The great thing about doing poetry with a bag over your head is that the audience does not become emotionally swayed by the poet’s eyes. Eyes are lubricants, they perform a kind of foreplay to the poem, allowing the words to get into the audience’s erotic centres too quickly. With a paper bag this becomes more difficult and one is allowed to focus exclusively on the words.
Come to my arms, cruel and sullen thing
Indolent beast, come to my arms again
For I would plunge my fingers in your mane
And be a long time unremembering
Bury myself in you,
Breathe your wild perfume, remorselessly
For one more hour
Breathe again, as of a ruined flower
Fragrance of love you have defiled
I long to sleep,
I think that from a slumber like death,
I would awake as I once was
And lavish without shame
Caress upon your body, glowing and dark
To drown my sorrow there is no abyss,
However deep, that compares with your bed
Come to my arms, cruel and sullen thing
Indolent beast, come to my arms again
For I would plunge my fingers in your mane
And be a long time unremembering
Bury myself in you,
Breathe your wild perfume, remorselessly
For one more hour
Breathe again, as of a ruined flower
Fragrance of the love you have defiled
I long to sleep,
I think that from a slumber like death,
I would awake as I once was
And lavish without shame.
Caress upon you, glowing and dark
To drown my sorrow there is no abyss,
However deep, that compares with your bed
There is no abyss, however deep,
That compares with your bed
I shall be a worker: that is the idea that holds me back when mad rage drives me towards the battle of Paris – where so many workers are still dying as I write to you! Work now? – never, never; I’m on strike.
I’m lousing myself up as much as I can these days. Why? I want to be a poet, and I am working to make myself a seer: you won’t understand this at all, and I hardly know how to explain it to you. The point is, to arrive at the unknown by the disordering of all the senses. The sufferings are enormous, but one has to be strong to be born a poet, and I have discovered I am a poet. It is not my fault at all. It is a mistake to say: I think. One ought to say: I am thought. Pardon the pun.
I is someone else. So much the worse for the wood if it find itself a violin, and contempt to the heedless who argue about something they know nothing about!
– From Greece to the romantic movement – in the Middle Ages – there are men of letters, versifiers. From Ennius to Theroldus, from Theroldus to Casimir Delavigne, it’s all rhymed prose, a game, the enfeeblement and glory of countless idiotic generations: Racine is the pure, strong, great man – If his rhymes had been effaced, and his hemistitches got mixed up, today the Divine Fool would be as unknown as any old author of Origins. After Racine the game gets crumby. It has been going on for two thousand years!
Neither joke nor paradox. My reason inspires me with more certitude on this subject than any Young-France ever had with rage. Besides, newcomers are free to condemn their ancestors: one is at home, and there’s plenty of time.
Romanticism has never been properly judged. Who was there to judge it? The Critics!! The Romantics? who proved so clearly that the song is very seldom the work, that is to say, the idea sung and intended by the singer.
For I is someone else. If brass wakes up a trumpet, it is not its fault. To me this is obvious: I witness the unfolding of my own thought: I watch it, I listen to it: I make a stroke of the bow: the symphony begins to stir in the depths, or springs on to the stage.
If the old fools had not discovered only the false significance of the Ego, we should not now be having to sweep away those millions of skeletons which, since time immemorial, have been piling up the fruits of their one-eyed intellects, and claiming themselves to be the authors of them!
In Greece, I say, verses and lyres give rhythm to action. After that, music and rhymes are a game, a pastime. The curious are charmed with the study of this past: many of them delight in reviving these antiquities – that’s their affair Universal mind has always thrown out its ideas naturally; men would pick up a part of these fruits of the brain: they acted through them, they wrote books through them: and so things went on, since man did not work on himself, either not yet being awake, or not yet in the fullness of the great dream. Writers, civil servants – author, creator, poet, that man never existed!
The first study for a man who wants to be a poet is the knowledge of himself, complete. He looks for his soul, inspects it, puts it to the test, learns it. As soon as he knows it, he must cultivate it! It seems simple: in every brain a natural development takes place; so many egoists proclaim themselves authors; there are plenty of others who attribute their intellectual progress to themselves! – But the soul has to be made monstrous, that’s the point: after the fashion of the comprachicos, if you like! Imagine a man planting and cultivating warts on his face.
I say that one must be a seer, make onself a seer.
The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself,he consumes all the poisons in him, and keeps only their quintessences. This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength, and during which he becomes the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed – the great learned one! – among men. – For he arrives at the unknown! Because he has cultivated his own soul – which was rich to begin with – more than any other man! He reaches the unknown, and even if, crazed, he ends up by losing the understanding of his visions, at least he has seen them! Let him die charging through those unutterable, unnameable things: other horrible workers will come; they will begin from the horizons where he has succumbed! . . .
– To continue:
So, then, the poet really is the thief of fire.
He is responsible for humanity, even for the animals; he must see to it that his inventions can be smelt, felt, heard. If what he brings back from down there has form, he brings forth form; if it is formless, he brings forth formlessness. A language has to be found – for that matter, every word being an idea, the time of the universal languages will come! One has to be an academician – deader than a fossil – to finish a dictionary of any language. Weak-minded people, beginning by thinking about the first letter of the alphabet, would soon rush into madness!
This [new] language would be of the soul, for the soul, containing everything smells, sounds, colours; thought latching on to thought and pulling. The poet would define the amount of the unknown awakening in the universal soul in his own time: he would produce more than the formulation of his thought or the measurement of his march towards Progress! An enormity who has become normal, absorbed by everyone, he would really be a multiplier of progress!
This future will, as you see, be materialistic – Always filled with Number and Harmony, these poems will be made to endure.
Eternal art will have its function, since poets are citizens. Poetry will no longer rhyme with action; it will be ahead of it!
Poets like this will exist! When the unending servitude of woman is broken, when she lives by and for herself, when man – hitherto abominable – has given her her freedom, she too will be a poet! Woman will discover part of the unknown! Will her world of ideas be different from ours? She will discover things strange and unfathomable, repulsive and delicious. We shall take them unto ourselves, we shall understand them.
Meanwhile let us ask the poet for the new – in ideas and in forms. All the bright boys will imagine they can soon satisfy this demand: – is not so!
every budding priest has the five hundred rhymes hidden away in the secrecy of a notebook. At fifteen, these outbursts of passion make boys lecherous, at sixteen they are already content to recite them with feeling; at eighteen, even at seventeen, every schoolboy who has the ability does a Rolla, writes a Rolla! Perhaps some still die of it.
Baudelaire is the first seer, king of poets, a real God! Unluckily he lived in too artistic a circle; and the form which is so much praised in him is trivial. Inventions from the unknown demand new forms.
the new school, called Parnassian, possesses two seers: Albert Merat and Paul Verlaine, a real poet. – So there you are.
[Reprinted in Ellmann & Feidelson, The Modern Tradition.]
Among the qualities, experiences, and attitudes constituting negritude, the most outstanding is the heritage of suffering. All literary expression of the black man has reference to this theme, as it is impossible to speak of him without recalling the historical fact that has marked him most deeply: servitude, either directly through slavery or indirectly through colonization. Conditioned, if not by the actual experience of slavery, at least by the knowledge of its existence as an integral part of his past, the black man feels himself doubly wronged by the complete gratuitousness of his condition. His feeling of innocence is frustrated by his position as victim since his past perpetuates itself in the present through other forms based on the same traditional principles. One of these forms is exile, an ordeal both physical and moral that produces the feeling of alienation. The drama of exile experienced by the young Senegalese student in the Paris of the thirties is one specific and fruitful instance of this form of suffering. This coincidence of man, moment, and circumstances constituted one of the sources of the awakening of the black man, an awakening that is in the process of converting the victim of destiny into the victim conscious of shaping his destiny.
