Seated ahead of a set adorned with palm leaves and Proteas, her dreadlocked hair gathered in a pile atop her head, Kopano Matlwa Mabaso smiles. She does so almost constantly. This particular one is so contagious it visibly travels around the room, prompted by a discussion of the recent Fees Must Fall movement, which took to the streets demanding free education. “I can’t remember the last time I was as excited about South Africa,” she says, beaming with pride.
Kopano is part of the South African youth who came of age in the years following 1994. Their development was coupled with their grappling with complex issues – issues of identity, belonging, and forgiveness. It was a period that incited a multitude of emotions within its young people. For Kopano, it motivated much more.
“My discomfort provoked me to write,” she says, the words spilling through that relentless smile. “Growing up in post-apartheid South Africa as a black, young South African, I was grappling with finding my sense of identity in a very complicated country. So I wrote about this discomfort.
This provocation led to more than just a few teenage journal entries, though. In 2006, her debut novel, Coconut, was published. The story of two young women wrestling with what it means to be young, African and female in the new South Africa, Coconut spoke to a generation of young people who were struggling with their own issues of identity, and garnered Kopano both the European Union Literary Award and the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa – considered by many the African equivalent of the Nobel Prize for literature.
The significance of these achievements become amplified upon learning that Kopano was still a university student at the time of Coconut’s publication, studying toward her medical degree – one of the most demanding courses conceivable. An equally impressive aptitude for academics saw her receive the Rhodes scholarship to continue her studies at Oxford University in the UK. In 2010 she published a second novel, Spilt Milk, and, not long after that, she became a mother.
Kopano is tiny – but her small stature belies her strength. Pressed on her capacity for juggling these jobs – writer, mother, wife, physician – that bewitching, enormous smile remains fixed. For Kopano, each part feeds into the other. She writes because she needs to, because it energises and sustains her. Writing is what allows her to thrive in every role. She allows fellow revered writer Anton Chekhov the final word: “Chekhov said, ‘Medicine is my wife, and writing my mistress,’ and that makes complete sense to me,” she says. “I love them both.”