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A Critical Survey of Contemporary South African Poetry

In: English and Literature

Submitted By davepine92
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Laura Holland, B.A.
A Thesis
Submitted to the School of Graduate Studies in Partial Fulfilment of the Requirements for the Degree
Master of Arts
McMaster University
September 1987
MASTER OF Arts (1987)
Hamilton, Ontario
TITLE: A Critical Survey of Contemporary South African
Poetry: The Language of Conflict and Commitment
AUTHOR: Laura Linda Holland, B.A. (University of Alberta)
SUPERVISOR: Dr. Alan Bishop
The thes is concentrates on South African poetry from
1960 to the present. It closely examines a selection of poems by Breyten Breytenbach, Dennis Brutus, Pascal Gwala,
Wopko Jensma, Oswald Mtshali, Arthur Nortje, Cosmo Pieterse,
Sipho Sepamla, and Wally Serote, among others. The body of the thesis discusses these poets' contributions to poetry about prison, exile, and township life.
The thesis focuses on the struggle between various polical, racial, and cultural groups for hegemony over South
Africa's poetic development. Such issues as language, ideology, and censorship are explored insofar as they in! .luence t:ne content and structure of the poetry. This body of poems, sadly, is little studied in North America.
The thesis presents an introduction to and a survey of the major tendencies in South African poetry and, in part, attempts to relate the poetry's role in expressing the commitment of these poets to the ending of apartheid and the eventual resolution of the conflict for freedom. iii ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
I would like to thank my supervisor, Dr. Alan Bishop, for all his consideration and support as well as for his assistance with locating source materials and for his extremely beneficial criticism. I would also like to thank
Dr. Dale and Professor Morton for graciously agreeing to sit on my committee. The librarians at Mills in Hamilton and at
Robarts in Toronto were also quite helpful and deserve praise for their patience. Finally, I thank Oisin P.
Rafferty for proofreading the rough drafts of my thesis and for lending me his moral support. iv PAGE
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. i v
AND IDEOLOGy..................................... 1
AND POETRy....................................... 17
TO THE PEACH TREE................................ 69
NOTES. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. 84
BIBLIOGRAPHY 126 v Chapter One
Linguistic Apartheid: Language and Ideology
The poet Sipho Sepamla, in an essay on the problems and dilemmas of the black writer in South Africa, reiterates the main linguistic and ideological issues debated amongst critics of South African literature. 1 paper by "playing a South African game":
Sepamla begins his
I must define this black wri ter. He is an
African (amongst coloureds and Indians). He writes in English (sacrificing his mother tongue). He is urban (lacking some knowledge of his counterpart in the 'homelands').
Having insulated myself thus, I want to add that lowe nobody any apologies because I remain a human being. 2
Sepamla identifies the essential contradictions in South
African writing. While writers take pride in their cultural heritage, a product of colour, language, history, and geography, they also reject these determinants as being unduly limiting. The black poet, in particular, is criticized for writing overtly about the political realities of being a black South African. Whi te poets 1ike Douglas
Livingstone require that poetry be judged by
"internationally established yardsticks".3 other poets, like Lionel Abraham, argue that the poet's blackness should not be considered a quality by which poetry can be defined. 4
While Livingstone and Abraham sincerely believe their approach to be the best guarantee of an unbiased, universal set of critical standards, they both tend to rely upon an established Western, usually British, tradition of literary criticism. The critics who support a white~oriented,
politically shrill, the other hand, black poetry which is usually inept and transient. 5 On
creating formally liberal tradition describe writers as writers and critics like David Maughan Brown argue that white literary traditions are not universally applicable and that literature must be culturally determined by the standards of the community to which the writer belongs,6 and that all literature has a political aim, which claims to be apolitical.?
The white, liberal tradition of poetry criticism remains a strong, if impoverished, including that and Ii terary element in the literary mosaic of South Africa. Stephen Watson defines liberalism as having the following characteristics: first, while believing in slow reform, it asserts that literature should be apolitical. Second, it approaches literature sceptically and empirically, and it avoids dealing with the i rrat i onal. Finall y, it ass erts the primacy of the individual. Thus, social issues are subordinated to psychological ones. 8 to apartheid, they
Although most white poets are opposed argue against politically motivated poetry. Nevertheless their belief in an unbiased literature also makes a political statement, which inadvertently supports the status quo because it provides no strong opposition to it.
Frankie NtsH kaDi tshego/Dube' s poem, "The Ghettos," published in the July-August 1979 issue of Staffrider, cuts through the 1 iberal 's pretence of an obj ect i ve, apo 1 it ical stance: Those who claim to be non-smokers are wrong
The place is polluted with smoke from
Gun-excited camouflage dagga-smokers and burning tyres
Non-smokers are smokers toO!9
The carefully-chosen images point to supporters of industry, and to those who hide behind military barricades, as
indirectly adding to the pollution of apartheid. The poetry of whi te liberals like Guy Butler bases "i tself on the notion that English is an instrument of reason", and thus
"this poetry, like liberal politics again, becomes an instrument of estrangement, apathy and impotence. "10 The passivity of the objective observer has not created an atmosphere of rational reform; instead, Watson argues, the
"banality" of this poetry has helped to create an atmosphere of passive acceptance of apartheid policies. ll
Unfortunately, most white poets, by criticizing the active poli tics in black poetry, inadvertently contribute to the silencing of protest. Thus, black poets from the late sixties onwards have tended to become more and more critical of the intentions of whi te poets and of the values of the liberal tradition.
Refusing to take up a radical anti-apartheid position, the poetry of white English-speaking South Africa is increasingly conservative. Watson argues that "the limitations of this culture, the sterilizing influence of its 'aesthetic'... are all too apparent in the purged but scarcely purgative language .... "12 Guy Butler typifies the poet who surfeits on British literature to counter what he perceives as the still wild and poetically inappropriate environment of South Africa. 13 Christopher Hope is another example of the white poet who uses language conservatively, to protect the "truth" rather than to disclose reality. In fact, Hope's poem "In the Middle of Nowhere", condemns the blacks as having rebelled against the efforts of the liberals to help them. 14 Hope presents the whites as loving adul ts, concerned about black society wi thin South Africa, but impotent to help the rebellious and ungrateful hordes of black children. While whites are presented as creative and nurturing, even gentle, the blacks are portrayed as primitive and destructive. Hope reinforces white fears and rationalizations, while preserving the myth of black irrationality. Furthermore, the poem attempts to stifle the call to freedom, and turns from an openly political message to the garden, to nature, as the appropriate topic of poetry. Whi 1e not overt ly pro-apartheid, the ant i -b lack sentiments cannot be viewed as apolitical. Hope is a liberal supporting the system.
Neverthel ess, the 1iberal 1 i terary tradition has influenced coloured1s and black poets like Dennis Brutus,
Cosmo Pieterse, Mazisi Kunene, and Oswald Mtshali. While
Brutus admits the influence of Donne, Eliot, Yeats, and
Joyce' s Ulysses~ Mazisi Kunene admires and closely studies
Shakespeare. 16 Kunene especially admires Shakespeare's "use of language as a vehicle of communication in expressing what is contained in the character or depicting the character involved."17 However, both Kunene and Brutus lack a
strongly militant edge to their poems. 18 For example,
Brutus uses a troubadour motif in Sirens Knuckles Boots, an early collection of his poems, which removes the emphasis from South Africa to Southern France and from the contemporary period to the medieval. Kunene, hand, has evolved an interest in Zulu poetry. connect ion to British 1i terature, Kunene increasingly suspicious of whi te liberalism, on the other
Despi te his has become which is so often ignorant of black mythology and poetic traditions, and which so often condescendingly condemns the concrete imagery of praise poetry.19 Increasingly frustrated by the negative response of white critics, South African poets turn to a black African audience and to the African oral traditions. English culture is slowly losing its authority as black poets explore new forms and new linguistic variations distinct from those of the liberal tradition.
A typical example of the liberal's negative response is an article entitled "Dilemmas in Black Poetry" published in a 1977 issue of the Cape Town journal Contrast~ and written by Dr. A. G. Ullyatt. While claiming to be disinterested,
Dr. Ullyatt views black poets as attempting to use the ancient, cuI turally enriched English language in a culturally undeveloped environment. second language for black poets, Dr.
Since English is a
Ullyatt attributes
their occasional successes to accident. 2o In response, Hedy
Davis in a later issue of Contrast challenges Ullyatt' s assumptions about black poets. Firstly, she objects to Dr.
Ullyatt's presentation of "his aesthetics as based on objective and universal norms." Rather than being neutral,
Ullyatt uses "a typical ruling class tactic. "21 Secondly,
Davis uses Joseph Conrad as an example of a successful wri ter in English as a second language. 22 Furthermore,
Dennis Brutus and Arthur Nortje hold degrees from Oxford and they have both taught English literature at North American universities. They have a complex understanding of English
Ii terature which they are able to bring to their poetry.
