Asanda Sizani Writes Forgotten South African Women Back Into History

Step into the dazzling world of editor and creative luminary Asanda Sizani – a woman whose work is fuelled by an unstoppable drive to flourish and to make sure that everyone else does, too

As the sun dipped below the horizon during Asanda Sizani's childhood days, her grandmother would gather their Eastern Cape community's offspring. In those twilight moments, she would spin tales of African folklore, transporting the young minds to bygone eras. "Losing myself in these worlds that she described so vividly, it was natural for me to become a storyteller in my own way," Sizani tells me over coffee on a balmy Wednesday morning. The ex-Glamour editor-in-chief now champions silenced voices - figures such as 19th-century musician Nokutela Mdima-Dube and the late journalist Noni Jabavu. Defying history's omissions, she traces their words and worlds. Her takeaway? That researching these trailblazers goes beyond academia, becoming a spiritual journey, too.

Meeting Sizani reveals a woman as eloquent and confident as her transformative work suggests. As I delve into her roots in the historic Eastern Cape town of Alice (or Dikeni), where Nelson Mandela's education took an unexpected turn during a student protest, the source of her own diligence, and the fire of her passions, take form. Storytellers with an insatiable curiosity, unafraid to navigate new territories? Reservoirs of strength and activism etched into the fabric of Zulu and Xhosa DNA? Relentless challengers of preconceived notions about womanhood? Echoes in Sizani's own narrative abound.

Post-Glamour (prior to which she was Elle's fashion director), Sizani, alongside her sister Busi, with whom she co-founded the media consultancy Legacy Creates, breathes new life into these stories. Yet to dub her merely their spokesperson would be an understatement. Sizani stands as the resonant voice of the next generation and as a true advocate for South Africa's burgeoning talent, from fashion visionaries including Lukhanyo Mdingi and Thebe Magugu to the brushstroke brilliance of Manyaku Mashilo and Naledi Tshegofatso Modupi's powerful portraiture. Wondering whether to hit that Follow button? Absolutely, without a doubt.

Asanda Sizani
South Africa

Left: Sizani outside Merchants on Long, a boutique store stocking some of Africa's exciting talent, such as Dye Lab, Thebe Magugu, Kente Gentlemen, Wanda Lephoto and Ananta Design Studio.

In conversation with South African trailblazer Asanda Sizani

Tell me more about your Zulu and Xhosa background and culture.

Our people are all about joy and celebration. We sing and dance through everything. That's why we have struggle songs, or protest music, as an actual category. That's therapy to us, conjuring up things that take us through to the other side of whatever it is that we're going through. In fact, in Alice, I thought it was normal for every household to have an upright piano. You're playing in the street, and two doors down, Mrs So-and-so plays something or sings as she's hanging her laundry.

In January 2022, you posted about walking into a Parisian room, where all the global Vogue editors had gathered: "Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington, Vanessa Kingori, Suzy Menkes, Edward Enninful… and someone from Qonce." What did that moment mean to you?

Growing up, it was definitely a dream to one day work for magazines, but I wasn't exposed to media or advertising in my small town. I didn't have a frame of reference, anyone to guide me or anyone in magazine publishing I could draw first-hand experience from. Fast forward to all those years later… I'd long been settled in Cape Town [Sizani moved there aged 16 and stayed throughout university] and was in fashion media, having had that role at Elle for a number of years. I'd been to Paris before, but it was quite something else to be part of this global community and at the same level as the custodians of these iconic magazines.

Were you nervous at all?

So nervous, which was definitely some imposter syndrome. Why me? Do I deserve to be here? Thankfully, it's a sisterhood and I had a great mentor and ally in the then Condé Nast Art Director, Fiona Hayes, who really took me under her wing, so I settled in quickly. I'm so grateful for that. As each editor presented their vision for that year, I noticed similar challenges and goals: we all just wanted to create the best brand for our countries.

Asanda Sizani

What was your vision?

I wanted to celebrate excellence - a grown-up reader wants to be armed with information and empowered. She wants to talk about finances, wellness, travel and career. I also brought in a lot of guest writers and collaborators - artists, musicians, broadcasters, pop culture and social influencers. It was a melting pot of what South Africa is, and women also: spirited, bold, powerful, culturally relevant.

Sizani on the rooftop of the Dorp Hotel, overlooking the city.

You studied visual communication because you didn't feel like covering hard news and being obliged to remain unphased by your subjects. It sounds like you were always very determined?

It had taken me a while to get there actually, to identify what I had to say and my natural strengths: consistency, intentionality, honouring my craft. I worked hard at it every single day, seeking out mentors, reaching out to people who know better than me to arm myself with information.

It led you to become Drum Magazine's youngest ever fashion editor at only 23. When you joined Elle South Africa, you were its first Black fashion director, and later, in 2018, Glamour's first Black editor-in-chief worldwide.

Which I don't see as achievements, but as a sign of the magazine industry's slow transformation. I mean, how was I the first Black anything? Still, I knew I deserved to be there, and became very decisive in terms of inclusivity for the brand that I wanted to build and making sure that there's a diverse representation across the board.

After you resigned and co-founded Legacy Creates, you embarked on a whole new journey. How did your quest for a more diverse landscape inspire that move?

