Art as a catalyst: the pathway of alumna Relebohile Mabunda

  • 2024-06-17
  • Lisa Priller-Gebhardt
  • Comment
Relebohile Mabunda
© private

Our ‘Alumni in the spotlight’ series gives from very different backgrounds the opportunity to report on the role that their funding and stay in Germany played in their personal development and professional career. Relebohile Mabunda from South Africa also wanted to expand her horizon, gain significant experience and make valuable contacts. Funding programmes run by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and by the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, ifa) gave the 31-year-old the opportunity to participate in art research projects in Germany. 

´The  and the  provided me with a home far away from home, a beneficial working environment, financial support and mentoring, along with long-term connections and rich cultural experiences in Germany.’

Art, theatre and a sense of community – these are Relebohile Mabunda’s major passions. Her home country is South Africa, a country with a painful history of racist laws known as apartheid. ‘I grew up in an all-black township, so I was highly restricted to the people and the culture that surrounded me’, says Mabunda. That was an inner driving force that set her artistic career in motion. ‘My work began in the community halls where we staged various performances that entertained and informed the locals, and enlightened them about the disparate topics in our communities.’ The artist recalls that the performances she had developed in the community halls were subsequently staged by other creatives and communities at theatre festivals, on stages and in schools.  

International perspectives: the search for new horizons

She launched her own business once she recognised the impact that the local arts could in particular exert within the populace and . Her objective was to promote theatre culture within the local communities. Albeit that also required a better understanding of the ecosystem surrounding art and politics. ‘Committing myself to art in local communities involved me switching into art management and to develop strategies for art to flourish in these local communities’, says Mabunda.  

Her desire to widen her international experience and gain further knowledge also soon increased. An opportunity arose just after she had submitted her master thesis at the University of the Witwatersrand. Her lecturer posted a message on the student WhatsApp group to indicate that the ifa was seeking participants to join a programme that was ideally tailored to her interests. This was what initiated her contact with Germany.  

Research fellowship: resources relating to research and networking

Mabunda was subsequently awarded a by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, which enabled her to develop tangible case studies and partnership opportunities aimed at revitalising the field of community theatre. ‘I wouldn’t have been able to achieve all of this without the decisive support provided by ifa and the Humboldt Foundation’, Mabunda declares. As part of her research project, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation financed her living costs, a preparatory German language course, her health insurance and travel costs; she was also invited to take part in the projects organised by other German Chancellor Fellowship holders. ‘We were also given access to funds that involved collaboration with other beneficiaries and the submission of well-prepared proposals that met the eligibility criteria’, explains Mabunda.  

Before she arrived in , she had busied herself with academic papers and the to gain a better understanding of the German art scene. Albeit that she wasn’t prepared for what it’s actually like to live in a country in which the majority of the population is white. ‘I was confronted with racist remarks’, states the culture researcher. ‘I probably wouldn’t have survived if I hadn’t been able to communicate with friends who had endured similar experiences in Germany’, says Mabunda. 

Tips for international researchers

Tips for international researchers
Tips for international researchers ©

These negative experiences didn’t deter her from appreciating the country’s advantages. She was above all excited by the ‘Efficiency of the public transport system’. Whenever Germans complained about local transport, she would often wonder whether any of them had ever been in a country where the underground train often only arrived an hour after its scheduled arrival time – or not at all. Or know what it’s like when endless queues of people are impatiently waiting for the next taxi, which can’t get through due to unmanageable congestion.  

And even given some isolated unpleasant situations, she still felt much safer than in her home country. ‘It didn’t matter how late it was, as a woman I felt safer when I was out alone at night’, Mabunda recalls. She didn’t just feel safe on public transport, she was also enthusiastic about another aspect: ‘I was fascinated by the fact that friends who sometimes left even valuable items on a bus or underground train later got them back from a duty officer, the lost property office or attentive people’, says Mabunda. Relebohile Mabunda has particularly fond memories of the cold and snow-covered with mulled wine. ‘I’m also a huge fan of Käsespätzle (cheese noodles).’ 

* mandatory field