Their successful poems are more likely to be consciously contrived than accidental.
On the other hand, all South African poems in English, whether the poet is black, coloured, or whi te, have been cri ticized by Brutus, Pieterse, and Butler for suffering from weaknesses: Either the poet has presented "surface anguish and bitterness," sacrificing art, or the poems lack substance due to a "failure to confront life."23 For some, poetry has become a vehicle "for slogans, angry protest and a political message."24 Polished style is sacrificed to the aim of educating whites and of stirring blacks out of their apathy.25 Mazisi Kunene, however, says that poetry only becomes didactic when it assumes an attitude of superiority.
Instead, most African poetry "holds up to ridicule things
that are socially inacceptable [sic]. "26 Humour, wi t, and the distinctly African sounds of poets like Kunene and
Sepamla subtly criticize apartheid without sacrificing art.
Moreover, the poetry is freed from associations wi th "the
Great Tradition."27 Nevertheless, Cosmo Pieterse still sees the "gut I essness" of much South African poet ry, and its dependence on white literary values, as the main problems.
Rather than considering it to be too political, Pieterse wishes South African poetry to be even more confrontational.
Perhaps of all the arguments which occur between the liberal and the black aesthetics, the most widespread and interesting is the debate over language. The preference for writing in English is itself politically motivated for most
South Afr ican poets, since a poem's pol i tical sign i ficance is often tied to the language in which it is written.
Mokoena Xihoshi, in "Poetry Towards the Revolution," questions the role of language in asserting cultural supremacy: Is not the use of English itself by our writers and by our literary commentators/ critics -- an instance of our being victims of an insidious kind of cultural imperialism?28 By writing in English, the poet indirectly expresses sympathy with the white liberal tradition. While English does provide a lingua franca among all South Africans, no matter what their first language is, and while English opens up the possibilities of communication outside Africa, the poet "assimilates, even without realizing it, elements which are foreign, indeed profoundly repugnant, to him. "29 The increasing use of English in the daily lives of South
Africans is seen at special events like weddings and funerals, in the importance of Engl ish in the schools, and
most importantly in the printing of English-language newspapers and magazines. 30 English is also preferable to the other language of the whi tes, Afrikaans, which most black South Africans perceive as the language of oppression. 31
The problem becomes one of how to be politically subversive in a language which implicitly carries within it the values which these poets wish to overthrow. Cosmo
Pieterse suggests that by avoiding poetic embroidery the possibili ties of ambigui ty are reduced. 32 In his poem,
"Song (Pie Sing)", Pieterse uses a simple, lyrical style:
We sing our sons who have died red
Crossing the sky where barbed wire passes
Bullets of white paper, nails of grey lead
And we sing the moon in its dying phases. 33
Death is inescapable in this poem, as are grief and anger.
The images of the bullets, the nails, and the moon unambiguously reinforce the singers' emotions. Furthermore, the collective pronoun "we" makes the emotions communal rather than indiviual. In another poem, "Guerilla,"
Pieterse concludes "That we must march over the length of all your / life, transgressing your whole body with harsh / boots upon our feet."34 The reader cannot interpret the poem in a manner which supports the status quo because the revolutionary intention has been made inescapable.
On the other hand, the Afrikaans poet Wopko Jensma uses a plurilingual approach. By combining English,
Afrikaans, and African languages, Jensma's poems attempt to end the linguistic apartheid in South African poetry. For instance, in "Joburg Spiritual" Jensma begins with street slang and ungrammatical language. 3s Jensma uses language to flout authority, in this poem the authority of the police.
He uses slang to recreate the atmosphere of a township street in which the violence of the police occurs almost as casually as slang does in general conversation. Moreover, the ungrammatical structure creates a staccato rhythm in which the short lines punctuate and emphasize the events being narrated in the longer lines. In the final section of the poem, Jensma uses a common English sentence pattern, subject-verb-object, to emphasize the boredom created by the repet it i on of "approved" patterns of language. 36 The oppression created by the state is paralleled by the oppression created by the repetitive syntax and language.
Jensma has taken two political holidays, Dingaan's Day and
Republic Day,37 and reduced them to meaningless markers of the passage of time. Jensma thus undermines the poli tical significance of these two dates. Moreover, by placing two different styles of English side by side, he exposes the gap between the rigid grammar of the oppressors and the flexiblility of the oppressed, and the gap between how these two groups perceive the world.
Al though contemporary South African poetry has been
accused of formal ineptitude, numerous poets show a sophisticated ability for language play. Poets like Arthur
Nortje record their meticulous attention to detail. In
Nortje's Oxford journal, on February of 1966, he writes that
"I spend hours carefully chiselling, paring, elaborat ing, balancing words so they give pleasure. For I love the
Beautiful. "38 [Italics are mine]. Despite the poli tical concerns of most black poets, there is also a desire to give pleasure to the reader through the richness of the text.
Sepamla also plays on the pleasure of language by using blues and jazz rhythms:
I've learnt to sing the blues
I says I've learnt to sing the blues
I mean them true Soweto Blues youngmen playing at dice I do youngmen lounging around for lack of work I do youngmen pleading for a world to love I d039
Sepamla's poems must be read aloud so that the balanced rhythms of the lines recreate the effects found in blues music. Despite the desperation and darkness of the lives he describes, there is also a powerful resonance created by repetition of words and the strong beat. Xihoshi describes the language play of South African poets as "the gallows' humour, the macabre wi t, the defence mechanism of laughter in the face of adversity and a simultaneous girding of the loins .... "40 Humour, repetition, song rhythms, and rhythms from African oral poetry give the poems a structural looseness without leaving the poems shapeless. Instead of
adopting British stanzaic forms, the black poet has innovated new patterns better adapted to his cultural bias.
Even more annoying to the liberal tradi tion than the s ubvers ion of form, is the "impur i ty" of the Engl ish found in many poems which lack the formali ty of BBC English.
Oswald Mtshali, however, argues against an ornate and lofty poetic style. He asserts that the English that we use in our poetry is not the Queen's language that you know as wri tten by say Wordsworth and Coleridge. It is the language of urgency.... We have not got the time to embellish this urgent message with unnecessary and cumbersome ornaments .... 41
Mtshali discards the language of the Romant ics wi th its emphasis on the lyrical for a more desperate, less polished, and often crude idiom. Xihoshi elaborates on the ways in which black poets use a specialized vocabulary. Often poets blend English, street jive, Afrikaans, and African languages within the English framework to recreate the relationship between English and African points of reference. 42 Thus, in
"Mkize", Sepamla mixes the languages into Soweto street idiom. 43 Mkize, a new arrival in Soweto from the Transkei tribal homelands, tries to barter a skilpad (tortoise) for bootlegged alcohol in a shebeen (an illegal drinking parlour). Since he lives outside the law, Mkize is a subversive and dashing figure. He is treated humorously and the mixture of African, Afrikaans, and Engl i sh 1anguages adds to the subversive tone. For instance, skilpad is also used to describe the derailing of transportation of black labourers their jobs in the cities and mines. trains to prevent the from the townships to
At the same time, the
poem ends with Mkize getting his punishment, not from the law, but from his girlfriend, "uSis Jane", who has kicked him out of the house for trying to sell her tortoise. Mkize becomes homeless, unemployed, and broke, mocked for his country ways and speech. Sepamla often uses this humorous tone to mock the white man or to describe the daily subversive acts of people living in Soweto.
In contrast to Sepamla, Mongane Wally Serote uses both slang and obscenities for a subversive, angry, and revolutionary tone. 44 "What's In This Black 'Shit'" is designed to be linguistically and ideologically subversive.
Moreover, Serote desires not only to be subversive but also to assert his linguistic independence directly in the face of authority.45 Language for Serote has become a measure of rebellion. The use of obscenities to the pass officer marks a movement towards the freedom of the mind and the freedom from both the pass laws and the censorship acts. 4 6 The
"shi t" also cuts through the pass officer's bureaucrat ic language, his "endorsement" of the narrator to Middleburg as though the narrator was a posted parcel. Although it is not beautiful language, its effects are calculated. If nothing else, Serote has helped to liberate South African poetry from the tyranny of "elevated language."
Since 1976, poetry groups have sprung up in the township and there has been an increase of poetry written in
"'murdered' English, formally inelegant and politically indiscreet." Nevertheless, Anne McClintock notes that this poetry is reaching "a far wider audience in South Africa
than ever before, posing an unsettling threat to the legitimacy of white settler aesthetics on South African soiL ... "47 The subversive language of this poetry has not only undermined the whi te liberal tradition, but has also created its own niche in the politically-sensitive cultural atmosphere of South Africa.