A lyrical source par excellence, the exile of the black poet transcends the case of the classical lyric poet. It is the alienation of a man from himself, the alienation of an entire segment of humanity from man’s essential human dignity. History has thus imposed upon the black man a destiny inextricably bound to his pigmentation. Whether African, West Indian or American, the black man experiences this feeling of alienation to a degree proportionate to his cultural, geographical or civil estrangement. What coud be richer in lyric possibilities than this alienation in a man feeling the need of re-establishing contact with a unified world, the need of the equilibrium of an existence no longer ambiguous? It is this “suffering and desire combined” that is at the source of Senghorian negritude. The actual experience of exile followed by the analysis of its causes constitutes the first step toward the recognition of this negritude, which is both cause and effect. It was the constant opposition between his own sensitivity and values and those of Europe that led Senghor to analyze, conceptualize, and formulate into a credo those qualities proper to his mode of being. In the words of Sartre, “his negritude evolved from the state of immediate existence to that of a reflective state.”
The young Senghor’s arrival in Paris was a foreshadowing of the alienation he was destined to suffer. “It was in the cold, dreary October rain that I arrived one morning in Paris. And everything was gray, even the famous monuments. What a disappointment!” His adjustment was only partial. “In spite of all that I had read, the feeling of being in a foreign land was terrible, and got worse several weeks later when I took my seat in one of the amphitheatres of the Sorbonne.” The theme of exile pervades Senghor’s poetry, from this very first cultural shock throughout the more or less constant ordeal of the black man in a white world. He writes of exile in a variety of tones, from lamentation and personal grief to reproach; from disillusionment to anguish and espair.
let me rip
grab you by
let me ride
and on the
A couple of months ago, I attended a public lecture in the English Department at my college. The lecture was given by an emeritus professor, who’s also Connecticut’s most prominent contemporary poet. I was never a fan of her poetry because she writes in a vein that few Africans from the Continent relate to, but that’s exactly why I made a point of attending the lecture. It was, in fact, a masterclass of sorts, and the subject was something that I also never paid much mind in my own work when I was still writing, given as I was practically what in the visual arts we might call a self-taught or naive practitioner back when I still wrote poetry. The subject was scansion, that is, the craft of determining proper metrical length for a line of verse. I know it theoretically and rather vaguely, having taken classes in poetry appreciation all the way through college, but, poetry appreciation is quite different from creative writing class. You do not learn how to write poetry in a poetry appreciation class.
The lecture lasted just over an hour and a half, and like I said, it was a masterclass. I actually came away with a great many negative impressions of the writer, which I will write about some other time, but nonetheless you could tell why, in her time, she was a great teacher and still is. More importantly, I learnt a whole lot, from stuff that I took for granted to others that I was entirely unaware of. And I discovered some of the reasons African writers especially of my generation wrote–and mostly still write- poetry quite differently than contemporary American or Western poets.
One is that we scan and versify in fundamentally different ways. Most contemporary American poets–and possibly, some African poets who studied poetry writing formally, especially in the West–scan graphically or numerically, and in a proper regular fashion, while African writers like me versify by what one might call length of thought. In other words, in our verse the length of a line often corresponds to the length of a sentence. Should that become impracticable, we often find ourselves completely lost and simply winging it.
In effect, we versify same way that we build our cities, streets, and even nations, that is, randomly and with little clear guideline, strict planning, or regular pattern. As a matter of fact, we still mostly build our homes in same manner. Often, there’s no architectural blueprint or nobody pays it any mind. You have a basic idea: number of floors or stories, number of rooms, and a vague layout. With that, you break ground, pour your foundation, and have the contractor and his masons go at it!
Another reason is that we actually do view poetry quite differently. Contemporary Western writers and readers approach poetry as text: we approach it as sound. In effect, they write for sight, for silent scanning, while we still regard poetry in its original form. When we write, we do not write for the words and lines to be seen: we write for them to be verbalized and heard. That I prefer. It’s rather old fashioned, of course; in fact, entirely ancient and anachronistic, and has been for several decades. But we prefer it that way. I like it that way. I like it when I hear Thomas read “And death shall have no dominion” or Eliot read from ‘The Waste Land” or Neruda read from ‘Veinte Poemas’ though I often cannot understand the words, which is how I imagine Lorca and Tagore might sound. That’s how Igbo bards sound, albeit with musical accompaniment: Lorca and Neruda and Tagore were also set to music. Try setting Rita Dove to music!
And when you write to be heard, you write very differently than when you’re writing simply to be read. You think of cadence, because it is oratory, and oratory does not follow graphic scansion. Oratory relies on cadence and cadence is sound, cadence is music, cadence is what Lorca famously described as “duende”: cadence is soul. That’s why many Africans are turned off by contemporary American poetry; because, to us, it lacks soul. Oratorical cadence has it’s own entirely different metric system and it rises and falls and rises allover again, and only comes to rest whenever and wherever it may. Cadence has no respect for a strict pattern of five units to a line.
But there the problem arises, because where there are no strict rules, there’s also little rigor or discipline. There, quite often, there’s a sense that you can’t be lost if you don’t know where you’re going. You just go. The result is often akin to the chaos and mayhem that Fela Kuti described in his song, ODOO (Overtake done overtake Overtake). At least, to the degree that one considers regular pattern and rigor essential to poetry without necessarily apotheosizing the iambic pentameter.
That’s the other thing I learnt from the lecture: that anyone may invent or devise their own metric system or scanning rules, as long as they observe some conscious, regular method and do so with discipline. Should they decide–decide is important here–to ignore all that like some altogether still great poets did, then, they had better bring another element of substance to the work that’s worthy of attention.
If I had to return to writing poetry now, I doubt I’d ever be able to find the discipline of a Derek Walcott. However, I certainly made a note to pay closer attention to scansion.
On December 29 one of our greatest living poets, Vonani Bila, was shot four times by thugs in his home village of Elim. He has fractures on his upper right thigh and right arm, and a bullet still in his left leg. Please send messages of support to email@example.com
from “Ancestral Wealth”
If you were alive today, madala –
You would tell me about that rope
That roamed in your nightmares
The rope that made you so impatient
That made you hate everything about your wife
The rope that made you hit her
And want to kill her with a knife
The rope of which prophet Muvhangeli said:
U nga yi rhwaleli loko u yi vona endleleni ya wena
(Don’t pick it up when you find it placed on your path)
The tough rope of wicked relatives
Who had long sized your neck
If you were alive today, madala –
You would tell me how you and Ngholeni picked up that dead rabbit
Early in the morning on your way to work
How you skinned the rabbit with delight
How you wanted to cook it for lunch
When suddenly a strange man came
And touched your forehead
And said, “and hi yena papantsongo wa Frank.”
Then your forehead ached and pounded
And when you came back home from work
The same strange man
Hobbled to your house
All he said was one sentence:
I needed to find Frank’s brother’s place
Then he vanished
Stealing your heart
Placing it in a cave
Planting a cockerel’s heart in you
And you coughed and coughed
Papa, I know it took us twenty years to erect your tombstone
All along the wind was blowing you away
The sun was burning you
Your pillow was your hand
But now Bila, Mhlahlandlela, rest in peace
Do not open the grave and come home wearing shorts
Since you left, your wife has remained in the house
I’ve not seen a man sitting on your chair
It’s still your house
Full of trees and vegetables
7/8 u ya lithanda isaka la mazambani
U ya lithanda isaka la mazambani
This essay examines the influences of Stephen Bantu Biko and Black Consciousness on (Black) poetry in South Africa, focusing particularly on the points of convergence and divergence, connection and disconnection between the poetry movement of the era between the 1960s and 1980s—the so-called “Black Consciousness era”—and the post-1994 poetry resurgence. It looks at the aesthetic, stylistic, and thematic content of the works of some of the prominent “BC-era” poets (socalled Soweto Poets) and the thoughts and works of some of the current generation of South African poets. The chapter also explores the issue of the representations of Black Consciousness and Biko in the works of these poets and concludes with some thoughts on connecting the Black Consciousness era and post-1994 poetry movements.
