Bantu Ghost: a stream of (black) unconsciousness by lesego rampolokeng reviewed by mphutlane wa bofelo
Let me start by declaring a conflict of interests: I am an avid lover of the works of Lesego Rampolokeng and have an intimate association with him based on our common commitment to taking poetry out of the elitist enclave of ‘high-art’ to make it speak to the concrete issues affecting individuals, communities and the world we live in. “Bantu Ghost: a stream of (black) unconsciousness” is vintage Lesego Rampolokeng, recreating language, overturning idioms\concepts\terms, giving birth to new words and developing new proverbs to deal with “new” realities. In Bantu Ghost, Rampolokeng captures the contrast between the bling-bling, opulence and crass consumerism of urban suburbia and the squalor, wretchedness and hopelessness of township life. He uses the device of ‘uncouth’\ ‘vulgar’ language and the imagery of filth\dirt and gore: excrement, vomit, etc – to highlight ravages of the new world order on the social psyche as well as the rampant corruption and moral decadence from the top echelon to the bottom-rung of society. Like Aime Cessaire in Return to the Native Land, Lesego Rampolokeng shuns romantic portrayal of his motherland’s past and present (and future). He uses graphically surreal images – and definitely not politically correct lingo – to interrogate post-freedom dreams and nightmares, slogans, rhetorics and realities.
It is succinctly clear that Rampolokeng adds a spice and puts a spin and twist to words and concepts not as an exercise in word-play but as a “subversive” act of questioning the slogans and rhetoric of the new dispensation. His is a critical, skeptical engagement with official, dominant discourse and established literary and political canon. The New World Order is rendered as the New World Hoarder, IMF and World Bank are respectively referred to as Iron Mother Fucker and World Shank, the middle-class becomes the diddle-class, and renaissance is ‘transliterated’ as “rear naai sense.” Even the sub-culture\ counter-culture\ underground fraternity does not escape the redefining pen of Rampolokeng. “More fire” – the mantra of poetry sessions, and hip hop and dance-hall circles becomes “whore fire.”, and the word-play shadow fights of battle-rappers comes under spotlight: “battle-cats on sulphur-trips\ word-cut the cipher drips \ strychnine rhyme-busted lips \ hips twisted off the break \ beat on the outskirt …shit and bleed.”
Bantu Ghost – a stream of (black) unconsciousness could be described as a poetic treatise on the psycho-physical condition and state of the masses and the new political and economic elite in Post\ Neo- apartheid South Africa. It started as a tribute to Steve Biko but ended as homage to Black thinkers who have made a contribution to theorization on the Black Experience. In the prelude and chapter four – entitled “The Black Word” – Rampolokeng particularly celebrates and presents the voice of mostly writers and thinkers who have contributed on the discourse on the politics and economics of identity and the psychology of the rulers and the ruled in a both a colonial, settler-colonial as well as post-colonial\ neo-colonial setting. In many ways Bantu Ghost: a stream of (black) unconsciousness is a continuation of the project initiated by writers like Fanon, Cesaire and Biko: the theorization on the conditions and forces that puts Black under-classes at the receiving end of the politics and economics of race and class. Like most of the characters and personas in the novels, plays and poems of Rampolokeng, the protagonist of Bantu Ghost is an archetype through which the writer\poet\actor\narrator takes us through his study of the pathology and psychology of people who have been victims of various forms of denigration, degradation, de-humanization, de-personalization through social stratification systems that uses race, class and gender and in some instances religion and culture.