Oxford Engl ish and s treet-s lang Engl ish are not the only linguistic elements of the South African culture;
Afrikaans also has an impact upon the poetry. The Afrikaans lit erary journal, Standpun [:e, pub I ishes almos t exc 1us i ve 1y in Afrikaans. Just as the white English-speakers argue for the purity of their language, so too do the Afrikaners fight for the cultural purity of their language. Breyten
Breytenbach argues that the ideology of apartheid has poisoned the Afrikaans language so that, in the besmirching of others, the Afrikaans language "becomes filthy jargon."48
Terms such as kaffier, hotnot, koe1ie, houtkip, outa, aia, jong, meld, k10ng, skepse1 have become offensive, much in the way offensive term
as "ni gger" became
Furthermore, a an pidgin language in North called "kitchen-kaffir" combines Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans, and
English, and developed out of the master-servant dealings of the Afrikaners and the English with their black workers. 49
The combining of different languages in this way counteracts the attempts to keep Afrikaans a "pure" language; it prevents linguistic apartheid from becoming absolute and it challenges the authori ty of one language over the other languages which permeate the consciousness of South
Africans, especially educated, radical South Africans.
Black South Africans associate the Afrikaans language with the language of oppression. On June 16, 1976, a protest march began in Soweto over a ruling that black children were to be taught arithmetic and social studies in
Afrikaans, "the language of the white cabinet minister, soldier, and pass official, prison guard, and policeman."5o
Although Afrikaners like Breyten Breytenbach are famous for wri ting poems in protest against apartheid, the Afrikaners are actively engaged in the struggle to retain their cultural and political ascendancy by controlling the language in which children are educated, and, through the language, the ideas which they are taught. 51
The final linguistic elements in South African poetry are the languages and subdialects of various black Africans.
Sotho, Xhosa, Zulu, Swazi, Venda, and Shangane are the main languages, although there are many sub-languages. For example, Xhosa is divided into the dialects of the Gcalekas,
Dlambes, Hlubis, and the Mpondos. 52 All these groups have traditions of oral poetry which have the two common functions of propagating communal values and of commemorating specific events within the history of the
tribe. 53 In the last few decades, modern South African
poets have turned to vernacular poetry for inspiration. For example, Xhosa poetry is strongly lyrical and exploits the uses of concrete imagery.54 common language exploited.
However, Zulu is the most
Both Mazisi Kunene and Oswald
Mtshali write in Zulu as well as in English. For Mtshali, writing in Zulu is as essential to his cultural identity as writing in English is to his political one:
Wherever I go I try to collect the debris of my shattered culture and try to immortalize it in my poetry. I write in English for my present state of reality or unreality and
I write in Zulu to establish my identity which will be translated by posterity. 55
By re-establishing himself as a Zulu poet rather than as an
English poet, Mtshali is recreating a culture ideologically different from whi te culture, wi th di fferen t values.
Moreover, the two primary forms of Zulu poetry, the heroic epic and the praise poem, 5 6 have been retrieved by these poets. On the other hand, as Kunene says in an interview with Alex 1a Guma, "I am not concerned with the sloganizing of the Zulu empire, "57 nor is Kunene obsessed with the
Zulus' past glories. Instead, these poets are interested in a living culture, which links teaching and song, rhythm and incantation, poetry and music in a culture which black poets can finally claim as distinctly their own.
The debate between the liberal tradition and African traditions is intensified by increasingly stringent censorship and by a sense of urgency, especially amongst black poets. Black intellectuals, says Anne McClintock, must choose between indirectly supporting the cultural
establishment or joining the ascendant revolutionary class. 58 Criticism of the political ideology and of the language of South African poetry has created a dialogue between Western and African aesthetic values and between whi te I iberal ism and black mi I i tancy. Nevertheless, the colour bar is not as important in determining the poem's political stance as are its linguistic make-up and its subject matter. Wri t ing in Engl ish, and in a part icular kind of English, is politically distinct from writing in
Afrikaans, or Zulu. Moreover, the subject matter, whether prison experience, exile, or life in the black townships, makes the type of English used, BBC or slang, lyrical or crude, an important factor in how these realities are represented in poetry. Linguistic flexibility aids in the rejection of certain white values, and in the recreation of a black critical standard, suited to the indigenous culture of South Africa. Dennis Brutus, Mazisi Kunen-e, Cosmo
P i e t e r s e , S,._\'/op k 0 Jepsma,--llnd-'-OI'fWa.l'dM:t'-~'fhali , l1// jl..ln..QJlg others, attempt to p!'()d-UGe politically and cuI t!!xJ'!llY. ~' '" _" ....~ "__ _ ••_."".-_ •••••••••< •. _.~_.__ • __ .~"T • meaningful poetry. While such poetry cannot remove all traces of the English liberal tradition from South African wri t ing, it does chall enge whi t e cuI tural imper ial ism, and it can produce a new literature committed to the restructuring of South African society.
Robben Island:
Chaptet- Two
Prison, Prisoners, and Poetry
Robben Island results from some geographical accident that separated a small piece of
Africa from the mainland .... A huge question mark hangs about the Island; sometimes it seems to shine brightly on the walls of the cells, or dangles over the heads of the prisoners. The prisoners seek an answer to it: whither Robben Island? Whither Makana
Island? You, Island, are a damned ship sai 1 ing the dangerous seas, through the typhoon. But you have souls on board, bondmen of the slave-ship, chained to the benches even during engagements with enemy ships.l
Robben Island, also called Makana Island, is a maximumsecurity penal island occupied mostly by political prisoners. Its most famous inmates include Nelson Mandela and the Ri vonia group, 2 the poet Dennis Brutus, and the novelist-poet D.M. Zwelonke. Although numerous mainland prisons also hold political prisoners under similar or worse living conditions than those on Robben Island,3 for most
South African writers the island symbolizes the physical, mental, and spiritual prison which the apartheid state imposes upon its citizens. The island became a prison in
1962, after serving as a leper colony for many years.
However, its penal history goes back to the nineteenth century, when the Xhosa leader Makana the Left-Handed was banished to the island by the British. According to legend, he drowned trying to escape. 4 The island's prisoners are tormented by ants, antarctic winds, work in the stone quarry, and numerous forms of torture. s Despite the prison's barbarity, it is also nicknamed the "Mandela exchange of and other
University"6 since the prisoners encourage the political ideas, poetry, music, plays, intellectual pursuits, amongst themselves.
Although prison regulations try to prevent the inmates from singing, reci t ing poet ry, and debat ing pol i tics, such activities continue, and, along with hunger-strikes, become the prisoners' main fount of resistance. In an attempt to enforce silence, the warders stifle the prisoners' literary creativity with punitive measures such as solitary
confinement, "spare-diet" or "meal-stop". 7 Nonetheless, despite restrictions, interrogations, torture, and humiliations, political prisoners have more privileges than regular criminals. 8 The surveillance of political prisoners by the warders, family and friends, the press, and various international agencies, like the Red Cross, partially protect the politicals from sodomy, tsotsi violence, ritual cannibalism, and from simple disappearance. 9 Moreover,
"poli ticals", especially wri ters, have skills to trade for food, cigarettes, and information. For instance, in exchange for reading the poetry of one of the prison cooks,
Breyten Breytenbach received sugar and extra food. 10
Although the political prisoner distrusts the average prisoner, whom he sees as a hardened criminal turned informer ("pimp"), and although he tries to remain aloof, he cannot help but observe the effects of apartheid wi thin prison, nor can he refrain from analyzing and recording prison culture and the struggle against dehumanization and irrationality. The themes of irrationality and dehumanization permeate all South African prison literature. The horrific conditions under which prisoners must try to preserve some
fragments of place great justice, and prison life, self, dignity, and independence of thought, strain on traditional ideas of identity, reason. Poetry written in prisons, about and in honour of the poli tical martyrs still imprisoned, forms a considerable proportion of South African protest poetry. While these poems have no consistent form or technique (they can be descriptive, narrative, or openly didactic), and while they are often tributes to the sufferers rather than condemnat ions of the torturers, they have clear political goals. Firstly, by describing prison culture, the writer is describing a microcosm of all that is offensive about an apartheid society.11 Secondly, by pointing out the injustices of prison, the writer creates an impetus for change. 12 Thirdly, by individualizing the sufferers as martyrs, as D. M. Zwelonke and Breyten
Breytenbach do, the poet can create sympathy for the human being isolated and in pain. Al ternat i vely, the poet can recreate the suffering of the prisoners as a collective group unjustly denied freedom and dignity, as Anthony
Delius, Oswald Mtshali, and Dennis Brutus do, in order to create sympathy for the martyred segment of a society.
Thus, prison poetry can be intensely personal, or socially instructive, but it always presents a desperate power struggle between the defenders of freedom, human dignity, and rational thinking, and a repressive government intent on preserving white supremacy.
n.M. Zwelonke's lyrical novel, Robben Island, describes in chilling detail the degradation of the human spirit and
the perversion of the rational mind. The novel centers around three men: Bekimpi, a resistance leader who escapes isolation and torture through madness and death, Thabo, a tubercular poet, reci ting his despair in the face of the irrationality of the system, and Danny, a young political who goes "to school" at the "University of Makana" and studies mathematics, literature, judo, and prison cuI ture.