The life and thoughts of Stephen Bantu Biko have been immortalized in various works and mediums of literary, visual, and performed arts such as songs, books, websites, theatre plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, clothing labels, and graffiti on the walls in various townships of South Africa declaring: Biko Lives! It is apt that literature and the arts be one of the media to serve as a tapestry for the invincibility and immortality of Steve Biko’s message of self-definition, self-realization, selflove, self-respect, self-reliance, and self-expression as a potent weapon for the physical and psychological liberation of oppressed and downtrodden people. The development of Black culture and thus Black literature was one of the main tenets of the Black Consciousness Movement. Through the influence of Biko and the philosophy of Black Consciousness the poets and writers of the late 1960s and early 1970s saw themselves as spokespersons for blacks in the country, refusing to be beholden to “proper” grammar and style, searching for black aesthetics and literary values, and afro-centric artistic and cultural expressions rooted in the historical-material experiences of Black people and grounded on the socioeconomic and political realities of South Africa/Azania and the global struggles of oppressed people.
The literary revival spurred by the Black Consciousness Movement came in the aftermath of “the Drum decade,” referred to as such because of the significant role played by Drum magazine with its publication of the expository, investigative, and sociopolitical journalistic writings of the likes of Henry Nxumalo and Nat Nakasa, short stories by writers of the caliber of Es’kia Mphahlele, and satirical pieces by the likes of Casey Motsisi. Many of the Drum decade writers exposed the brutalities and banalities of settler/colonial domination and apartheid/capitalism. The fallout from the Sharpeville massacre led to exile for many of these writers and artists. The political oppression of the resistance itself led to a new growth of Black South African literature mainly inspired by the new consciousness and new forms of struggle that emanated from the birth of the Black Consciousness Movement under the leadership of SASO-BPC and people like Stephen Bantu Biko, Mthuli Ka Shezi, Barney Pityana, Mosiuwa Patrick “Terror” Lekota, Ben Khoapa, Mualusi Mpumlwana, Winnie Motlalepule Kgware, Aubrey Nchaupe Mokoape, and Strinivasa “Strini” Raju Moodley.
The Rediscovery of the Reality of Being Black in the World
Playwright, poet, and journalist Strinivasa “Strini” Raju Moodley (also known as “Connection,” the name he acquired on Robben Island) was a member of the black radical theatre group The Clan when he met Biko, and was instrumental in the formation of the first union of black theatre, the South African Black Theatre Union (SABTU), and the Theatre Council of Natal (TECON). The Clan was made popular by its satirical depiction of Black people’s lives and the inequities and injustices in South Africa in plays like “Black and White,” “Resurrection,” and “Africa Hurrah!”—a collaboration with the Jazz group Dashiki that fused poetry in its music. A former member of The Clan and a stalwart of the BC movement, Asha Moodley is of the view that the noticeable situation of inequality was responsible for the politicization of Black students and Black writers and the Black Community in general. She asserts that the works of writers and artists were a symbolic reflection of the rediscovery of blackness and a reflection of the general heightened state of awareness of “the reality of being Black.” Asha Moodley recounts that in addition to its overtly political and revolutionary message, what was radical about their theatre at that time was its integration of drama, music, poetry, and visual art, its reliance more on improvisation than on props, and the interaction and dialogue between the audience and the performers. Moodley refers to this form of theatre as “total theatre.” She mentions that the effective use of humor in the writings of Drum decade writers like Casey Motsisi appealed to them. She also cites writers and poets of the Negritude movement like Diop, Senghor, and Césaire as one of the influences in their works. Moodley indicates that they found affirmation from reading the works of black writers in The Classic, the earliest literary journal of the time.1 In later years, South African literary practitioners became influenced by Black American and British poets such as Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Mutabaruka, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Gil Scott Heron, Amiri Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones) and The Last Poets— one of the earliest poetic voices of influence on hip-hop. The post-1976 era also saw writers like Gcina Mhlophe tapping into traditional African folktales and fables as a medium of popular education and alternative entertainment.
According to Moodley, The Clan’s reputation led to the group being invited to perform at BC movement events, and ultimately to the participation of some of the members, including Strini Moodley and herself, in the formal structures of the movement. Although the writers and artists operated independently of the movement, the BC movement played a significant role in the development of writers by establishing journals such as Black Perspective and Black Creativity and Development, and the Black Review. These provided an annual review of the state of affairs in the country as seen through the eyes of Black people, and therefore countered the often jaundiced and jazzed-up view presented in the mainstream media. Moodley adds that they also organized biannual national drama festivals at Orient hall in Durban where groups like Wits Drama Society and the Serpent Players performed. Staffrider magazine became the dominant forum for the publication of BC-inspired and BC-oriented literature, mostly in the form of poetry and short stories. The Soweto uprising was the pinnacle point of the new consciousness and the creation of a new form of Black person—free of the mental chains and infused with a sense of dignity and pride as well as the spirit of resilience and resistance. Sipho Sipamla, Mongane Wally Serote, Mafika Pascal Gwala, and Don Mattera paved the way and inspired a myriad of followers, most notably poet-performance artist Ingoapele Madingoane; painter and musician Matsemela Manaka; the fire-brand word-bomber Lesego Rampolokeng; and the renowned Mzwakhe Mbuli. Mzwakhe, who became closely associated with the structures of the Congress Movement and became known as the people’s poet in the 1980s, popularized the idea of doing oral poetry over music.
Black Consciousness and the Resurgence of Poetry in the Late 1960s and Early 1970s
With its emphasis on psychological liberation and self-reliance, the Black Consciousness movement became a rallying point for cultural reclamation, cultural rejuvenation and artistic production. Apart from its message of political consciousness, the BC movement articulated a message of cultural and religious awakening as reflected in the questioning of mainstream Christianity and the development of Black Theology (BT) that rejected the status quo to produce a new Christian paradigm geared toward revolutionizing both the material and cultural structure of South Africa. Writers of the BC movement period were in the forefront of heeding that cultural call and poetry and plays became the major genres of that period. Couched in graphic language designed to arouse the emotions of listeners, their poems were often performed at political rallies.
The first poetry book to be published by a black poet in this era is most probably Oswald Mtshali’s The Sound of a Cowhide Drum, which was an appeal for sympathy for the plight of poor black people. Sipho Sepamla was at first considered a “contemplative” poet, but by the time of The Soweto I Love (1977) his poetic persona fully identified with the oppressed. Sepamla also wrote a novel of this turbulent time, A Ride on the Whirlwind (1981), several other novels, and his Selected Poems were published in 1984. The early poems of Mongane Wally Serote published in volumes like Yakhal’inkomo (1972) and Tsetlo (1974) are short and sharp, and tackle the life and attitudes of a politically aware black person, looking at his society and its discontentment. In later volumes, Serote begins to develop an epic, incantatory voice with the long poems of Behold Mama, Flowers (1978) and Come and Hope with Me (1994), winner of the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. Don Mattera’s poems in the poetry anthology Azanian Love Song became anthems of the struggle, recording the pain and anguish of the oppressed and the injustices of the system, but also infusing the spirit of hope and resistance in the oppressed black majority. The volume also includes beautiful love poems as well as poems simply celebrating the beauty of humanity. Although writers like Es’kia Mphahlele have attributed the drastic shift toward poetry among those South African writers who lived and worked inside South Africa in the 1960s to the fact that the immediacy of the political realities demanded poetry which d id not need the long, consistent work of prose, Nadine Gordimer and others have argued that the poetic form was s imply less obvious and would bypass government censorship.
