“To Be or Not to Be” (To Do): That is the Question

by Mbalentle Madlala

I’m sure many of us have heard the quote in the above title sometime in our lives, regardless of whether we can specifically pinpoint when and from where we did. The quote actually comes from the famous William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, one of his many so-called “tragedies”, or plays. Perhaps you may have noticed my brief addition to the quote, indicated in brackets. I trust my reason for this will be evident later in the text.

Being able to start off this reflection with this quote makes me feel really philosophical and reflective indeed, haha. But trust me, starting off this way is not just for the sake of being dramatic, oh no. As I begun to formulate my thoughts in order to write this piece, I found that this is a statement that is relevant and that summates my experiences as an honours student during these unprecedented times we currently find ourselves in.

So 2020 was going to be MY year. My year to live in the city and experience all the adventure it holds whilst pursuing scientific knowledge and experience in the form of an honours degree at the prestigious University of Cape Town. My life would evolve around this – it would be high up on my list of “Important things Mbali does in life”. A significant pursuit to tick off before attending to any other thing I wish to do, any other pursuit of the soul. Make sure I “secure the bag” and all the things. That was the expectation.

But that’s not how the story actually played out. Don’t get me wrong – my experience at UCT, although brief, has exceeded my expectation. I honestly feel like it was the springboard to why I’ve come this far in my science, my writing, my world view, my occupational confidence, my current way of thinking. But I digress.

No one could’ve imagined how the year subsequently played out (as I’m sure you’ve heard several times). Who knew I’d be living the life I described above at home? I mean, how does one continue to “live in the city + experience it + pursue science at UCT”, a pursuit that my life was supposed to evolve around, at home?

Exactly. One doesn’t.

I wasn’t devastated though. My “free bird” nature, as I like to call it, allows me to go with the Spirit and be at peace with things I can’t change. Rather, I was challenged. Like I had to ask myself, “what is life now?” “What am I within life?” And with all the more time on my hands, “what do I do?” “Who do I be?” “How shall I be, and subsequently, do?”

These questions led me on a journey of questioning whether what “I do” gives more meaning to me than what “I be”. At the beginning of the year, my “being” – Mbali – translated to my “doing” – pursuing science at UCT. That time Mbali has many other facets and many other parts to her. Many other interests and many other loves. But, perhaps unknowingly, I was willing to put it all on hold to secure the bag. Which isn’t entirely a bad thing – stay with me. BUT, now that I know that that is what I was going to do, is it really what I wanted? Do I still want that? Was this forced time at home about to teach me a thing or two about Being, apart from just Doing (Not Being) ?

And then issues concerning privilege and position, poverty, injustice, racism, xenophobia, heart conditions and corruption, violence and classism etc. started being highlighted more deeply in society because of the circumstances. All of it played massive roles in the above described journey I now consciously found myself in. Whilst pursuing my love for science and health care and taking care of my responsibilities during the journey, I would now pursue other issues I care about more intently. With a wholistic approach. Doing the necessary heart work and introspection required to challenge my internal biases. Challenge my world view. Reflect on why I’m actually on this earth and why I chose to pursue the current occupation I find myself in. BE better so that I could DO better. Not just one or the other.

Disclaimer: it’s pretty hard. Like it’s weird and challenging and humbling and requires vulnerability and openness and embarrassment and a heart to learn with the possibility of being wrong. But dang! I really be liking the girl I’m learning about in the process (AKA me) and because of this, I can be a better contribution to society, to my research, to my people, to my country.

I’ve found myself joining leadership courses, learning about expression at writing labs and even running (I say “running” very cautiously) a whole entire comrades marathon (like the most randomest things) as a result of this journey. Consequently, I’ve been impacted by so many random people and places and things and webinars and phone calls and zoom meetings, all from my dining room table/bed at home. I’ve stepped out and collaborated and created and shared and asked for help and helped others. I’ve given time to things my soul enjoys (though feeling guilty, then proceeding to ask myself why) and things I haven’t done in a minute. I’ve prioritised others. I’ve dug deep and remembered what’s important to me and how important people are – way more than anything I could ever simply do. I’ve done things that scare me. I’ve spoken to my mama about things I never thought I ever would. I could go on.

All this, in itself, is a privilege, I see that. I take responsibility for that. And it never would have happened had all this madness not happened. Wild.

Basically the message I guess I’m trying to get across to YOU (well done for getting this far in reading some of my crazy reflections on paper) is to check again – Who are you and what do you stand for? What is important to you – do you do it? Will you be it? And from this place, how can you live a more integrated balanced life? In all you do. Then, relate these thoughts to your purpose. How best you can contribute to this world. On the daily and in the long term. And lastly, stay learning and stay challenging your world view whilst staying true to yourself and your convictions of love. I mean, what kind of scientists would we be if we didn’t stay malleable, flexible, open to learn, discover, change?

So “To Be or To Do (Not To Be)?” A beautiful tragedy – I say both. Be you → Do you.



  • Nonhlanhla Mazibuko

    This is such a lovely piece. It’s honestly interesting how one can learn so much from this year if they are willing to open themselves up. Truly it has been a year to reset, re-prioritize, re-evaluate, and naturally redefining…
    Love it, To Be or Not To Be. You’ll only ever know if you be


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