The novel ends with Thabo's six-page eulogy for Bekimpi with an ironic tribute to the irrational:
The burning alcohol spirits were never bitter
For the drunkard to forsake.
It is heavenly for the pig to wallow in the filth;
It is heavenly for it to wallow in the mud
Of its dung and urine and vomit. 13
The catalogue of the poet's disgust wi th fi I th, mud, dung, urine, and vomit juxtaposes the drunkard's addiction to
"burning alcohol" and the pig's addiction to fil tho The drunkard is dehumanized; he is transmuted into the pig by accepting, even relishing, the things that destroy his rational mind. While the warders try to turn the prisoners into animals, the prisoners try to reverse the process. In an ad hoc performance of Animal Farm, the prisoners present their warders as the pigs in Orwell's representation of a totalitarian state. The prisoners defend their sense of a
human identity by denying the humanity of their tormentors.
Despite the warders' attempt to break down the prisoners' will-power, Thabo sees the rational man as having two choices: he must either avoid the irrational minds trying to destroy him, or confront them.
But then, if a rational man confronts
With an irrational man,
He has got the choice to avoid the irrational man
Or be swallowed.
But if an irrational man comes to your home
And spits on the threshold,
Or comes and defecates on the floor,
Or urinates in the sink,
In your own home,
To rid yourself of the plague
Bash his jaws or die. 14
In South Africa the rational man is surrounded by the irrationality of apartheid. "Thought," laments Thabo, "is pigmented".15 The irrationality of the state is upheld by the irrationality of its individual members. The rational are swallowed by prison. However, Thabo views the most insidious effect of apartheid as being the ease with which irrationality enters into the minds of the rational. While he cannot hope to convert the irrational mind to rational thinking, Thabo struggles to sanctify his individual integri ty against the currents of irrational thought. As
Thabo recites his poem to an audience of roughly two hundred fellow prisoners, he is met wi th silence. From each man there emerges a silent tribute to Thabo and a desire to retain individual freedom of thought. 16
While Zwelonke records experience inside the prison, poets like Anthony Delius 17 who are onlookers of the island drama, also isolate confusion, fear, and insanity as the legacy of Robben Island. Delius describes how the island appears to someone standing on a "Whites Only" beach.
It has held degradadoes, visonaries, patriots, Makana drowned on the other shore; it has known history's, time's ocean's refuse, madness, too, but none like this final fear in which the more confused appoint the keepers and the law's flail lays the mind's bone bare. 18
To the outsider familiar with the history of Robben Island, it is not the horror of what goes on inside the prison which is most terrifying Instead, Ol@ final fear is of the irrationali ty of the authori ties, of the legislators, who have created the island prison visible from the privileged luxury of an all white-beach. The tormentor is madder than his victims, defenses. whom he tries to strip of all rational
For Denni s Brutus, however, the nightmare of Robben
Island is not simply an abstract contemplation, as it is for
Delius, nor is it a battle against the irrationality of the warders and their superiors. Instead, for Brutus, the whole environment of Robben Island is hostile. The poet's horror is inscribed in the images of blood, metal, and rocl{. In
"Robben Island Sequence," the description of the rocks on the beach carries "the threat of death. "19 Everything in the prisoner's environment is threatening to destroy him.
He is alienated from the rocky ground on which he walks and from the air he breathes. Every item listed is a knife or sharp instrument which pierces the prisoner's body and mind.
Brutus responds with raw emotion to the island;20 his anger, pain, and fear are exposed; his mind is as vulnerable to his desolate surroundings as his bare feet are to the shards of broken slate.
Nonetheless, despite the tone of despair, the poet does not lose sight of his poem's aesthetic qualities. T.T.
Moyana argues that Brutus's relatively short prison term created '" jagged bi ts' of emotional turmoil, wi th all the
raw anguish of a fighter, but little art .... "21 However,
Brutus's vivid imagery is not a weakness but strength. Through his rejection of lengthy a poet ic grammatical structures, and of formal versification, Brutus creates an emotional description of the daily atmosphere of hatred and violence. Moreover, his choice of language intensifies for the reader the daily brutalization of the normal spiritual and aesthetic sensibilities of Robben Island's victims. The art created by South African prison emotional because they spring from experiences. The poems are shaped cuI ture is jagged and jagged and emotional and defined by the experiences from which they have emerged.
Brutus describes poetry as "a technique or strategy of persuasion. "22 In order for the poetry to communicate effectively, it must express itself simply and directly, wi thout ornament or pretension. Al though Brutus has the political aim of exposing the alienating effects of prison on human beings, he views nothing that is human as being experiences there alien to poetry.23 didactic attack
on the affect while all evil of the style his poetry is not a
Robben Island, his in which all of his
poetry is written. 24 Brutus controls his language and uses repeated images to distill the emotional torment which unites the prisoners and accentuates the inhumanity of the forces which oppose them. This style is both technically effective and emotionally affecting.
Brutus's most famous prison poems were wri tten after his release from Robben Island, and while he was under house arrest. 25 Banned from publishing, Brutus wrote a series of poem-let ters to his sis ter- in-law, Martha. In one letter he narrates the story of two prisoners, one who gives up smoking so that he cannot be bribed with cigarettes, and one who goes insane. Both men are united by a desire to avoid
"the pressures to enforce sodomy. "26 Brutus maintains a carefully neutral tone in the poem and allows the men's reactions to this aspect of prison life to reach the reader unembellished. Other poems merely catalogue the destructive and degenerat i ve act i vi ties of "Coprophi 1 ism; necrophi 1 ism; fellatio; / penis-amputation .... "27 Brutus realizes that even scientific terminology does not allow him to distance himself from his feelings of being personally tainted.
Even his attempts to transcend the dehumanizing prison and to meditate on the birds, the clouds, or the stars are prevented by the tiny windows or blocked out by the sounds of the anxious guards as they patrol the machine-gun station. 28 By maintaining short lines, brief stanzas, and a precise use of scientific and logical terminology, Brutus exposes the government's attempt to justify rationally the
treatment prisoners receive. By deliberately understating the horrific nature of his experience, Brutus convinces the outsider of the accuracy of his descriptions. Moreover, his tone in Letters to Martha is always rational a1 though his narratives often reveal his emotional turmoil. However, he acknowledges that his rational discourse cannot adequately articulate his longing for freedom and for recogni tion of the suffering of the political prisoners who have been silenced. This is the wordless ultimate ballistic
Impacting past Reason's, Science's logistics
To blast the heart's defensive mechanism29
Even the most rational of discourses cannot successfully encompass the devastation of the human heart. Brutus attempts to speak about the unspeakable, to compose poems about the seemingly unpoetic, and to assert the humanity of the seemingly dehumanized.
Of all South African poets who write about their prison experiences, the most famous both wi thin and wi thout South
Africa is Breyten Breytenbach. Because of his unique position as a poet who writes in Afrikaans, Breytenbach received special dispensation to continue writing while in prison. 30 In The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist,
Breytenbach summarizes the effects that writing under surveillance, without access to any of his previous
writings, and under the threat of confiscation, had upon his poetry. In the dark I am not in the way. There is nobody to look over my shoulder. And I would start writing. I,ike launching a black s hip 0 n a dark sea. I wr i t e : I am the writer. I am doing my black writing with my no-colour gloves and my dark glasses on, stopping every once in a while, passing my sheathed hand over the page to feel the outlines and the imprints of letters which have no profile. It makes for a very specific kind of wording, perhaps akin to the experiments that the surrealists used to make in earlier years. 31
Writing prison is two-edged. On the one hand,
Breyt.enbach can experiment; he can free-associate and perhaps create something which will redefine what it is to write and be a writer. By wri ting in the darkness, he is able to tal{e on a persona without colour, a persona not limited by racial perspectives. Through the act of writing
Breytenbach establishes his identity as a writer.
Nevertheless, writing alone is not sufficiently self-reflexive; he must write that be is writing. He must also write that he is the subject of his writing. 32 Only for as long as he can keep wri ting can Breytenbach assert his ident.ity as writer.
On the other hand, Breytenbach is separated from his writing, since he must write at night, without light.
Writing becomes mysterious even for the writer. The glove metaphor reveals not only Breytenbach's ability to take up several subject positions but it. also reveals how he is divided from his words. They are black because he cannot
see them to interpret them; he cannot control the direction which they take or edit them. In exchange for the ability to perform the act of writing, Breytenbach has given up his identity as author insofar as he cannot be certain that what he writes is characteristic of the discourse he has established elsewhere in his poetry.33 Intellectually,
Breytenbach can have little control over a writing he cannot perceive: Since one cannot re-read what you've written a certain continui ty is imposed on you. You have to let go. You must follow. You allow yourself to be carried forward by the pulsation of the words as they surface in the paper. You are the paper. Punctuation goes by the board. Repetitions, rhythms, structures, these will be nearly biological.