However, poetry did get banned; the first collection of poems banned under the Publication Act was Cry Rage by James Mathews and Gladys Thomas. Subsequent poetry books suffered the same fate. According to Amatoritsero,2 this was probably because poets, particularly the poets of the Black Consciousness period, were too emotionally close to the subject and not subtle but rather explicit in their choice of diction and imagery. Amatoritsero asserts that perhaps one good reason for the persistence of poetry, apart from the fact that the government tolerated it more readily since they assumed it reached a smaller audience, was the performance culture that began to emerge in the face of ironclad control and the lack of adequate publication outlets. He reminds us that literature anywhere in Africa was actually “orature” in several forms like parables, fables, work songs, praise songs, lullabies, genealogy chants, the folk ballad, the dirge, the abuse, and stories—all verbally transferred generation to generation. In many ways, the advent of performance poetry (now popularly known as the spoken word scene, and tapping the slam poetry and hip-hop traditions) could be seen as poetry returning to its oral roots in the form of readings and performances, in the absence of traditional mediums of orature.
The Thematic and Aesthetic Concerns of Post-1976 Poetry
The stylistic, aesthetic, and thematic concerns of the Black Consciousness poets were based in the idea of a complete break with the economic base and sociocultural superstructure of settler/colonial capitalism and aimed at recreating political and cultural expression of the South African reality, rooted in historical-material experiences of Black People and defined by the concrete and tangible conditions of the black majority. This meant confronting the white power structure and providing inspiration for black solidarity as an instrument of Black Power, as well as destroying the complex of inferiority and the culture of subservience—and on their ashes building a culture of resilience and resistance. Although the stylistic and aesthetic part of this project meant breaking with Eurocentric conventions of literature— which included deliberately breaking the English language, mixing it with indigenous African languages, township slang, and fusing the literary genres—the thematic part meant engaging and disengaging every aspect and apparatus of the system and putting together the building blocks for the creation of a new society.
Peter Horn observes:
To the black poet, as to any black, the white power structure is visible in very concrete terms; just as the American negro “in the ghetto sees his white landlord come only to collect exorbitant rents and fail to make necessary repairs . . . sees the white policeman on the corner brutally manhandle the black drunkard in a doorway, and at the same time accept a pay-off from one of the white-controlled rackets . . . sees the streets in the ghetto lined with uncollected garbage, and he knows that the powers which could send trucks in to collect that garbage are white.”3
In confronting state control over South African black life, the poetry raged against constant supervision by the white government and by white employers, and therefore poured scorn and ridicule upon the main tool of this constant surveillance of black people’s every move—the “pass,” a document which determined where one was allowed to live, work and travel. In a satirical poem, “To Whom it May Concern,” Sipho Sepamla expounds t he absurdities o f this instrument o f white power. Mafika Pascal Gwala gave poetic voice to the cries of black people whose loss of the dompass (or forgetting it at home) earned them a “Kwela Ride”— a ride in the police van—to the next jail, which, as described in a poem by Oswald Mtshali, could easily become a “Ride upon the Death Chariot.” This poetry did not just record the injustices but exposed the fact that the power structures perpetuated and entrenched the master-servant, rich-poor relations between white and black South Africa because of the necessary relationship between white privilege and black poverty.
Speak magazine argued:
That standards of whites are high because those of the black are low, and that the total machinery of the state, all its apartheid laws, are necessary to protect this privilege against the demands of the black worker. If the white can benefit from plentiful and undemanding labour, it is because the blacks can be exploited at will and are not protected by the laws of the country; if he can easily obtain positions of power and influence, it is because they are reserved for him and others are excluded from them.”4
Black Consciousness-inspired poetry portrayed the reality of the underprivileged and exposed the hollowness of attempts to justify oppression on the basis of the fallacious notion that black people cannot rule themselves and should be under the tutelage of white people. It also dealt with the reality that white supremacy thrived on a black inferiority complex and internalized sense of submissiveness, and the realization that psychological emancipation of Black people required new political strategies and a new consciousness that would combat the realities of racist society effectively. The greatest obstacle to this spirit of self-assertion was that centuries of colonial and imperialist domination, and decades of apartheid capitalism, had imposed on black people a “rigid discipline” of unconditional submission, an innate sense of inferiority and paralyzing fear of the white man and the power structures of white supremacism.
Mongane Wally Serote’s “Anonymous Throbs + A Dream” is a poetic articulation of the break with the culture of submissiveness and of a search for a new consciousness and for forms of struggle other than nonviolent, passive resistance:
I did this world great wrong
with my kindness of a dog
my heart like a dog’s tongue
licking too many hands, boots and bums.
Although many critics have dismissed the BC-era poets as protest poets, many of the poems, like Serote’s “Sunset,” moved beyond lamenting the conditions of oppression and looked forward to the triumph of the forces of liberation, and also painted a vision of the kind of society a liberated Azania would be. The certainty o f autopian tomorrow i s significantly symbolized by black night and not white day, yet there is also an expression of the poet’s fear of terror, even necessary terror: The humanistic ethos of the poetry is expressed by the articulation of a black poet’s fear that he may become as brutal, as insensitive, and as callous as the white oppressor, and in doing what is needed he might lose his essential humanity. Serote’s poetic contemplation of the dialectics of violence and counter-violence, inhumanity and arising counter-inhumanity, best expressed this fear. Horn observes that the theme of the cleansing power of rain and storm, of the rebirth of the barren and drought-stricken field by water, is a common theme in South African poetry, denoting (in the case of black poets) the total upheaval to restore the life of humanity of African society, the destruction of “white lies” by “black truth,” as in Stanley Motjuwadi’s poem, “White Lies.”5
The Relationship Between the Poets and the Political Structures of the BC Movement
Apparently, the Black Consciousness influence was the result of general political education and mass conscientization efforts of the BC movement rather than a product of an attempt to recruit writers and artists into the fold of the BC movement. Though almost every poet wrote politically-inspired and socially-engaged poetry with clear indication of the BC influence, not all poets operated within the formal structures of the BC movement. Some writers eventually joined the BC movement formally while other writers and groups simply operated autonomously and independently but with some link with and support from the Black Consciousness movement, which helped to organize venues for performances and provided them with platforms at rallies. This interdependent relationship between the BC movement and the writers and artists is confirmed by Lefifi Tladi’s account:
Dashiki became a very important group because we were fusing music and poetry and our music was more towards malopo, this traditional music. The poetry was socially committed . . . Dashiki worked within the political structure [of] Black Consciousness with absolute independence. The BC movement used to book places where we could perform, whatever we wanted. That was one of the best outreach programmes. From there we started organising other groups like Batsumi, Medumo, ya bo Bra Paul Motaung, the late. And o ther g roups l ike Medupe. We went into universities broadening the consciousness of students, and organising exhibitions . . . Dashiki was an important band of that era.6