Through the mind\voice\eyes of Bantu Ghost – an institutionalized demented abstract or a saintly prisoner of experiment for the Pavlovs of power possessed by Biko’s spirit, Lesego Rampolokeng interrogates the exteriorities of South Africa to delve into the interior – the psyche, consciousness and sense of identity of the new political and economic elite, the literary, academic and public intellectuals and the general masses. From Bantu Ghost’s perspective the much celebrated peaceful change in South Africa was the result of no miracle but a forced choice of reform above revolution:
” We promised Mabrak-time\ a black lightening strike\ but then we got struggle fatigue.” The book is divided into six chapters with self-reflective titles, and ends with notes of which titles are also allude to their thematic contents. Aptly titled The Cell, chapter one portrays the mental cage and psychological prison, identity crisis, state of anesthesia and false consciousness that ‘flag freedom’, manufactured consent and romanticized narration of history and mediocre representation of history and social reality puts the people into. The internet, television, radio, exhibitionist and conformist literature and arts are presented as the new instruments of self-alienation self-ostracization that helps to keep truth and conscience in manacles:
“Torture instruments have changed \ brains caught in the internet \ they incubate the minds in the television \ they radio-fry vision”
The Tower of Babel, chapter two, raves against the hijacking of the language and songs of liberation to promote sexist, homophobic and ethnic prejudice, and the cooption of intellectuals and activists by corporate capital and political establishment. It takes a critical look at the hypocritical double-standards and forked-tongue of the world in dealing with race politics and humanrights issues: “Life is gauged on broken scales \ the weight of humanities in unequal\ like stomp the kaffirs \ but just do not touch the jews \ history will not allow it…’ This is clear allusion to the great powers affinities towards Zionist Israel and their amnesia with regard to the holocaust of slavery and colonialism suffered by Black People, reflected in among others, the concerted efforts towards removing Zionism and Slavery from the agenda of the world conference on racism, xenophobia and related forms of discrimination. The poet is scathing in his critique of this conference: “in the Sandton sun\ a race conference \ they are plumbing identity \ behind Anal-eyes….” Bantu Ghost is equally harsh in revealing South Africa’s tendency to skirt around the problem of racism and present a false picture of racial bliss at the expense of obfuscating the reality at the ground. He laments the loss of an opportune moment for a transformed anti-racist humane society in South Africa:
“ humanity’s greatest most silent crime \ the alienation of emancipation \ non-race gone obsolete at birth \ redundant concept at conception\ we celebrate a still-birth “
In chapter, three, aptly titled “Chaining the minds”, Bantu Ghost castigates the mediocrity of the cult of consumerism, the celebrity culture, and the false securities and paranoid insecurities of the new black middle class. Chapter Five is a critique of The New World Hoarder, with its obscurantist flight into fantasy, its massacre of intellect and its sale of spin rather than truth to the masses. The cooption of intellectual and activist voices in the big conferences organized by officialdom is exposed: Another conference \ they call for toilet papers \ all to present their faeces \ what is your deception \ are you content to lick arse \ they say it nourishes” Chapter 6, “The search for consciousness” is a damning critique of liberal democracy, with its proclivity to give a real voice only to the rich and propertied. Bantu Ghost could be talking about the systematic exclusion of other political voices through devices such as the R1.5 million rands required for a party to register to contest in South Africa’s general national elections: ‘they cram democracy in a can \ & put it in a shelf \ they can buy who afford” The whole chapter constitutes a critic of the regimes and regiments of global capitalism and neo-liberalism such as Brettonwood institutions, and also eposes the ravages of neo-liberal macroeconomics of South Africa on the poors. For instance, it makes an allusion to the ruthless eviction of the poor:”Lefifi Tladi said we are the elephant\ but some are the red anT” There is also a criticism of acquiescent “poster poets” and the erasure of memory.
The six chapters are followed by the Notes: Mountain Sermon, Black Art of the Perry Normal, Notes for TOU (The Original Ungovernables) and Notes from the Smoke. I will only talk about my favorite notes in the book: Notes for TOU (The Original Ungovernables). The note is in the loving memory of the unnamed unknown unremembered boys and girls who walked into the lion’s den to make Apartheid South Africa ungovernable to free Mandela to liberate South Africa to build a new South Africa to see the dawn of the government of the people… the young lions who never returned from exile, the combatants who disappeard (not)mysteriously, the former guerillas who were not fortunate enough to make it to parliament or to know someone who knows someone who has they key to getting tenders. Like Edward Said speaking truth to power, the poet-persona in Notes for TOU scratches beneath the veneer of political correctness to interrogate the neo-apartheid dispensation with tough questions and frank testimonies of the harsh realities on the ground.