Not intellectually conceived. Ponder for two beats and you're lost. 34 [Italics are mine.]
Breytenbach changes from "I" to "you". The shift in pronoun reference signals a division of identity. Acknowledging that his writing creates his identity, he changes from being the subject of his discourse to being subjected to it.
Moreover, his identi ty is what he inscribes on the paper.
The writing is not structured by Breytenbach's rational mind, but, according to his own perception, by his intuitive surrender to some organic order. Breytenbach's writing constitutes an alternative reality to Pretoria Central
Prison. He can escape from a hostile environment and through poetry, rhythm, and language re-establish an identity as the man who writes as opposed to the man incarcerated in jail.
The problem of Breytenbach's split self is only partially resolved in the text. During the seven years he spent in prison, the authorities daily confiscated his writings and placed them under protective custody. Upon release, his papers were returned to him. Fragmentary, disorganized, incomplete, these prison writings needed to be turned into a text in which structure and uni ty are once more incorporated. Free from prison, Breytenbach reasserts his identity as author, editor, and reviser. However, he is also faced with the problem within the collected writings of a split subject: the writer and the prisoner. As an author,
Breytenbach must try to reconcile the two. As a resul t, part of True Confessions involves Breytenbach the wri ter avoiding his identity as prisoner, while another part of the text deals with Breytenbach the author seeking out his prison memories to reconstitute his identity as prisoner.
One of the ways in which he seeks to rediscover the prisoner is through an obsession with explaining prison language, especially the language of address. Breytenbach recalls the violent response a prisoner received when he addressed a warder as meneer (sir) rather than as baas
(master).35 The prison guards partly maintain their authority linguistically, through a rigidity of address. In contrast, the prisoners have lost their certainty of self.
Moreover, as the number of subject positions which a prisoner can occupy multiplies, so too do the forms in which
they can be addressed mul t iply. Breytenbach catalogues a long list of slang terms which designate the political, social, and sexual status of a prisoner both within prison
society and without. are: A few of the terms of address he lists
You have roebane (robbers) and trassi es
(transvestites ... ), and 'grubbies' (gluttons, those who go digging in the rubbish bins for throw-away food) and howwe (the lot taken to court) and 'Hard labours' (sentenced inmates) and 'coats' who are langanas (long-timers)
. .. and rokers (pot smokers).
In general we, the prisoners, were known in the Cape as bandiete or mugus or skebengas or skolli es. The warders remained as ever, boere. 36
The ever-increasing, ever-finer distinctions, between prisoners resul ts from an at tempt to circumvent anonymi ty and to combat the process of dehumanization. The warders, who have absolute power in the prison, encounter no such split in identity or multiplication of address.
Since the prisoner is faced with a completely different social order from the one he faces outside, he must learn a new grammar, a new structure, and one which is based on institutionalized white violence. Breytenbach links the prisoner's crisis of identity to a crisis in language. His
1976 prison poem, "The Struggle for the Taal,"37 relates how the South African authorities use the Afrikaans language as a tool of cultural hegemony in order to engrain violence into the culture. Although this poem encompasses all aspects of an apartheid society, it also denotes the specific prison language and the brutality of prison life.
Both Afrikaans and prison language authorize the violence of prison. However, Breytenbach also acknowledges that a
structure which incorporates violence is prone to self-destruction. The "stuttering" of firearms refers both to the noise that a repeating revolver or machine gun makes and to the break-down of a destructive grammar or syntax into repetitious and incomprehensible syllables. A language which communicates violence cannot help but deteriorate into confusion and incomprehension. Order and irrationality cannot successfully cohabit for long, even in a South
African prison.
In contrast to the way Afrikaans is used to endorse violence, Oswald Mtshali celebrates gentleness by using the structure of Zulu praise poetry in "A Song for South
Africa."38 The poem turns away from the brutality and irrationali ty of the prison and, instead, begins wi th a chorus of players39 praising Mandela, Sisulu,40 and others still on Robben Island, "the island of heroes." The refrain, "we remember you," delivers a tribute toth-e prisoners' determination and endurance which is coloured by a tone of bitterness. Mtshali describes these victims of apartheid in agricultural imagery:
The singers hummed their song of praise, glorifying the black calves tethered with leather thongs to the Island near Cape Town, where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic .
. .. how long will the Red-bellied iguana and the White-footed warthog stay ensconced in our Kraal, where they entered by sheer elephantine force and pruned the lushness of our fields and the grasslands, and wrung the udder of our Milk-Cow Africa, the paragon of bovine docility, whose teats exude endless treasures?
The prisoners are praised for their docility; they represent patience and a series of values in opposition to those of the warthogs, the whi tes. Moreover, the inmates of Robben
Island are like Africa itself, oppressed and robbed of their life-generating treasures. Mtshali's view of the situation is neither barren and despairing like that of Zwelonke and
Brutus, nor is it distantly outraged like that of Delius.
The is-l-and is visualized as the place where the IndiaIlQc~an meets the Atlantic, the place where the divisions between b lacksan_d nwhi tes end. Rather then portraying the harsh antarctic winds which blast the island, Mtshali describes oceans teeming with life: dolphins, porpoises, and swordfishes. 41 While there is life, Mtshali sees hope that freedom will come to the "Beloved children of Africa. "42
Moreover, Mtshali's tone turns from its early bitterness to humour, as he portrays the whi tes as iguanas and warthogs forcing their way into the kraals (cattle corrals) belonging to the Africans. The whites have entered th~ Africans' land by force.
Mtshali's poem offers South Africans an almost mythic promise of re 1ease from suffering, separat ion, and sorrow.
Through the rural imagery, the poem incorporates a vision of harmony with nature, of the healing of wounds to the body and mind, and of Mandela's return from the island of heroes.
Mtshali also uses structures and syntaxes from Zulu praise poetry in affirmation of the pos it i ve aspects of African
cuI ture and in rejection of European cuI tural oppression.
The mythic significance of the milk-cow allows the poem to transcend the moment of humiliation, blood, and fear.
Instead, the poem links the richness of Africa's past with a promise of a glorious return to freedom and abundance in the near future.
Poetry written for and about prisoners, or poetry wr i t ten in pr is on, provides a record of the degradation, despair, and fear of people whose physical and mental anguish are accentuated by their struggle against the irrationality of apartheid. Zwelonke, Delius, Brutus,
Breytenbach, and Mtshali protest the brutality and injustice of the authorities who have created the atmosphere of
oppression and hate. The form in which the protest is undertaken varies wi th each poet and his cultural, political, or intellectual bias. They are united by a cause and by that strange cuI tural phenomenon they share called
Robben Island. The ability of human beings to manipulate
1anguage into al ternat i ve construct ions of real i ty and of self, and the ability to write, sing, or recite poetry coherently and continuously, prevents prison from being an effective means of silencing South Africans. Instead the conditions and techniques employed to dehumanize and to break the will-power of people like Mandela or Breytenbach have produced a new impetus to speak out. What has emerged is a body of poetry which reasserts the individual in the face of suffering, creativity in the midst of despair, and
life in the midst of death. Ilva MacKay's poem, "Mandela and all Comrades in prison," encapsulates the continuing struggle in which all prison poetry is involved:
You are just number 466/64 to them sweeping dusty paths, tilling and raking the soil of that island
... till and rake the soil Mandela like your brothers, sisters, sons and daughters who toil and sweat for Africa43
"By the v.Jaters of Babylon": Poems of Exile
By the waters of Babylon the brackish wastes of alienness lie like dust on heart and throat, contour and curve of hill and field unspeaking and meaningless as a barbarous foreign tongue 1
Dennis Brutus, in his poem "By the Waters of Babylon," uses a wasteland motif to narrate his frustrated attempt to
communicate in a foreign landscape. He succeeds in reproducing the alienation and confusion felt by all exiles in an unfamiliar place. While the specific motivation for leaving South Africa varies, the poet's exile is usually a result of his political, and not his poetic, activities. 2
Whatever the poet's poli tical views, however, almost all poems written in exile have similar strengths and weaknesses as well as common themes and approaches. Mos t poems of exile emerge out of a tension between homesickness for
Africa and a desire for political freedom. They combine a metaphysical vision of time with a nostalgia for the African scenery. Poems of exile often swing between hope for a triumphant return and despair at continuing absence, between love for South Africa, and hatred for the apartheid system, and between a call for action and spiritual malaise.
While poets like Arthur Nortje expose their personal anguish, others like Dennis Brutus impose upon their poetry a political message. However, the exiled poet, whatever his bias, banned in South Africa, has little voice at home and can be certain of reaching only a very limited audience of
fellow exiles. Moreover, the longer the poet is in exile, the more his poetry begins to differ from the poetry of his native land and the more he adopts the aesthetics and philosophical assumptions prevalent abroad. The alienation and despair of the exiled poet is reinforced by the angst of modern Western literature. "Thus," says Lewis Nkosi, "into their conversation without thinking about it very much, creep notions of alienation and metaphysical despair, all of which have no immediate relevance to the hungry millions of
Africa."3 Distance and time increase the gulf between black experience at home and abroad; fragile contacts are lost.