Ownership is very important to me, too, so I wanted to create something that would be truly mine and part of my family's legacy. I wanted to focus on Black women writers and creators, and tell these stories in multidisciplinary ways - film, print, digital, collaborations in art and music. Which wasn't easy, because we don't have the best culture of preserving and archiving. It's so hard to find civil records and photographs of Black South African creatives and Black women, specifically from the 19th century. If you weren't married or didn't have a prominent husband, you weren't written in history. Even if I only find fragments, they're important to assemble and present as best as we possibly can, even if there are still some holes and gaps in the story.

Your first publication is about Nokutela Mdima-Dube, the first wife of John Langalibalele Dube, an important political figure and the founder of the ANC (African National Congress), who furthered multiracial democracy in the country. What's her real legacy?

There wouldn't be a John Langalibalele Dube legacy without her contribution. She's so important in South Africa's liberation, education, and music - she and her husband published the first Zulu songbook, Amagama Abantu, in 1911. The Dubes built the first Black owned school in South Africa, Ohlange Institute, fulfilling their dream to empower their community, the funds for which they raised in the US and other countries. I found so many newspaper articles about her, in the New-York Tribune, Los Angeles Times, The Boston Post… They were dazzled by her grace, intellect, eloquence, and musical talent. Yet here in South Africa, no one wrote about her [at the time] - not a single newspaper celebrated or interviewed her. When she died in 1917, she was buried in an unmarked grave, which took almost 100 years to be found by Mali-born, Minnesota-based Professor Chérif Keïta. She couldn't have children, so there's no lineage. It's up to us as this new generation to travel through time and retrieve lost stories of women like her. In fact, in 1994, when Nelson Mandela went to cast his first democratic vote, he voted at Ohlange and went to John Dube's grave afterwards and said, "Mr President, I'm here to report that today South Africa is free". He didn't acknowledge Nokutela; there was no mention of her.

Asanda Sizani
Asanda Sizani

What was her message to the world?

There's an essay she wrote for a US journal in 1898 with this opening line: "I've been asked to write about myself, though I would prefer to tell of my people and their needs." She didn't want the spotlight on her, but rather used the platform to raise awareness of the challenges and needs of her people in Zululand. She didn't paint a gloomy picture and helped to correct negative stereotypes and perceptions about us at that time.

How do you think she would feel today?

It would be a major shock. Can you imagine? Waking up to all of this? For Black people to enjoy the fruits of freedom in a democratic country, gain knowledge and education was her dream, her vision.

On the cover featuring Noni Jabavu, a journalist, author and the first African woman to, in 1961, become editor of UK literary magazine The New Strand, and who later worked for the BBC, you added a quote: "She couldn't be conventional if she tried." Why is it so important to challenge notions of women of that time?

The 18th-century stereotypical story of Black South African - and Black women elsewhere - was that they were poor, uneducated sidekicks to their husbands. We hardly know their own contributions, how they came to be, what their dreams were. How did they think at that time? What actually informed and inspired their life journeys? Whenever I speak about them, I'm realising a dream - it's quite profound.

How much do these questions resonate with you and with your own quest to fulfil your dreams and passions?

Since, up until high school, I didn't have that access, it was my need and yearning to give something to other girls and boys to be inspired by. To discover that there were these dynamic, multifaceted, multidisciplinary, creative women who had careers beyond being nurses and teachers - women people need to know about.

And what's your message?

It's an homage - me saying, "I am because they came".

We love how you also amplify today's younger voices, as you do when speaking about Naledi Tshegofatso Modupi's recent showcase at the V&A Waterfront, themed Joy from Africa to the World.

The world needs to see more of those visuals where we're just women - dancing, connected and joyful - with so much energy and vibrancy instead of serious, sombre portrayals that carry pain and trauma. In a mall like the V&A Waterfront, as you walk along those corridors, there's something affirming and inspiring about the prominent visibility of these visuals.

Asanda Sizani
Asanda Sizani

A former art student, winner of the Standard Bank Arts Rising Star award, and frequent visitor of city and township galleries, Sizani is always inspired by the subject. Here she's pictured at Southern Guild Gallery among Manyaku Mashilo's exhibition, An Order of Being.

Though historical, how does your work become something contemporary, of the now? How do you use your magazine and visual communication background?

I'm a history buff and I love research, but I don't want the print work to feel like some old book. The look and feel is bold and striking, and I love the idea of a bi-annual or quarterly special edition that's taken time and effort to conceptualise and curate. It's through collaborations and identifying and working with modern storytellers that we keep unpacking these stories in different ways - sonically, visually and through print.

What has this work taught you about yourself and your career?

That I'm resilient. I'm more spiritually connected to this type of work than I ever imagined. For example, when I found Nokutela's songbook and held it in my hand, I could almost hear her transcended voice. The importance of this work has awakened something in me - to the point now that I sometimes turn down certain projects - because this restorative work of remembering is meaningful and impactful.

You often talk about storytelling as your obligation to the next generation. How do you envision your legacy? What do you hope people will say about you?

I hope I'll be remembered for the change that I've tried to bring about, for my multidisciplinary approach to things, how I emphasise that you can't limit yourself to being any one thing, and the opportunities that Legacy Creates has created for others to also benefit from the work I do. We're so many things, especially as women. We have boundless potential. We can do everything that we aim to do.

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