Because the heads of states usually provide us with the state of their heads rather than that of the nation, the poet takes it upon himself to do a thorough stock-taking of the condition of the nation. Since writers, poets and singers are supposed to be windows to the soul of the nation as well as watchdogs of society at the ground – or so to speak, the ears, eyes, and noses of the common people – the poet dares to question the state of the word – written\ spoken\recited\ sung\mumbled. This is no easy task as the culprits of turning the word into commodity on the dough\ dung exchange market are – so to say – colleagues, including trusted \ celebrated god-fathers turned entertainers, stripping pro bono for par-lie-mantrarians – bored men and women in gray suits and outdated hairstyles. It truly must hurt to witness the massacre and death of the word at the hands\mouths of people who include pioneer word-combatants of the freedom struggle:
”in the beginning was the dread-word
& that’s where it all ended. dead.
the holy recorder spun & cadavers fell out.
blood-oily how the vocoder sound the deathbout”
Even soothing melodies and healer-sounds such as the symphonies of Zim Ncqgawane and Wilhelm Richard Wagner’s synthesis of the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts can be appropriated by the ideologue and aparatnik to be opium that turn people’s heads into vegetable by sucking out their memory and keeping them too busy grooving & merry\baby-making to notice the preservation of white privilege by clauses aimed at ensuring that the sun never sets on white bureaucrats and technocrats….And leaving the people too sound-drunk and drama-befogged to see the spear of the nation being turned into ammunition for the racketeering political elite whose reward for corruption is handsome golden-handshakes:
”Now the sun sets on THE clause
populace abide by c/laws of the land are arse-wipes
gangs in government-approved stars & stripes
rackets wrapped around tax brackets painted ‘immune’ in blood
no arrest warrant but a cold-blood-age pension card
license to steal permit to get loose the perversion flood
from ‘mkhonto sharpened to intshumentshu is a national hemorrhage
the bleed is internal this liberation age”
It is not so much the political cover-ups and collusion between the police and crime syndicates that is shocking, but the ululation\cheering of veteran wordsmiths turned groupies of the establishment that is mind-shattering & arse-choking:
police farce so crime syndicated ultra-sophisticated
it moneyed /tendered lethal plastic economic explosive
with) ghost-in-the-latrine-bred intentions)
Don Dada top of the political machine ladder
makes capital bank-rob/rupt semantics
The poet raises our consciousness about the conscious decision of the establishment to demonize counter-culture voices that challenge the commodification of art as well as the cult of consumerism:
anti-consumerism rap they establishment yap it crap-talk lyric \ theory it psycho-conspiracy chaotic \ verbal dummy-bulleted anarchic dung
He also makes us aware of the carrot and stick maneuvers of the establishment. This takes the form of offering cash and massive coverage and ample performance podium to apolitical, hip-swaying, clapping poets\singers\rappers who transport people away from social reality with happy-verses \ anesthetic lyrics ,and labeling conscious art as primitive and out of the times. This works as a cooptive measure, as those who crave for His Masters’ endorsement stamp and crumbs from big capital dada join the ‘talk-a lot-and-say-nothing’ crowd:
got my thoughts stapled to my tongue so all i drop is bung \ crease&shined/muff-buffed/trance-verse-tightened up
pre-apartheid-historic \ caught between kgositsile’s gravedigger precision text \& celan’s concentration camp black milk\ i house them cemetery-dead-gold-heaven stratospheric
Notes for TOU depicts the reality of neo-colonialism, as it exposes how the new elite continues the legacy of the old colonial elite (as Fanon predicted) by creating wealth out of the blood\sweat and death\misery of poor men daily swallowed by the hungry death. This is aptly captured by allusion to former mine-workers turned into mine-owners or former foremen at the mines becoming chairmen of the directorate boards of the same mining companies that turn workers into cogs-in-a-machine, our parents into boys and our men into the devil-god-knows-what. The poet shows us how even the taste and eating habits of our new middle and comprador bourgeois class change with their newly acquired status:
(How they get down, the diddle-class…better raw boerewors copulation with spanspek).” But the poet has a stubborn hope and a remembering mind that is tuned to the most seasoned verses and lyrics from sons and daughters of the land who keep it real enough to hear the telegraphed message of the blue sky, to affirm Africa’s son’s belonging to the sun, and expose the prostitution of the word: “pimp-poetry became fashion, style & flash, dracula-dressed up in drag pattern u swung roots radics-style”
Notes for TOU is a verbal\frontal attack on the abortion of a better life for all and\or the miscarriage of “the people shall govern” false consciousness, respectable petty bourgeosie lies, and kitsch illusions sold to the masses as reality. The poet raises his voice above the noise of the truth-slaying mess media and the tell-lie-vision, to caution against phantom roars of young lions living in the shadows of big daddy former guerrilla now gorilla munching from instead of feeding the masses:
“voices from the palace & noises in the sewers \ is spitters & swallowers difference-\
whether all fours or prostration the crack’s always in between\ now youth league/organisation/congress is hog-dick-&-run\ to hide inside father-cock’s panties”
The sharp eyes\ words of the poet are spot on with regard to the old trick of media-created radicals who spit cold-fire to take the attention of the masses away from real alternative voices. The poet is not fooled by empty pronouncements on freedom of speech, while in reality there is no travel-space for non-parrot artists and dissident voices, and the public broadcaster offer us little live debates and public forums but a lot of ‘parliament live’- a dead show of “wrinkled arse-shuffle on the bench afro-chic petty & boozed up on hysteria’s versions of history’s perfumed stench” Notes for Tou is a lethal attack on poetry\music for the sake of arse-shaking and ranting only for the sake of paying rent or fitting the bill. It is the assertive voice of a dissident poet refusing to flow with the time or to let his individuated voice be swallowed in the vast cesspool of kitsch culture and fashion trends. Here poetry is not a passport and visa from concrete reality but a means of rememorying the place that the poet calls home and the times and spaces that characterizes it without any selective memory or schizophrenic romanticizing.
The notes make us ware that we are trapped in the same old story of taking power in the name of the people but never giving it to the people…the same old tale of two cities.: ”The leadership carries cannibal cargo…\ fakes a people’s power cumming & spurts Soweto-Mouth way.\ No receipts for the royal seminal-flushing\
nothing for the receiver/deceiver/achiever of revenue\ Joburg moves its jaws, Soweto’s stomach rumbles.” The same old story of jet-setting, globe-trotting leaders and denialism with regard to critical issues afflicting the country and the world:
Mista Leader proclaims in foreign cities: \ nothing to heal zero to mend there is no crisis \ as he strokes his beard the body of labour suffers a stroke.” Bantu Ghost takes us into the idyllic, paradise that is suburbia, and then into the dusty god-forsaken streets, into the lives of ordinary men and women, boys and girls trying to eke a living and make sense out of the misery, into the world of the subaltern people on the fringe of the markert economy- euphemistically called the second economy; and into the underworld and\or underbelly of society, into the world of vampire insurance schemes, and into the utopian\escapist world of religion and idealism: “in blithe & tithe visitations we guzzle Jesus chalice profanity\ In religious drunkenness attempt to puzzle out the lice from the fleas…\ as the bloody waters continue to rise, life’s little prices\ it’s all venereal soaking thru my notes.”
Reading Bantu Ghost – a stream of (black) unconsciousness, one could not help but come to the conclusion that Lesego Rampolokeng is to literature and theatre what Fanon and Biko are to sociopolitical analysis and activism.