Al though often moving or deeply personal, poetry of exi Ie also expresses the poets' frustration at the barriers which prevent meaningful communication wi th the people for whom they write, but to whom they cannot write.
The early poems of Dennis Brutus explore the world of the troubadour, the wandering poet-minstrel of medieval
French romances. At first, Brutus treats exile as an world-wide adventure, or as a romantic struggle to prove his worth as a freedom fighter. He identifies with the troubadour who is separated from his beloved (South Africa) and who will compose songs, fight chivalrously, travel extensively so that he might prevail over his enemies. For example: A troubadour, I traverse all my land exploring all her wide-flung parts with zest
Thus quixoting till a cast-off of my land
I sing and fare, person to loved-one pressed .... 4
* * *
I will be the world's troubadour if not my country's
Being what I am a compound of speech and thoughts and song and girded by indignation ... surely I may be this cavalier?5
* * *
I am the ex i 1e am the wanderer the troubadour
(whatever they say)6
These excerpts from three poems, wri t ten between 1963 and
1978, show a striking consistency of theme and of the poet's
identification with the minstrel-knight. Although the troubadour is invested with wholly positive values, there is also an ironic undercutting of the elements of romance.
While he valiantly traverses the land, he is also comically quixotic. Moreover, while he seeks to identify himself with the world, he is rejected by his native country. He girds himself for battle, but only for a battle of words. Since the poet is so closely 1 inked to the troubadour, he seeks his identity through language and music and through association with a righteous cause. However, his self-confidence dwindles to a question mark as he becomes uncertain as to how to act in his chosen role. In tI I anI the ex i 1e, It he begins forceful 1y but is undermined by hi sown parenthetical statement which points to the mutablity of his identity and which questions the strength of his commitment by introducing the cri tical "they. II What begins as a romantic yearning ends in dark uncertainty.
The troubadour theme is merely one example of how
Brutus's poetry has been influenced by western romance. He also acknowledges the influence of metaphysical poets like
John Donne, and that of the nineteenth-century Irish literary revival, especially the early, mystical poetry of
Yeats. 7 To Cosmo Pieterse, these influences are manifested by the way Brutus links lithe physical, the human body, with the physical of nature. Soul and soil are very often transmuted, fused together." 8 Hope, renewal, and return to
South Africa are captured in a moment of transcendence in which earth and sky unite, and in which the material accomplishments of mankind are viewed as miraculous precursors of a moral triumph over evil.
Now that we conquer and dominate time hurtling imperious from the sun's laggard slouch
... how shall we question that further power waits for a leap across gulfs of storm9
Brutus's interest in time reflects a metaphysical view. Time is the enemy because it leads to death and decay rather than to positive change. However, if time can be manipulated and harnessed, perhaps a positive outcome can be achieved.
Combined with this transcendence of time is awe for modern technology. The jet airplane which allows Brutus to escape
South Africa also seems to outrun time, and points to the power of human beings to overcome their limitations. If time and space can be conquered, then so too can man overturn the evils of apartheid.
Unfortunately for Brutus, the conquering of time is
illusory. For the exile, time passes slowly and unfruitfully. The inability to affect the course of events at home, or to communicate with those left. behind, or even to influence those abroad, saps the exile of hope. Brutus uses a dead beetle's empty exoskeleton to describe the hollowness of the exile's despair:
--with the images of beetles' empty cases thin, sharp-edged and brittle slim black crackling blades--
The poet's vision, already made brittle and hollow by unfulfillment, is shattered like the "sherds" of a broken pot. As his spiritual malaise grows, Brutus accuses himself of egotism and self-aggrandisement brought about by his loneliness and his isolation from the practical realities of apartheid. 11 Distanced from South Africa, he cannot live up to his alter ego, the dynamic troubadour. Instead, the poet slowly learns to accept a passive role as the patient observer. As the haiku "Not in my hands" shows, Brutus realises that
Not in my hands is the clay of my life12
The exiled man waits for others to fulfill his vision, to shape the clay of life into a meaningful structure.
Pa t i ence, however, is battered when the passage of time refuses to yield positive growth, and results in "A long agony of passion / that wrought stone dream and marble flower"13 out of the seeds of hope.
Despi te the tendency to despair, Brutus's poetry does
not become increasingly submerged in pessimism and self-doubt. Nadine Gordimer, for instance, observes that
"Brutus seems to have drawn strength from the 'bitter bread of exile' and to have developed his gifts, fully, if perhaps differently from the way he might have at home."14 In fact, by turning a critical eye on the South African landscape,
Brutus regains a sense of purpose. By combining his political ambitions with his poetic talents, he can comment creatively on his African past. The deliberate vagueness of
"The impregnat i on of our ai r," whi ch describes a growing mili tarism among Africans as a "miasma, "15 counterbalances the homesickness for the jarcarandas in "Sequence for South
Africa."16 Wi th the stony resolve of "There are no people left in my country, "17 Brutus uses an intense awareness of the landscape of Africa to make his point. In an interview with William E. Thompson, Brutus explains that
South Africa is a landscape in which you cannot escape the pol it ics. . .. it seems to me you have to deal wi th your landscape, and that's my kind of landscape. 18
Although exiled, Brutus retains a strong love for the landscape of South Africa while he maintains an active dislike of the policies enacted by the Nationalist
Government. The tension between these two permeates much of
Brutus' poetry, creating its strong self-awareness and reinforcing its African rhythms. For example, "In my part of the world," tension is buil t through the simple repetition of the word IIAfrica. 1il9 At firs t, the poet
narrows his topic to a single location, South Africa. Thus,
"Africa" is reduced to a single signified. However, in the of exi Ie, one strengths and weakness as a political poet writing under the pressures second half of the stanza, Africa is no longer just a place; it becomes an idea. Each repetition of "Africa" picks up new meanings as it changes from a greeting to a signifier of solidarity. The tension between the opening movement to fix one meaning, and the closing movement to create a multiplicity of meanings is reinforced by the repetition of syntactical units. Because "Africa" always closes the lines, each new meaning is further emphasized. No uncertainties undermine the unity of political ideology and well-balanced poetry here.
After tallying Brutus's realises that his most prominent weakness remains his lack of an audience. Al though Brutus's early poems in Sirens,
Knuckles, Boots, were wri tten wi th a particular person or function in mind, his later poems lack an established audience. 2o A sense of alienation from people and places forms the focus of "I am alien in Africa and everywhere."21
He is both disdainful of European arrogance and hypocrisy and frustrated by the restrictions, including the banning of his poetry, he faces in Africa. In the end, he turns to his fellow exi les, Cosmo Pi eterse, Al ex la Guma, Es 'ki a
Mphahlele, and others for an alliance of outcasts. 22 Not only do they share a hatred of apartheid and a love of
Africa, but they have similar backgrounds in the European classics. Only between themselves can they reach a fully
empathic audience.
Alvarez-Pereyre points out further the problems caused by a limited audience. "For Brutus and Pieterse," he states: exile eliminated a real public; the poet soliloquizes, speaking aloud of his love for his distant homeland, speaking of his people but not to his people. The elevated nature of his views and his generosity are as much reflections of his personality as they are of his humanist education and his reading of the classics. 23
The poet has no standard but his own; he cannot escape personal indulgence. His experiences in exile temper his memories of South Africa, but he no longer shares in the everyday experiences of apartheid. If exile, as Cosmo
Pieterse suggests, can affect the poet's vision, style, range and diction,24 how effective can his poetry be in communicating a message which is more personal than pol it ical, more concerned wi th the emot ions of the exi led than with motivating an audience to action?
Cosmo Pieterse's poems, like those of Brutus, are heavily inundated with Western influences, concerns, and motifs while retaining a definite African bias.
Alvarez-Pereyre argues that "time" is a major element in
Pieterse's poems:
Pieterse's poems often refer to Time and to change: germination, shoots, flowers, fruit and above all, the berry, the perfect shape, containing both the finite and the promise of future creation. 25
For Pieterse time allows for positive change; hope is not undermined by impatience or uncertainty. Unlike Brutus,
Pieterse does not perceive time as the enemy, but as that part of nature which enables him to transcend separation from his beloved South Africa.
In "Love Exile Land," Pieterse addresses Africa as his lover, in much the same way that Brutus does in his troubadour poems. However, the dominant images are of birds and flowers; the dominant movements are flight and growth. 26
Pieterse's motherly protective thoughts lead to a dream flight home. For Pieterse the dream supersedes waking reali ty and creates its own moment in time in which it is possible to escape exile. The transference of his dream to the social world resul ts in temporary wish-fulfillment. As with Brutus, solidarity and the common goal ultimately create a benevolent future. The nptimism is mnving, but the emphasis is on poetic elevation rather than on deep meaning.