According to Mzi Mahola, theatre performers like John Kani, Malefetse Bogolane, George Luse, Nomhle Nkonyeni, Winston Ntshona of the Serpent Players, and Mzwandile Maqhina of the Black Slaves and others like Khaya Mqhayisa were members of the BC movement but were not directed or mandated by the BC movement. Mahola is of the view that although the BC movement d id not necessarily recruit writers to join it, writers were drawn into the movement by the platform and the opportunity to be heard as well as the chance for growth. Mzi Mahola, who experimented with poetry writing when he was doing Matric in 1969 and joined the BC movement in 1970, says his writing was encouraged in the BC movement where he was told to write in English because black people did not have to be told that they were suffering; that it was white people who caused our suffering and, therefore, should be told. However, it is apparent that there was a voice within the movement for writing in African languages.7
Rismathi Mathonsi recounts that at one of the writers’ meetings, discussions centered on the use of English and African languages, and that people like Sipho Sipamla and himself advocated for more writings in African languages.8 Though he does not have any work published in an African language, Sipamla is renowned for writing in a mix of English, Afrikaans, and isiXhosa and was a major influence on the writers of the 1980s like Ike Muila, who only writes in Iscamtho, the South African township-born slang—so-called tsotsi taal. Poet, jazz artist, and painter Lefifi Tladi—who was a leading member of Dashiki—writes most of his poems in Setswana and experiments with proverbial and idiomatic expressions. He says this is his way of highlighting the richness and depth of African languages:
I was telling my young students that we need a new generation that is going to write poetry that draws from African proverbs, and which is able to translate to our contemporary setting. I used as an example these few lines of a poem: “Gophuthulla metsweditswedi ya hlago, kego ngatholla masedi a sedimosang ditoro” which means something l ike “Unfolding the oasis of nature is to share the light that makes dreams visible.” The beauty and depth of this is that for any person to see anything, you need light, but what kind of light is it that makes dreams visible? This shows you how much we can go into our languages. Our languages are fantastic! There are so many ways to say things; I find my language more sophisticated. Our linguists actually need to invent new symbols to express some of this wealth . . . when it comes to ways of thinking for example, African languages have no “he” or “she.” So they suggest no gender “hierarchy.”9
The presence of writers of the era who wrote in African languages and their commitment to the development of indigenous African languages, as captured in Tladi’s words, indicates that the BC movement did not impose rigid and fixed rules and/or prescriptions on writers and artists in as far as the choice of language is concerned. Actually, many writers have observed the fact that many musical groups and artists started writing in their own languages more in the 1970s. Mzi Mahola traces his journey into the BC movement to listening to Biko give a public address at Fort Hare in 1968 when he was doing matric at Lovedale. He declares that the BC movement inculcated in the individual a sense of being, pride, dignity, and self-confidence. “It changed people’s passive and negative attitude of viewing themselves as inferior and made them feel equal with whites. Its ideology was premised on the legitimization of blackness.”10
Mahola also mentions that his writing matured from the influence, advice, and evaluation of BC movement members like Barney Pityana and John Kani. “Either you had talent or there was no platform for your poor work. There was a program of encouraging and stimulating cultural awareness in black people. Individuals were encouraged to read and write and to express themselves in crafts and visual arts,” says Mahola, lamenting that culture has vanished. He says the lack of interest in reading has resulted in the loss of the love of languages. And hence the poor quality of the manuscripts that many of the current generation of writers produce. However, Mahola is quick to add that though the Black Consciousness era produced inspiring cultural expressions, the repressive conditions and police brutality served to demoralize and demotivate writers. For example, Mahola’s first poetry manuscript was confiscated by the police in August 1975, and this devastated him so much that he spent the next fourteen years without writing a single line of poetry.
Perhaps such repression, complemented by the dictates of market forces and the trappings of capital in the mainstream entertainment industry, played a major role in some of the poets, playwrights, and artists toning down their political messages later in their careers. However, poets like Mzwakhe Mbuli maintained the culture of social commentary poetry in the 1980s and inspired many in the younger generation of writers.
The Response of Poetry to Global Capitalism and Neoliberalism
With the advent and euphoria of a democratic South Africa, the huge political audiences waned and less attention was paid to poetry as compared to other literary genres in as far as government and corporate funding and prominence in academia and the media was concerned. Poetry continued to be housed mainly in small journals, websites, and café venues, and prose remained the medium that commanded more publicity and commentary in academia, with attention and discussions centered on established names like Coetzee and Gordimer, a long with a number of emerging voices such as Zakes Mda, Ivan Vladislavic and Sindiwe Magona. Kelwyn Sole observes that the prose writers in the first decade of democracy have tended to concentrate their attention on themes that resonate with and seem to offer space for representation of a number of social issues that have been widely discussed in public life and in the media since 1994.11 He asserts that perhaps most academic attention has been focused in the direction of prose because most novels and short stories are impregnated with narratives of reconciliation, multiculturalism, examination of memory, and the redefinition of identity. However, Sole argues that such themes are not absent in poetry, and that in actual fact the younger generation of poets seems prepared to both expand its social purview and experiment with form. Although heeding the post-apartheid mood of exploring human life more multidimensionally rather than merely through political narratives, many of these poets continued to lay emphasis on and put into practice the notion that poets also have roles of social responsibility and political commentary. The political developments post-1994 helped to ferment and sustain socio political commentary poetry. The shift of the ANC in power—from its previous position of “national democracy plus economic egalitarianism” to unbridled capitalism/free-marketism—unsettled popular expectations of an equitable distribution of wealth and resources and the opening of doors to education, health, and other social services in a new dispensation. The most significant element of this shift was the adoption of the Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy, effectively meaning the adoption of an orthodox neo-liberal framework as both a policy and vision of the government, and therefore the erosion of the relatively welfare- oriented principles of the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP). At the local level the implementation of neo-liberal policies resulted in the poorest of the poor being victims of massive retrenchments and escalating levels of unemployment, electricity and water cutoffs, evictions, and outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, and klepsella. Although ordinary people are the ones who feel the squeeze of neoliberal capitalist policies the most, and therefore have a much clearer perception of the barbarism and corruption of global capitalism, they seldom speak out and they are rarely listened to. Kelwyn Sole is of the view that literature can act as a vehicle for such ordinary views and that poetry has done this in an eloquent fashion in South Africa. He cites the critical voices of poets like Mxolisi Nyezwa, Nkwapa Moloto, Sphokazi Mthathi, Vonani Bila, Phedi Tlhobolo and even members of the ruling party like Mongane Wally Serote and Jeremy Cronin. Their works frankly question the meaning of freedom in the new South Africa and highlight the contradictions of the new dispensation, the vagaries of the market, the enormous chasm between the quality of the lives of the poor and the rich, the corruption of power, the pomp and decadence of the emergent black bourgeoisie and the mediocrity of “parrot poetry.” However, there is no homogeneity with regard to the relationship of poets/poetry with the political elite and corporate capital, or as far as poetry’s response to the seductions of power and the vicissitudes of the market.
Ever since Zolani Mkiva rose to prominence in 1990 by praising Nelson Mandela and later becoming ordained Imbongi Yesizwe, poet to the nation, and the president’s poet laureate, a number of oral poets see
their task as the public praising of leaders and their policies, curtainraising for every state function or corporate event. The most well-known poet of the 1983–1990 era of political turbulence, Mzwakhe Mbuli, even performed praises on television advertisements for commercial products and parastatals, such as Cremora Coffee Creamer and Spoornet (South Africa Rail).
