Dr. Esther Mahlangu – A Testament On The Nature Of Time

Esther Mahlangu receiving honorary Doctorate at University of Johannesburg

On the 9th of April, the world renowned Ndebele artist was given an Honorary Doctorate at the University of Johannesburg. The Honour recognises her "legacy as a cultural entrepreneur who has skilfully negotiated local and global worlds and played a major role as an educator". Dr. Esther Mahlangu turns 83 in November.

And if anything this for me became a perspective on the nature of time. For the most part of my life I viewed time as a thing, a thing controlled by a clock. By days, months and years. My understanding has now improved, and by its improvement I have also learned to be patient with myself and with others.

You see time cannot really just be an element of the past, present and future. It cannot simply exist just through the spectacle of change, growth and age. If it does then its magnificence is just tied to how much we progress or how very little progress we may have. Maybe this is why we panic when things don’t happen when we want them to, because we perceive that at a certain time things should be a certain way;that our lives should be at a particular place. Maybe this also why we tend to tie our happiness to places and people that are not presently there, ‘I will be happy when I’m married’ or ‘I would be happier if I made more money’.

Dr. Esther Mahlangu

Perhaps I should also mention that Dr. Esther Mahlangu born in 1935 having learnt Ndebele wall panting and beadwork as a child would only showcase her work internationally in 1989, when researchers from Paris saw her work in 1986 because they were documenting traditional arts and saw the paintings on the wall of her house. She was 54 years old when she travelled to France. I imagine a young girl, painting the walls in her village and dreaming to one day see these paintings honoured across the globe and only to realise that dream years later. “One day” is not a rapid reality.

If it was me, by 23 I would’ve frustrated myself about how time is passing by. By 26, I would have worried about the validness of this dream, I would’ve questioned it and maybe even changed course. Deciding to do something different because what I had hoped for is not working out the way I saw it in my mind’s eye and with great unease thinking about how it’s not becoming a reality. And because of the era we live in, maybe I might have also taken my swing at purposeless celebrations, trying clubs every weekend just to forget for a little while about time working against my schedule.


Here’s my relief, time has its own manner. I think time is a journey that is lined to the lessons each one of us must learn whilst heading towards our individual destiny. Before we learn those lessons, we almost get there until we’ve acquired the lesson. Why? Because your lesson is not meant only for you. Your lesson is meant for someone that you will inspire, mostly you will do so unknowingly. It may be people around you, your children, your colleagues and also it could very well be someone you have never met. Someone who is also on their journey that needs to collect an enlightenment from you.This is how we survive life’s trenches, in isiXhosa it is said “Umntu ngumntu ngabantu” meaning ‘A person is a person through other people’. Imagine how survival would be if we were not inspired along the way.

We learn the same lessons differently, all through the gift of life. We all have the experience of loss, how we’ve dealt with loss is different. Most of us have shared the experience of love, what we’ve gained from love is different.

So what is time if it’s not just the past, present and future? For me, time is an experience. An experience you do not know when it will end. If we knew how many things, places and people we would experience while alive, we would probably not fuss over certain things, because we understand that our experiences unfortunately end at some point, we do not live forever. If time is an experience, then our concentration would never really be on controlling it but rather it would be; to get as much as we can from every experience. So that even if you die without ever receiving an honour or reaching a goal, you would have still lived.


Written By: Yolanda Phakela