The fact that South Africa is not listening to him, and cannot listen to him, seems of Ii ttle importance to the vision. Although Africa remains the goal, Pieterse's poetry is heavily European in its tone, metaphors, and delivery, and these undermine the authority of its vision.
In contrast to both Brutus and Pieterse, other exiles write almost exclusively of their personal despair and isolation. Although Brutus expresses feelings of self-doubt and homesickness, he is able to turn his energies outwards
to poli tically-oriented poetry. Cosmo Pieterse uses his love of words to create poetry of hope and renewal. Other
exiled poets, however, are less concerned with external events or pleasant fantasies than they are with their own spiritual malaise. Perhaps the most intense of these is
Arthur Nortje. His obsession wi th his own isolation from meaningful human contact is only accentuated by exile. Very rarely, argues Al varez-Pereyre, are Nortj e' s poems of the ear ly s ixt ies not II indel ib ly marked by 'I suffered under
Verwoerd! '."27 What Nortje suffers from is one of the most vicious and subtle side-effects of apartheid: that of the barriers imposed against meaningful and spontaneous human contact. Once in exile, he is unable to overcome the alienation begun at home. Words, sentences, all human utterance, are constricted by authoritarian forces: but these broksn ssntsnces stumble to heaven on the hill despite the man with the whip who beats my emaciated words back28
Al though Nortje tries for inspired verse, his words hunger for an audience and suffer under the censor's hand.
Coherence is damaged by enforced isolation.
Lewis Nkosi, in Home and Exile, points out the psychological exile created by the apartheid system even before actual physical exile occurs:
To be a black South African is to be both unspeakably rich and incredibly poor; and also, it means to live in perpetual exile from oneself, which is worse, since to know who one is today one must be able to relate oneself in a dynamic manner to what one was yesterday.29 Nortje's poetry reveals the desperate searching of one indi vidual for contact and understanding. eut off from a
cultural or historical sense of self-worth, exiled from family and friends, Nortje describes an increasing alienation from his own thoughts. beyond even Nkosi's pronouncement.
For Nortj e, exi Ie goes
Instead, exile becomes an "alienation of temperament unable to form lasting personal relationships."30 The composing of poetry is merely one attempt to end the unbearable silence and to communicate his need for conversation and companionship.
Nortje's poems expose his "hyper introspective" nature,31 as he delves into the themes of madness, LSD trips, alcohol abuse, and the search for oblivion from pain. 32 His lines are often fragmentary and diffuse; sometimes they are even incomprehensible. His personal anguish, however, is poignantly and tragically portrayed.
In "The long silence," speech is strangled by "death and removals" and desires have "faded away like a bland murmur."
In their place:
New developments filter in or even you with measured love may break my tone of no response: the loveless essence remains the empty nights and years, husks of the exile. 33
Like Brutus, Nortje represents exile as a shell. His empty and loveless isolation is not relieved by a sense of pos i t i ve change. Unlike Brutus, Nortje does not perceive time as conquerable, and unlike Pieterse, Nortje cannot pass time by wai t ing hopefully for the frui t ion of his dream.
Instead, time is a monotonous reminder of Nortje's growing silence and despair.
The poem concludes grimly, with the following stanza:
The soul has left its slim volume of acrid poems only.
Faint smoke is a sharper reminder of fire and life than agile tongues.
Stench leaks from the gloomy tomb of treasure.
Rather than finding comfort in poetry or dreams as Brutus
and Pieterse do, Nortje's poems only reinforce his bitterness. They do not create a needed relief from silence; in fact, they are seen as a burning effigy permeating the tomb of the already poisoned and soulless poet. Regeneration is not possible for Nortje; death becomes the only relief possible.
Arthur Nortje killed himself on December 8, 1970 shortly before he was to be deported from England back to
South Africa. Like many writers in exile, he was caught between the inability to act and the intensity of his emotions. / Andre Brink describes the price which the exile pays for asylum:
I've always found it a heart-rending experience to see writers fatally tied to a society and wasting away in a foreign country. They seem to draw no sustenance from their adopted land, sucking dry the experience they grope at through memory.
Some overcome this, but for many it is a continuous downhill slide. 34
Arthur Nortje found exile a downhill slide. Unable to cope with the loneliness of exile and unable to forget the problems of South Africa, Nortje fell into a self-destructive pattern which his poetry shows. In
"Freedom," the ti tIe is ironically undercut by the poet's inability to accept the extent of his loneliness the price exacted for the freedom of a new country. Instead, he describes himself as haunted by the gods and the devil, unable to reconcile his guilt with his memories and the lack of love in his life. For Nortje,
The heart is a stone in water. stone pulse up through the swell.
It seldom manages to aid loneliness.
There is no man left alive now. 35
The last line of the stanza has a multiple significance.
Not only does it refer to the killings in South Africa, and not only does it refer to the poet's isolat ion, it also suggests that the poet himself is already dead, his heart having petrified under a flood of loneliness.
Nortje's perception of himself as a walking dead man or empty husk is only one aspect, al bei t an important one, of his overall spiritual malaise. He also writes of his disillusionment with his fellow exiles, the people he would logically turn to for companionship and for an audience for his poems. In "Autopsy," Nortje begins with "My teachers are dead men. I was too young / to grasp the ir anx i et i es, too nominal an exile". His teachers are soon narrowed to one, who although not specifically named, is obviously
Dennis Brutus. 36 That Nortje admires Brutus is obvious from the way in which he describes his masterful presence and his heroic encounters with South African prison guards. 37 However, on meeting Brutus years later in London,
Nortje was disappointed by Brutus' failure to become the voice of the black community:
The early sharpness passed beyond to noon that melted brightly into shards of dusk.
The luminous tongue in the black world has infinite possibilities no 10nger. 38
Once again, time is the harbinger of a loss of hope, and the
destroyer of "infinite possibilities." The potential leadership of Brutus, which seemed so bright in his youth, has dimmed wi th middle-age. within nor without himself.
Nortj e can find hope neither
In the end, he submits to the silence of death rather than continuing to speak in broken, disjointed verse.
While Nortje, Brutus, and Pieterse represent the most prolific exiled writers, and perhaps the writers most frustrated by their isolation from an African audience, theirs is not the only perspective on exile. For numerous poets st i 11 1 i ving in South Africa, 1 ike Sipho Sepamla, the damage to South African cuI ture caused by the loss of its exiled poets is overwhelming. Sepamla feels that the current generat ion of wri ters, cut off from the banned and exi led wri ters, suffers from a lack of continui ty in its poetic tradition. with Stephen Gray,
"I think," says Sepamla in an interview it's unfortunate that we are compelled not to continue where they left off. We are compelled to begin, as it were, from the beginning. This means the groping that is taking place is harder and more painful, and
I think it's unfortunate that this is the case. 39
Frustrated by the gulf between him and those poets in exile,
Sepamla realises that an irreparable splintering of the
voices of South Africa has occurred. The concerns of the exile are foreign to South Africans at home. Moreover, the poets in exile can only write of memories; they lose contact with the actual conditions at home.
In his poem "The Exile," Sepamla addresses the fading memory of an exiled friend. From the little information he gains from newspapers, he learns of his friend's progress in the new world. Exploiting the parable of the prodigal son,
Sepamla closes the poem with the promised return:
Teach at that University of Life while I prepare the fatted cow for a son exiled for growing too big for his boots!40
Sepamla's humorous tone neither undercuts his triumphant prediction, nor seems as unrealistic as Pieterse's dream reunion. He promises a healing of the gap between exiled poets and the poets at home without appearing impractical.
He also offers the exiles an enthusiastic audience and a reason to keep writing while they are separated by space and time from the object of their discourse.
On March 21, 1975, on the fifteenth anniversary of the
Sharpeville massacre, numerous exiled poets met for a poetry sympos i um at the Uni vers i ty of Texas in Aus t in, Texas. 4 1
The poets included Dennis Brutus, Cosmo Pieterse, Mongane
Wally Serote, and Oswald Mtshali. They had an opportunity to read their poems to a willing audience. The silence of exile was breached, if only for a short time; a divided
community was temporarily united. Hope for a positive change in South African politics lessened the sense of isolation and confirmed the commitment to continue the struggle for which they were banned. Several other such symposia have been held before and since, celebrating the poetry of African exiles and the continued voice of protest.