Spoken Word and Social Activism Post–1994
The era of political independence, with its emphasis on freedom of expression and the opening of access to information, saw many young people getting interested in poetry. Many of these young people were influenced by hip-hop and the s lam poetry phenomenon. Only a few remnants of the BC generation of writers are still active today and, according to Mzi Mahola, “one can surmise that the negation of literature in the class and disappearance of the culture of reading brings about the demise of BC
socially engaging poetry” (my own emphasis). Mahola attributes this to the fact that the Censorship Board of the Nationalist government had cleaned the shelves of all relevant literature, and periodically banned
certain publications and journals like Time Magazine and South African Outlook which played major roles in inspiring and informing communities, and to the current absence of projects similar to the tertiary programs run by the BC movement. He explains:
At tertiary institutions the BC movement had programs of developing and encouraging public speaking where popular guest speakers were invited to deliver speeches; debates formed part of the program as well as mock trials for law students. It was varsity culture and norms to come across public debates where students would be analyzing topical issues in public places. Alternative media and popular journals encouraged people to read so as to empower and broaden their minds. All that is history now. Today one
does not see the role of literature in developing writers and educating our people because it has been neglected from lower levels. In certain schools and provinces literature has become anathema to learners.12
Mahola sees the slam poets as filling the vacuum that was left behind after the gradual exit of the socially-engaging BC protest poetry of the pre-1994 era. He explains that the present generation has other problems to deal with. However, Mahola laments that the expression of their problems
tends to take the form of an articulation of personal frustrations. He s ays, “The BC poetry w as meant to conscientize, mobilize, moralize, politicize, inspire and motivate. It sought to spread and promote BC
philosophy and ideas. Spoken word seems to attract youth only and it does not carry any particular message or philosophy espoused by the community. The stage is for individualism where DJs battle. Unlike BC poetry, spoken word relies on musical backing, rhyming, repetition, and weird language which are meant to entertain. Spoken word is not meant to be analyzed and understood but to entertain.”13
This sweeping generalization about spoken word and slam poetry ignores the plurality and diversity of voices within the spoken word scene. The label “slam poet” is misleading when applied to many of the poets who also write so-called “page poetry,” essays, and drama, but who use the spoken word/slam poetry platform to reach out to a wider audience, and also to free poetry from the elitist enclave of “high art.” Unfortunately, the media and academia (preoccupied by labels) impose the slam poetry / hip-hop label on any young poet or any poet who also uses the stage as a platform of sharing his poetry. Hence Lebo Mashile’s poetic combat of this stereotype: “Shake off the dust of ‘slam poetry’ expectations / And relieve the green words / where the world is no obstacle to my desire.” In Durban, cultural workers, social activists, poets, MCs, and hiphop activists within Izimbongi Zesimanje/Nowadays Poets, Slam Poetry Operation Team (SPOT), the Ghetto Prophecy Movement (GPM), and Young Basadzi Projects (YPB) are at the forefront of attempts to use art as a platform and medium of popular education, political conscientization, social development, and economic empowerment. One significant program is the Ghetto Kids project initiated by the GPM band led by Sandile Sibiya. This project imparted life-skills education to displaced children (so-called “street kids”) through the vehicles of hip-hop, break-dance, graffiti, gumboots, creative writing and disc-jockeying. According to MC and hip-hop activist Bullet, the aim of the project was to move beyond pity and sympathy to embrace the displaced children as a part of the broader Ghetto Prophecy Movement, which included GPM, its fan-base, and all the artists, groups, and social activists participating in the project. The key aspect of the project was to give the children a sense of being and belonging, and to unlock their hidden potentialities, capacities, and talents and help them to use these for their own empowerment. Miracle (Sphephelo Mbhele), who joined the movement in 2001, recounts: “Ghetto Kids became something else. It grew and embraced kids from all over. We had ‘white’ kids breaking with ‘street’ kids. We had parents initially dropping off kids but now staying through the whole show. Ghetto Kids had rules like no smoking or drinking of alcohol during the session, none of the older cats were allowed to perform, etc.”14 Miracle and Zorro (Lwazi Xaba) have initiated Izwi poetry nights, a series of collaborative performances between poets and jazz bands at the Zulu Lounge, inaugurated with a performance on February 1, 2007. SPOT, headed by DJ Cool-fire (Eric Nkosinathi Hadebe), conducts creative writing workshops and s lamjams in high schools and a lso uses Slam Showcases to address issues like HIV/AIDS, poverty, and homelessness. Members of the Nowadays Poets have participated in programs such as the Fatherhood Project and were also commissioned by the eThekwini Municipality to run the Creative Ink project, a part of the Urban Renewal Programme in the Inanda, Ntuzuma Kwamashu (INK) area. The Young Basadzi Project has run several creative writing workshops in high schools and has collaborated with various NGOs in community outreach projects. In 2006, the YBP published a collection of poetry and prose by young South African women.
A careful look at the performed poetry/spoken word/slam poetry scene and some of the recently published poetry books would reveal that there are a variety of voices with a socially-engaging message inspired by the ethos of Black Consciousness, A frocentricity, and Pan-Africanism a s well a s anticapitalist, feminist and/or womanist, and environmental concerns. Among these voices one can include Kgafela Oa Magogodi (Thy Condom Come, I Mike What I Like), Vonani Bila (Magicstan Fires, In the Name of Amandla), Lebogang Mashile (In a Ribbon of Rhythm), Mzi Mahola—one of the few BC-era poets still active on the literary scene—(Dancing in the Rain), Myesha Jenkins (Breaking Surface), and Bandile Gumbi (Pangs of Initiation). A typical example of a satirical take on the corrupting effect of power and the lures of capital on leaders is found in Magogodi’s poem “No More Carrots,” which shows how the system dangles material wealth and offers of high offices like a carrot to co-opt and corrupt conscientious people. In his debut poetry CD, Magogodi paraphrases Biko’s famous signature, “I write what I like” into I Mike What I Like. The title-poem is a poetic testament of the poet’s resolve not to be a parrot poet and his refusal to let his literary expression be dictated by political correctness. Anticapitalist activist, poet, and publisher Vonani Bila’s poetry is marked by its expression of sympathy and empathy for the most marginalized and underground sections of society.
Another important feature of Bila’s poetry is its narratives of village anecdotes and legends that capture everyday life experience in rural Limpopo, particularly Elim Village, as well as its tributes to celebrated and unsung practitioners of the literary, visual, and performing arts—Jackson Hlungwani, Lucy Shivambu, Noria Mabasa, John Baloyi, Willi Mangayi, Obed Ngubeni, and Elias Baloyi—mostly from the Limpopo Province. Bila is also renowned for his poetic critique of neoliberal capitalism and the Washington consensus agenda, particularly the squeeze of neoliberal policies on the poorest of the poor in South Africa and the world:
name of Amandla / tell me what has changed in this village / the tap is dry/
coughs hot air/the pump is off/granny has no cash to buy diesel/she walks
distances to draw dirty water/in the still pool/ in the poisoned dam / where
people share water with animals.”15
Bila’s boldness comes out in a critical
look at freedom struggle heroes who are regarded as holy cows by many
African poets. He asks Mandela troubling questions in “Mandela Have You
Ever Wondered,” and is very frank with Mugabe in “Dear Gabriel”:
I don’t care
how many tobacco & flower white farmers
the war vet-chefs ambushed & butchered last night
nor how many shops were torched
not even the rise & fall of Hitler hunzwi bothers me
nor the aborted & bogus Lancaster house agreement
nor how many foreigners & funders have fled the country
I care about men and women by the roadside
who walk from Harare to Johannesburg on foot
swimming across the crocodile infested limpopo
braving the mewing wild cats
& the pecking vultures
victims of the roving green fly.
