, all of them, made from old school cathode ray tube televisions boxes.
Every aspect of the expanse is the perfect juxtaposition of past and present where the old reconciles with the new to chart a path toward a better and more sustainable future for the community of Klipspruit.
The founder, Buyaphi Mdledle, has been a photography educator and trainer for almost 20 years.
It is for this reason that the biggest influence for the school’s approach to education is found in photography.
When I ask when he started the institution, Mdledle struggles for an answer.
“Sometime in 2015,” he eventually settles on an answer.
Yet the truth is that it is difficult to pinpoint an exact time for the beginning of an institution like Inyuvesi ka Buyaphi because it is built on ideology and not just on its physical presence. Mdlele recalls a time ,just after he completed high school, where he would sit for hours in various libraries reading different books and suddenly feeling the insatiable need to share this new found knowledge with his peers, and it is on this ideal that Buyaphi university is founded.
Buyaphi University, though it bears the name of its only founder, is the perfect embodiment of a shared communal space.
Here, everyone has equal ownership and freedom to share ideas, open a stokvel, hold a business meeting or try their luck in a game of Fafi/MoChina.
It is more than just a place for the children, it is a watering hole for the people, where township folk come to quench and nourish their ailing souls. Against the volatile and violent backdrop of working class township life, Buyaphi University is a place of gentle tenderness, where the children’s innocence is nurtured and their dreams, however big or small, are nurtured.
Buyaphi admits that it takes its toll on him sometimes. The weight of other people’s unfulfilled dreams burdens him but he does not have the privilege of self preservation.
“I can’t afford to nurse my own feelings because these children need me, they need me to make a plan to feed them if they are hungry and to provide a safe space where their confidence will be nurtured so that they too can have a fighting chance,” he says.
He recalls of a time, recently, when a parent of two of his ‘tortoises’ lay in the street, passed out after one too many drinks.
He watched with sadness as her friends struggled to carry her home and was later startled by the two children who later, came knocking on his door asking for a warm meal and a the security of a quiet place to read.
His voice shudders with sadness at times as he recalls this episode, and just as quickly he lunges himself back up, as if to remind himself that he cannot afford to be sad, because his tortoises depend on it.
Inyuvesi ka Buyaphi is a very unconventional space, it is the kind of place where the culture of disrupting the status quo is cultivated.
Everything from its name to the building where it is housed is an ever constant act of resistance. Here, blackness returns to take back its humanity.
The university recently established a spirituality and wellness department which is headed by an intern named Neliswa Gojela, who is also a writer and sangoma in training.
A lot of the children and some of the adults who are part of this institution come from profoundly vulnerable homes.
The University offers a safe haven from the daily stresses of the severity of the deprevations of township life. Here children and adults have access to books, a chess board, soccer balls, a cup of tea and some thought provoking conversations.
The university is built on retracing the history of black triumph often erased from official history books. The stories of Robert and Veronica Sobukwe, Victoria Mxenge, Nomvo Booi and many others are shared with the young ones.
Films like James Baldwin’s I am not your Negroe are screened for people who are often left out of such learning opportunities, even though these works were created for them specifically.
This place is home for the misfits and nonconformists and perhaps it is so because the founder has often been dismissed as such.
Some say Buyaphi is eccentric but in the time that I have gotten to know him I have concluded that he is described this way because of his blunt demeanour and his brutal honesty.
Many great and up and coming photographers in South Africa have gone through the teachings of Mdledle, who is in his 20th year of working as a trainer and mentor at the iconic Market photo workshop.
I myself was mentored by Buyaphi when I created a body of work titled Ukugrumba. One day, while working on the project, he suggested that I share the work with the young children at the university.
This seemed like an odd suggestion at first but the juxtaposition of innocence mixed with straightforward and candid feedback is a lesson that left me illuminated and pleasantly surprised.
I learnt that day that we normalise a society where children are disconnected from their elders and because of this we miss out on various opportunities to learn from them and see their world through their eyes.
Buyaphi university is no such space, here, the children are the owners, cofounder and beneficiaries of this institution, here, the process of teaching and learning is a two way street and it is for this reason, that when asked about the future of the space, Mdledle says he refrains from letting his own dreams bombard the children’s needs.
His only focus, he says, is building a sustainable platform for holistic education that these incredible children will inherit and grow as they wish.
Buyaphi was raised by his mother and grandmother and attributes his love for photography to jazz. He started out selling cd’s and attending jazz sessions where he understood the genre’s ability to personalize politics and speak meaningfully about the injustices of the world.
It was these experiences that led him to recognise the visual rhythms that jazz could embody, and this is how he started photographing.
“I first saw those classic, smokey photographs of jazz and wanted to recreate moments like that in the spaces that I went to but I can also credit the various old school photographs of my family for influencing my love for images because these stories – both real and imagined – play a part in how I started to see the world,” he says.
It was through photography that his curiosity was ignited and it was through jazz that he found his passion for photography.
Buyaphi worked briefly as a street photographer in the Joburg CBD, charging R8 per portrait and says this is why he has a lot of respect for such photographers. He is known for tagging his images with the by-line “photographer unknown”.
This he says, is to pay homage to the many unnamed street photographers who document the lived experiences of urban black people but are never credited in their work because most of them are unknown.
Though there is power in this anonymity and the freedom it provides, there is also a massive sense of erasure that Buyaphi often confronts in his own work as a photographer and as a teacher.
He has taught at institutions like City Varsity in Cape Town, the Market Photo Workshop – and even The Alf Khumalo Museum and Photography School.
Buyaphi admits that there were many temptations and opportunities to become a famous mainstream photographer but he chose a different path. Sighting the mental toll and oppressive state of the industry as one of many reasons he chose to educate and build for the future.
He says he recognised the many ways in which he saw how broken his community was because of its history and thus he became motivated to use his skills and experiences to give back and provide a space for healing and robust engagement for the community. This space is now known as Inyuvesi yaka Buyaphi.