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‘I Tried To Make Mugabe Beautiful And Young’




Glen Ridge is a small, quiet suburb in the center of the vibrant Soweto township, south of Johannesburg. Here, Isaac Mojalefa Sentso stays alone in a four-room home that doubles as his art studio. This late morning FORBES AFRICA found him perched on a leather sofa facing a makeshift easel made of a piece of wood supported by an ironing board. A picture of the beaming United States’ President Donald Trump appears on his laptop next to him. He wakes up every day at 3AM and works throughout the day.

“I don’t do art after sunset because I use natural light,” says Sentso, as he welcomes us into his home with an open heart.

Soon, after briefly exchanging banter, Sentso recounts with glee the morning he met Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe in 2015. After spending two weeks drawing the portrait of Mugabe, he took a taxi to the Zimbabwean Embassy in Pretoria, with the wrapped picture tucked under his arm. A week later he secured an appointment with the president.

“I was there at 7:35AM because I like being early all the time. The ambassador ushered me into the room where he was having his tea. Mugabe asked me how long the picture took me ‘because I can see there’s no charcoal’. The way he understands art amazed me. … ‘I know art I was at Fort Hare and I am a collector’, he said. He asked me how much I wanted for the picture, I said R25,000 ($1,900). He scolded me for being cheap, he said it’s worth far more than that. Mugabe taught me a lesson about valuing and pricing my work,” recalls the unassuming Sentso.

Later, Sentso joined the president’s blue-light entourage visiting the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto – a tribute to casualties of the 1976 students’ uprising. At a gathering that included South Africa’s Minister of Arts Nathi Mthethwa and Mugabe’s entourage, Sentso was asked to present his picture to Mugabe there and then.

“The very same evening R35,000 was deposited into my bank account,” he says.

Isaac Mojalefa Sentso (Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla)

But why did Sentso do a portrait of a man viewed as a villain around the world?

“I knew Mugabe appreciated arts. When I looked at all the pictures on Mugabe on internet, I saw they were insulting to him. I worked on a picture that will make him look beautiful and young. I don’t want controversy in my life, I only focus on positivity. I don’t want to be caught in politics,” he says.

Sentso says his target customers are the rich; businesspeople, monarchs, billionaires and heads of state. Most of his work isn’t commissioned; he sends the portraits to the subjects hoping they will send money in return. But, even though most of them are wealthy, some of those he sends his pictures to don’t give a cent. Those among his fruitless endeavours are: Carlos Slim Helú, one of the richest men in the world; Alisher Usmanov, the Russian business magnate; and Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei. Sentso delivered his portrait to Mexican tycoon Slim through the South African embassy. At the time, South Africa’s Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was due to visit Slim and the packaged portrait was to be delivered by him, but Sentso said it was the last he heard of his work.

The Future Of African Women In Art

Sentso normally sells his portraits for over R100,000 ($7,360), but if you have a good rapport with him, the price may go down to R50,000 ($3,800). When we met him, he was at wit’s end because he had hoped to sell a portrait to South African billionaire Patrice Motsepe. In late 2015, Sentso hand-delivered a picture to the Mamelodi Sundowns Football Club offices in Pretoria, a club that Motsepe owns.

It seems that the portrait was lost before it could reach Motsepe and Sentso had not been able to reach out to the businessman. But just before we went to press, Sentso was hoping the frustrating story of the lost portrait would have a happy ending after he met Sandile Langa, the Legal Compliance and Stakeholder Relations Executive at Motsepe’s African Rainbow Minerals. On hearing about Sentso from FORBES AFRICA, Langa contacted him to find an amicable solution to what seemed to be a mishap.

Some of the portraits adorning Sentso’s bedroom wall. On top is the Queen Mother of the Royal Bafokeng, Semane Molotlegi. Below her is a portrait of her son, Kgosi Nyalala Pilane. (Photo by Motlabana Monnakgotla)

Even though he struggles to sell his work and earn a living, Sentso refuses to put his work in galleries as he thinks they are cheating artists.

Trouble has followed Sentso, and his drawings, since day one.