Bila’s poem “Mr President, Let the Babies Die” has effectively become an anthem within the circles of the anti-capitalist social movements. It was performed at the World Social Forum in Brazil and is quoted in full at the end of Patrick Bond’s critique of South Africa’s neo-liberal trajectory, Talk Left, Walk Right:
This is the millennium plan
followed by declarations and slogans
poor men and women goaded by the western whip
dawn of a new century
the rich get richer
we can only sell our breasts and thighs for a living
I’m scared of urban beasts
their tongues are too sharp
in the meantime
ghetto babies die in public toilets.16
Mahola’s is a patriotic voice but outspoken in its criticism of the leader ship and populace. He tackles themes such as corruption, moral degeneration, talk of an African renaissance, the aloofness of the erstwhile freedom fighters from the masses, and the lack of accountability. The latter is aptly captured in the poem “Impassable Bridge”:
I phoned for an MP
A former bosom friend
His secretary asked
In connection with what
It punctured my ego
I felt my manhood shrinking.17
In “In a Ribbon of Rhythm,” television personality and poet Lebo Mashile articulates the joys and sorrows of being a (black)woman in a patriarchal and male-centric world, celebrates the beauty, resilience, and resourcefulness of women, and gives voice to the stories and songs/cries of ordinary women. She calls on women to “tell your story / let it nourish you / sustain you / and claim you / tell your story / let it twist and remix your shattered heart / tell your story / until your past stops tearing your present apart.” Her call is for every child to know she is “wrapped in a ribbon of rhythm” and her mission is “to show pretty black girls / how to look at their hearts / with eyes blaring full blast / the way you did / together we can build a bridge / to the promises in their faces / and pull them towards poems / by pretty black girls / wearing the crown of change.”18
Lebogang Mashile’s colleague in the Feela Sister Spoken Word Collective, Myesha Jenkins, breaks the private/public, personal/social dichotomy, articulating and capturing the human side o f social issues like w omen abuse, the disempowerment of women, and patriarchal and sexist practices and stereotypes. She celebrates the connectedness of the black experience and the resilient spirit of black people in “Diaspora,” rages against war in “Fighting men,” and declares her love for revolutionary women (Dora Maria Tellez, Nora Astorga, Haydee Santamaria, Asanta Aguilar, Nguyen Thi Binh, Laila Khalid, Thenjiwe Mthintso, Sheila Weinberg) in “Revolutionary Woman.”19
Bandile Gumbi describes herself as a guerrilla poet and defines her poetry as “conversations with myself.” In the poetry collection Pangs of Initiation, Gumbi addresses the politics and complexity of identity, interrogates art, poetry, and freedom, and highlights the contradictions of the new South Africa and the dangers of assimilation:
“We are definitely stuck /
between the s’s / of assimilation / a banana is an exotic fruit in africa / when
chasing / coconut dreams.”20
The poem “After the Fact” evokes the spirit of Biko to triumph above the commodification and commercialization of his name on the alter of “bumper sticker consciousness.” Here the poet rages against the transformation of former freedom fighters into corporate fat cats and laments the demise of the struggle: “Someone seems to be shouting / Biko is in parliament / driving a Yengeni / living in yuppiedom / these are definitely post times /vibrations: struggle my life! / burned with
the 80s / but the phoenix is yet to rise from the ashes.”
For Gumbi, the hopeless and desperate characteristics of black people’s lives in the new South Africa marks “the death of Black Consciousness”:
He lap-danced / To the jukebox tunes / Home of the brave / With his head buried in sand dune / BC, He! Bantu! / Ngiyamgcoba!
Post-Struggle Praise-Singing and Performance Poetry
In post-1994 South Africa, the praise poetry genre was repopularized
with the huge prospects for government and corporate funding and the
lucrative chances of being praise-singers for the president, premiers,
mayors, and ministers, and official advertisers/ambassadors of particular
corporate products/companies. The mass media, with its proclivity
to promote mediocrity and to churn out instant celebrities, plays a critical
role in promoting poetry for its own sake as opposed to the poetry
of commitment. Although many of these poets raise contemporary
issues like HIV/AIDS, sexist and patriarchal practices, gender-based
violence, and poverty and inequality, a lot of them are either courtier
clowns and praise poets or simply escape into the world of neo-romanticism
away from socioeconomic and political issues emanating from the
neocolonial, neoliberal capitalist dispensation. The mainstream corporate
world and government and civil society organizations have all
recognized the power of the spoken word/performed poetry and traditional
African oral poetry as mediums of communication. Therefore,
there is an increase in the use of poetry and hip-hop and kwaito music
for advertising and public relations. Performance poets are increasingly
being commissioned by corporations or the government to write
or perform their works to advance one cause or the other. This adds
another dimension where the lure of quick bucks and celebrity status
as well as awards, honors, and titles like poet laureate or the prospects
of being the official imbongi of a high-powered political individual or
office, threatens the dedication and commitment of the poets to poetry
as an art form and to the poetry of conscience and, therefore, threatens
the literary quality of the works produced. The competitive aspect
of the slam poetry scene in particular, along with rampant commercialization,
has led to more individualistic rather than communitarian.
In this regard, the instructive observations of freelance journalist and poet Goodenough Mashego deserve some lengthy quotation:
The spoken word scene is abuzz with talented souls who are mostly BC, or anti-establishment. The problem is that the scene is only exclusively an urban phenomenon. Jo’burg has got its people who walk around with groupies who will ululate even when they fart. I have a feeling it has developed elitist tendencies which are going to kill it and the message . . . You have “celebrated” slam poets who will come at book launches and never recite, only to distribute flyers about where their next paid gig will be. That’s the undoing. One is left wondering how they can claim Bohemia while their attitude smirks of Utopia . . . Money can buy anything. I never believed it until I saw some BC heavy-hitters who are appointed to head state institutions toning down on their rhetoric. I think most of them who are now mainstream cannot write hard-hitting commentaries or poetry while they know they might be called to present their works in front of the President and his side-kicks. You can’t label Zuma corrupt when he is paying your bills, you can’t quiz the destructive nature of the arms industry when DENEL has invited you to a luncheon. That poem that you have that says “Mandela is a blunder/ leading the nation asunder” will die a natural death when you have to perform for Oprah during the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund gala dinner. Sometimes they just make you mainstream to steal you from the people to whom you really matter.21
Lefifi Tladi is of the view that the mediocrity and lack of direction prevalent in artistic and literary circles reflects the general crisis of identity in a post-independence, neocolonial dispensation characterized by amnesia
and the assault of eurocentricism and Western hegemony on the mindset of South Africans. “The problem today is that the issues now have changed because it is not an issue of black people or white people. We don’t have focus. Artists are on their own, and the direction is not defined. So we are improvising most of the time. That’s why it’s easy to be an artist because there are no guidelines . . . We have an identity crisis. Everything is wishywashy . . . We are all part of this confusion where we are trying to define what is South African.”22
The Misappropriation of Biko/BC
Mashego argues that the dictates of capital are one of the major reasons for the lack of a Black Consciousness-oriented popular theatre and spoken w ord: “Poets like K gafela (oa Magogodi), Vonani (Bila), Mpho (Ramaano), and a few outspoken individuals do still talk from the heart. But at the end of the day even artists get hungry and have to eat, and it’s the ruthless capitalists who have the money. They are the ones who run the State Theatre, Polokwane Auditorium and other venues where you need approval to utilize. Connections between the arts, spoken or written, and BC still exist. One needs to read the text because I think that’s where honesty lies. Performance is another thing, the audience dictates the direction. Post-’94 one looks at the audience and sees the Mayor and tones down on the venom. I’m not saying BC artists sell out, I’m just saying they need to eat, and that’s the consideration.” Mahola posits that another reason for a lack of connectivity between BC-era poetry and the current poetry resurgence is the censorship and systematic purging of BC-oriented materials and works by writers like Fanon and Cabral off library bookshelves.
Mashego’s account of the difficulty he experienced when trying to access books by the likes of Césaire and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, as part of an initiative to establish the first African Library, somewhat supports Mahola’s assertion. “We faxed the list to embassies of all the countries that once colonized a certain part of Africa to search for the books through their cultural desks and donate them to us. Something like, ‘give us back our wisdom.’ Nothing was happening and we were only exhausting money calling these embassies and one day I met Mama Miriam [Tlali] at the same event where I met the late Phaswane Mpe and we started talking. Tlali said, ‘o ka se di thole ngwanake. Ke nahana hore ba di rekile tso tsohle ba di tshuma ka mollo.’ [I think they bought all BC literature and burned it.] Now you see, the colonizers or racists had a SWAT team that was out to make sure that any literature that sympathized with BC got destroyed. They had a plan to separate oral and literature from a BC agenda because they knew African people are artistic people who sing and dance when happy, sad and celebrating. What needs to be done now is to make a call to our government,
‘please, give us back our wisdom, even if it’s on paperback.’”