“My older brother would bring home his homework to draw something. I would attempt to draw the same thing he was drawing and my pictures were far better than his… In those days I was happy to draw in school books and he was happy to take advantage of me,” he says.

Two years later, Sentso enrolled at the same school as his brother. His brother’s secret of asking Sentso to do his homework was exposed by the same teacher who taught them both.

“The teacher said ‘no, it cannot be it’. She called him in class and instructed us to draw while she was watching. My embarrassed brother had to confess that I had been doing his homework for him,” he recalls.

Growing up in the townships of Johannesburg under apartheid, it never dawned on Sentso that he can go to art school and make a living. So, like many black people in his community, he took a job as a clerk in an insurance company after leaving school.

“When I got bored I would draw at work. But I later destroyed those pages. It wasn’t a serious thing,” he says.

It took him 25 years to take his talent seriously. He enrolled for a part-time arts course at the University of the Witwatersrand, but that only lasted a few weeks. Sentso realized that wasn’t going to work for him and registered at the Johannesburg Art Foundation.

“They liked my style of art at the Johannesburg Art Foundation. I decided to quit my job and study full-time. But when I was in that class I was very slow to finish my work because I was too much of a perfectionist. The course facilitator suggested I change to graphic design. To my surprise, I liked this graphic design and designing on a computer was fun. The title itself, graphic design, was appealing,” says Sentso.

Art For Art’s Sake – But Give Us Your Cash

In 1992, between chopping and changing courses, Sentso obtained a certificate and went to work as a graphic designer. He worked from home and reported to an editor. It was a team of two.

After two years of working from home as a lonely designer, Sentso needed a fresh challenge and joined advertising agency FCB South Africa, where he worked as multimedia designer and video editor for 12 years.

“When 9/11 happened in the US, I was assigned to Nigeria to train those guys in animation and video editing and all that. I was the only black multimedia designer in the company,” he says.

By 2004, Sentso had saved enough money to start on his own. In 2012, a break-in in his new home in Soweto saw him lose everything he had.

“I was distraught but I needed to earn a living. I didn’t start my life with computers. God gave me talent, not computers. I had already started visiting the so-called top galleries around Johannesburg. It is from that point I said to myself ‘there’s no work of my mine that is going to be sold there’,” he says.

In 2014, Sentso realized he did not need a job from anyone, he was going to make a living on his drawings. So, he started drawing influential people and couriered his pictures to them. But he has not always been lucky as some have tried to swindle him.

As Sentso was busy with the portrait of President Trump when we visited him, he can only hope he won’t suffer the same fate.

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Celebrating Women With Monumental Strength




Sixty two years ago, on August 9, 20,000 women of all races, classes and creed marched, singing and chanting, babies on their backs, to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital city, to deliver a petition to then Prime Minister J.G Strydom against the introduction of the apartheid pass laws.

This meant black women were not allowed in urban areas for more than 72 hours unless they possessed a pass with the holder’s details, including payment of taxes and permission to be in these urban areas. The march was led by the struggle stalwarts: Lilian Ngoyi, Helen Joseph, Albertina Sisulu, Sophia Williams-De Bruyn and Rahima Moosa.

“I didn’t see much of Helen Joseph at the march, she was in front of the crowd. She was a big strong woman and she led the march with other strong women. They told us that women are holding passes and if we don’t demonstrate against [the government], we [too will one day end up] holding these passes,” recollects Ramnie Naidoo to FORBES AFRICA. She was only was 14 years old at the time, escorting her mother at the march.

Pictured here is Helen Joseph (1905-1992), founding member of the Federation of South African Women, and Rahima Moosa (1922-1993), union activist and member of the Transvaal Indian Congress, both co-leaders of the 1956 Women’s March.

They have been immortalized in the Long March To Freedom, a procession of 100 life-sized bronzes celebrating the pioneers of South Africa’s journey to democracy, at the Fountains Recreation Resort in the City of Tshwane, Gauteng, South Africa.

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Talking African Writing in London




Africa Writes, the Royal African Society’s annual literature festival, dwelt on Afrofuturism and where black British artists see themselves in the burgeoning new aesthetic.


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Kingdom Calling At The Bushfire Festival



It’s an early morning in May and as the sun rises, red, orange and yellow hues bathe the swaying sugarcane fields of Malkerns, a small town in the landlocked southern African country of Swaziland.

Swaziland, renamed ‘the kingdom of eSwatini’ in April this year on its 50th birthday, awakens to the sounds of the rustling wind and chirping birds. Very soon, these natural notes will be replaced by the cacophony and camaraderie of thousands of guests jetting into the country for the annual Bushfire Festival, a three-day fiesta of art, culture, music and food in the last week of May.

It’s a busy time of the year for a kingdom that is one of the world’s last remaining monarchies.

Within the Bushfire Festival arena, djembe drums beat to the rhythm of the heartbeat of Africa. Revelers indulge in traditional feasts at the food markets as the musicians take center-stage.

The likes of South Africa’s Samthing Soweto, Brazil’s Flavia Coelho, Nigeria’s Yemi Alade and Mali’s Salif Keita are present, offering a profusion of sounds and melodies.

In the camping arena is a confluence of cultures, as over 29,000 guests who have traveled here to attend the festival make new friends and form unlikely collaborations.

Many stop to admire a hand-crafted grass hat worn by a young woman who has traveled from Lesotho. Anna Thai is originally from Memphis, Tennessee, in the United States.

“The people here are very relaxed and accepting of each other. There are so many from different countries, so many languages and so many different faces and I really enjoy the diversity of it,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.

What started as a cultural meet around a small amphitheater, where artistes performed in front of a crowd of no more than a hundred, is today one of Africa’s most talked-about festivals.


Swazi-born Jiggs Thorne. Photo by Karen Mwendera.

“We started off as kind of a charity running a business and very quickly learned that it needed to be a business running a charity.” – Jiggs Thorne

Swaziland-born Jiggs Thorne, the founder and director of the festival, always had a passion for the arts, but admits he had to learn the business aspect of the festival the hard way.

“The important thing is I never studied to become a festival director and that’s the thing with entrepreneurs, you are driven by passion; the kind of passion that gets you up and creates that drive you need to make something work. And you have to be incessant,” Thorne tells us.

Born in Manzini, he was inspired by his parents who owned a restaurant. He went on to pursue a degree in drama and politics at the University of Natal in South Africa.

In 1994, when he finished his degree, he decided to return to his home country and apply his passion for the arts. Thorne wanted to develop the local arts scene.

In 2000, he set up House On Fire, the eclectic venue where the festival is now held.

However, its business model wasn’t sustainable, and Thorne realized that if he didn’t act quickly, his dream would slowly fade away.

“Well, I was very much an artiste and I think I’ve become entrepreneurial along the way and we started off as kind of a charity running a business and very quickly learned that it needed to be a business running a charity,” he says.

The Bushfire Festival came into being.

“It was always about a positive light, warmth, about celebrating diversity,” he says.

A majority of the funding came from sponsorships, and partnerships – the festival is called MTN Bushfire.

With his brother Shelton, Thorne fine-tuned the business model to keep its mandate as a creative arts platform and business at the same time. As Thorne came from an arts background, he had to depend on others to make his dream work.

Read More: Setting Fire To Swaziland

“There needs to be integrity in the way in which you deal with people so I think that’s kind of paramount in this equation where you are dependent on others to make it happen,” says the 48-year-old father of two.

The festival grew beyond what Thorne had imagined, he says, contributing over E50 million ($3.7 million) to Swaziland’s economy.

“When the king travels overseas, people ask him about Bushfire, you know. So it’s quite a surreal thing that the concept that came up all those years ago in a sense has become owned by others,” laughs Thorne.

This year, the local newspapers, radio stations and social media were abuzz with news on the festival.

Thorne owes its success to his team and his parents who left the legacy for him and the family to build on.

“It was kind of the fire they started and it’s a light that we’ve been able to follow. They are the legacy, says Thorne, who runs the festival with his siblings and extended family.

“Entrepreneurship is something that you don’t really study, you learn, and it’s something that takes over, and it’s kind of all-encompassing,” he signs off.

After the curtains come down on the festival, it’s back to the idyllic sights and sounds of Swaziland, until next year, when the little town of Malkerns will fire up again.

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