This view is supported by Asha Moodley who says that, among other things, the fact that a great deal of time in the SASO-BPC trial was taken on interrogating the writings of BC leaders like Strini Moodley and Stephen Bantu Biko, shows that there was a constant and concerted attack on Black creativity. She also highlights the fact that in addition to the murder of prominent BC leaders like Mthuli Ka Shezi, Mapetla Mohapi, Onkgopotse Tiro, and Steve Biko by the apartheid regime in the 1970s, thousands of Black Consciousness adherents were killed for their political beliefs between 1983 and 1990. Moodley goes further to suggest that there is currently a systematic attempt to gloss over—or obliterate from the memory of South Africans—the era between 1960 and 1980 in narrating the history of the struggle for liberation in South Africa, and to appropriate Stephen Bantu Biko by political forces that have always been detractors and critics of Biko and the philosophy of Black Consciousness. She says it is not unusual for corporate capital and the political establishment to appropriate the message of revolution and change and utilize it for their own interests. Part of this, argues Moodley, is the commodification of martyrs and heroes of the struggle as exemplified by the designer clothes bearing the names of Biko and Che Guevara. Mashego is more scathing in his attack on the misrepresentation and abuse of Biko’s name: “True, Biko is becoming the new media agenda, thanks to people like Xolela Mangcu, the Steve Biko Foundation, Writes Associates and Nkosinathi Biko. But he is being commercialized like Che Guevara. Biko is now a screensaver on a 14 year old’s cellphone and a Ventersdorp farmer’s desktop. But, who is Biko?; ask any of the people who are wearing his T-shirt while holding a can of Black Label and soliciting sex without a condom from a 15-year-old girl. The media is prostituting Biko instead of representing him.”
Some Proposals on Connecting the “BC Era” and Post-1994 Poets and Writers
Splits and lack of unity and cooperation among the three political parties that claim Black Consciousness have left South Africa with no visible and audible party-political force articulating a Black Consciousness perspective at the macro level of parliamentary politics. The general state of disorganization and dysfunctionality within these parties makes it difficult for them to connect with the resurgent literary and cultural movement that carries some resonance of Black Consciousness. The few communitybased organizations and cultural organizations with some affinity to Black Consciousness operate in isolation from each other with no efforts to synergize and consolidate their works. The need to solicit corporate funding forces many organizations to lie low as far as a more pronounced commitment to Black Consciousness is concerned. The silence and/or marginalization of many BC-era writers and the cooption of a handful of them (either into the corporate world or the structures of government) make it difficult for the younger generation of writers and poets to connect with their literary predecessors. What is missing is a conscious and well-coordinated program to link up the present literary and cultural movement with the past and to educate the current crop of poets and cultural activists about their predecessors.
In spite of this lack of awareness about Black Consciousness-oriented writers and the actual contributions of the BC movement in pushing literature and the arts in South Africa forward, Biko and Black Consciousness continue to be points of reference (or at least a source of inspiration) for writers, including the slam poets and hip hop artists. Bullet indicates that the philosophy of Black Consciousness, with its emphasis on self-reliance, serves as an inspiration to the artists and groups that do community development work. But they prefer to be nonaligned when it comes to party politics, and nonsectarian in their dealings with communities and organizations. Attributing his political consciousness to his mother’s account of how his grandfather was dispossessed of his plot of land and how many African families and communities were d isplaced by forced removals, Bullet declares that parents and the older generation have a responsibility to teach the younger generation their history and to raise their awareness about cultural, social, economic, and political issues affecting their communities.23
Mashego suggests the way forward: “The same way the current US hip-hop practitioners are linking to Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, Stevie Wonder, and others, the old generation must not hold on to their masters as if they were their hearts. They should let the young generation exploit that. If there is a book entitled This Way I Salute You, it shouldn’t be a matter of a thousand lawyers converging around a copy of the Copyright Act before a young spoken word artist can be a llowed to use that as a title of his hip-hop or spoken word album.” Asha Moodley suggests that one way of doing this is to create a platform where the BC-era poets and other artists of that era share the stage with the current crop of writers and artists in concerts, festivals, seminars, workshops, and exchange programs. She also calls for a drastic change in the school curriculum to ensure that African literature and writings by Black writers take center stage in languages, literature, and moral and cultural studies from primary to tertiary education. Mashego also proposes that the politics of ethnicity and tribalism need to be exposed and combated through the vehicles of drama, theatre, writing and poetry. These works should point out the weakness of such thinking, with Black Consciousness as the point of departure.
1. Interview with Asha Moodley, January 19, 2007.
2. Amatoritsero Godwin Ede. BC movement South African Literature: (www . nigeriansin.
3. Peter Horn, “When it Rains: U.S, BC and Lyric Poetry in South Africa,” Speak, Cape
Town 1, no.1 (October-November 1978).
4. Speak, Cape Town, 1. no.1 (October–November 1978).
6. “Hidden Treasures: Lefifi Tladi.” Pulse (www.news.com/citypress/entertainment/
0, 7515, 186-16982018078, 00html).
7. Interview with Mzi Mahola, January 8, 2007.
8. Interview with Rismathi Mathonsi.
9. “Hidden Treasures: Lefifi Tladi.” Pulse (www.news.com/citypress/entertainment/
0, 7515, 186-16982018078, 00html).
10. Interview with Mahola.
11. Kelwyn Sole, “The Witness of Poetry (Economic Calculation, Civil Society and the
Limits of Everyday Experience in Liberated South Africa)” in Botsotso, Contemporary
South African Culture 13.
12. Interview with Mahola.
14. Interview with Sphephelo Mbhele aka Miracle.
15. Vonani Bila, Magicstan Fires (Elim Hospital: Timbila Poetry Project, 2006).
16. Vonani Bila, In the Name of Amandla (Elim Hospital: Timbila Poetry Project, 2004).
17. Mzi Mahola, Dancing in the Rain (Scottsville: UKZN Press, 2006).
18. Lebogang Mashile, In a Ribbon of Rhythm (Capetown, SA: Oshun Books, 2005).
19. Myesha Jenkins, Breaking the Surface (Elim Hospital: Timbila Poetry Project, 2005).
20. Bandile Gumbi, Pangs of Initiation (Somerset west: H.A Hodgie, 2004).
21. Pulse; Hidden Treasures; Lefifi Tladi: (www.news.com/citypress/entertainment/
0, 7515, 186-16982018078, 00html).
22. Interview with Goodenough Mashego, January 8, 2007.
23. Interview with Bullet, December 2, 2006.
Hapo zamani mama
Nd’pata pata nje
The rhythm in your voice
The sweetness of your moves
The dance at your feet
The foot-prints to our land
The brand of your face
It is because…
The shadows of your being
The love in your scream
You had the African dream
It is because…
The rape of your children
The torment of your heirs
The slaughtering of the un-born
The burial of the breathing
The enslavement of the ‘freed’
It is because…
You lived to sob
In song you giggled
For us to feel
What it means to
Love your country mama
She now turns in frozen casket
never to walk the land
her toes long for the soil
her palms scream but receive no heed
freedom seeks to breath
her nostrils blocked
freedom seeks to speak
her tongue locked
freedom rests with Biko,
Sobokwe and Mahlangu
freedom is with Tatane
freedom is manacled behind a police van
maybe freedom is a ghost
whose spirit haunts taxi ranks
and social networks
Perhaps Freedom is just
a lie buried underneath hash tags
wrapped in a body bag
or she is just a finger-tip click away
for clenched fists are old-fashioned-ways
reach nirvana between your legs **
these words are
not even a fraction
of unspoken desire
to invade your body
be a voluntary slave
nothing can express
this burning desire
as true as the act
of moving into you
dissolving my whole self
into the vast ocean
of your love; your being
deep in my heart
there is a song
i am handing myself to you
between your legs
tighten your thighs
keep me a slave in your body
jail me inside you
let me know no sweetness
except the deliciousness
of your body and all its juices
don’t ever release me
from the clutches of your lust
into you I am alive
keep me there
i can’t go there
and come back
except coming into you