In between these meetings, however, distance and the passage of time continue to undermine positive outlooks. The spiritual malaise which helped to destroy Arthur Nortje can only be conquered when these poets are allowed to speal{ meaningfully to all South Africans. During a panel discussion on contemporary South African poetry, Oswald
Mtshali asserted the exile's inability to forsake his homeland: One wonders then whether there is any meaningful exile in the sinister sense of abandoning one's cause. There is no such thing, it seems to me it is this nostalgia, this consciousness of the predicament of those left back home, this weight of sorrow, this excruciating awareness of the fact that ... there are others who are
... suffering on Robben Island. 42
Nadine Gordimer views lithe colour-line" as the barrier which prevents all wri ters from creating " a transcending experience Africa .... "1 experience between in South black and the ideological, gap by of human while the
1S perpetrated
text of the totality white economic, and physical barriers of a segregated society,
Ii terary efforts to expose the gap, and sometimes to close it, have from the 1960's onwards generated a large body of poetry. Sympathetic white publishers, like Mike Kirkwood of
Ravan Press, founder of Staffrider, have provided new avenues through whi ch poets of all races can share their ideas and experiences. Many whi te authors, like Gordimcolr, who wrote the introduction to Oswald Mtshali's Sounds of a
CowJlide J)rum, are also willing to bridge the gap and try to understand the imagery and rhythms of township life.
The gulf between the overcrowded povert.y of the black townships, such as Soweto, and the weal th of the whi te cities, especially Johannesburg and Cape Town, is the focus of much of the writing which evaluates the apartheid system.
However, apartheid also influences how black poets are received and evaluated as compared to whites. Most notably, writers disagree over critical terminology; for e x ampIe, wh i 1 e a whit e c r i tic migh t use ater m s u chas
"township art" as a description of a certain style of contemporary poetry, to Oswald Mtshali the term seems patronizing. 2 Mtshali resents the attempt to classify his
poetry according to the boundaries which segregate his society, the boundaries against which he protests in his poems. Nonetheless, the vast outpouring of art, music, prose, and poetry make the townships important cultural and political centres, worthy of critical scrutiny. Rather than isolating township poetry from serious critical evaluation, critics must acknowledge that all aspects of daily township life and cuI ture are interrelated, and affect the poetry produced with almost the same impact as violent events like the Sharpeville Massacre and the 1976 Soweto riots. 3
Not all poetry about township life is written by township inhabitants. C.J. Driver, who lives in exile, and
Jennifer Davids, who lives in white Cape Town, write about how they perce i ve the townships from outs ide. Driver's
It Afternoon in an Afri can Township II is \'I1Ti t t en in memory of the shootings at Langa on the same day as the Sharpeville
Massacre.'.! He uses negati ves, to echo the type of denial and censorship which allows many whites to escape the reality of the Nationalist government's actions in the townships: The streets do not run
With blood.
The houses
Are not burning.
There are on [sic] children. s
Whi Ie the fi rs t t\"lO sen t ences deny the massacre, the 1as t sen t ence tell s the truth: there are no chi Idren; they have all been killed. The simple, repetitive syntax quietly reveals the tragedy to those whom censorship and official propaganda has kept ignorant.
Jennifer Davids' "Location Fires" describes how the actual landscape has to be imagined since the truth is hidden from outsiders:
Beneath my eyelids the landscape is heavy the people are buried in groundclinging shapes of houses
From Langa to Nyanga the fires are hidden the landscape is flattened frightened and silenced6
For Davids, the devastation of the township is barely imaginable; her vision is obscured, while the landscape
itself has been distorted and silenced. As an outsider,
Davids can only try to comprehend what she cannot experience and cannot know for certain.
Most township poetry, written in the townships themselves, is either recited for" small audiences or published in a handful of Ii terary journals like Ophir,
Staffrider, Classic, and New Classic. 7 The purpose of these journals is to promote black Ii terature and the ideas of
Black Consciousness. Steve Biko, the founder of the South
African Students Organization (SASO) and a victim of police torture, adopted the term Black Consciousness to provide
"the ideological basis for an emphasis upon unity-in-oppression, for the assertion of 'Black' cultural values, and for a militant expression of 'Black' political aspirations." 8 In the case of Staffrider, Black
Consciousness is epi tomized by the staffrider figure. The staffrider is lias light-fingered as he is fleet-footed. A skilful entertainer, a bringer of messages, a useful person but slightly disreputable." g The staffrider is
Ii terally someone who rides on the outside of trains to avoid paying the fares or being asked for his pass.
Motshile Nthodi's poem, "Staffrider, II was published in the fi rst issue of its namesake journal. excitment and danger of staffriding: listen to the shouting and whistles from the audience in that tube when I swing on the outer handle and rest on the bottom stair
THAT'S THEATRE HEY railway police chasing me
I jump the platform the railway line the fence this is the Saturday programme and till we meet again thank you brothers and sisters, thank you. 10
It describes the
The good-humoured staffrider assumes the tone of a radio programme announcer or a circus ringmaster. He is the emb lem of everyday II subvers i ve II entertainment in which the railway police are viewed as the keystone cops and the staffrider as the dashing hero. Resistance through humour is one of the few alternatives to bitterness and violence still accessible to a black audience.
While oral literature and literature in the vernacular flourishes mostly in the rural "homelands," ozibongo or praise poe(;r.v is sometimes integrated into the structure of
township poetry. Mazisi Kunene, most famous for his epic poems about the Zul u "Emperor Shaka The Great"ll, also adopts praises to protest the mass violence perpetrated by the army and the police and to mourn for the suffering of blacks. I offer you screams of a thousand mad men
Who scream to those without mercy
Who scream over the graveyards
Of skeletons, piled on piles
Bones dislocated from their joints. 12
Praise poetry uses a specialized syntax of parallel constructions and repetition as well as a precise series of symbolic representations. Whi Ie "The Screams" is not a praise poem as such, it uses similar techniques of syntax and symbolism. For instance, the dislocated bones represent physical torture of the living, and a disjointed social order which tears apart culture and tradition, community and family. The speaker addresses a black audience living closely wi th the same types of horrors described in the poem. He is also addressing a white audience, offering them the screams they have caused. Al varez-Pereyre argues that
Kunene "is not concerned wi th a love for the past but with the urge to regain his dignity and force the white man to acknowledge the African, the 'Other,' he has so long ignored and humiliated. "13 Through his cont inued respect for Zulu tradition, Kunene combines the techniques of praise poetry with the concerns of modern political realities.
Besides oral performances, common cultural experiences from "mealie meal" to commuter trains are recorded in
township poetry. "The small events of daily life," argues
Alvarez-Pereyre, "project a way of 'being-in-the-world'.
They can be related with a certain detachment and the general approach can be one of acid humour rather than complaint."14 For example, Lerato Kumalo' s "Chi ldhood in
Soweto" begins by ironically proving that the "childhood" of her title is not possible in Soweto:
There are no playgrounds no parks but plenty dust children compete cars bicycles hungry mongrels narrow streets and garbage there is no childhood in Soweto I5
The catalogue of poverty destroys any notion of positive childhood experiences. Instead, the normal playground of
Soweto children is dusty streets and garbage heaps.
Kumalo's poem is community-oriented; it is social protest.
In contrast, II va Mackay uses the experience of township riots in a more openly political poetry which adopts the slogan "Mayibuye" as its title. 16 The struggle of the blacks for unity against their oppressors becomes a song of heroism and ascribes a metaphorical mother-child relationship to that between Africa and Africans. The poem balances the past massacres of blacks armed only with stones, against future battles in which blacks will be armed with guns and a promise of success. Both Kumalo and Mackay protes t aparthei d, but whi Ie one concen t rat es on the bleak
aspects of everyday township life, the other envisages future revolutions born from past outbreaks of violence.
Mongane Wally Serote is less certain than Kunene,
Kumalo, or Mackay about the communal sensibilities of urban
South Africans.
Serote says:
In an interview with Michael Chapman,
I have always wanted to be guided in my writing by the aspirations of my people.
However, in none of my poetry collections so far do I fully understand this collective creativity. Had I, the four books would have been written differently.l?
Serote is a careful observer of human beings. He records the emptiness of many people's lives, the desperate struggle just to survive the high unemployment, lack of food, and the suspicion that one's neighbour is an informer. In "Ode to
Somebody, II the narrator's description of eyes "brol{en; and empty; and shut," is counterbalanced by a plea for somebody to "say a prayer. "18 Since Serote is unable to pray to a
God who passively stands by while "everything is broken", he cannot find relief from the barrenness of township souls.
He searches for somebody who is not empty, who can still believe, and who can still act even if the action is only to pray. A similar dearth of spiritual hope is found in "A
Sleeping Black Boy." Ignored by all who pass him, the boy is not a nursery-rhyme innocent, but drugged as leep after smoking glue. 19 A community which ignores rather than protects its children is a dying community. Serote's desire to be inspired by his community is frustrated by the lack of
hope, the squalor, and the passive acceptance which permeates much of township society.
Despite his pessimism, Serote finds more positive inspiration in the June 16, 1976 uprising of Soweto children and in the increasingly forceful voice of Black
Consciousness. In "Time has run out," Serote summarizes the effects of the school children's protest march in Soweto:
School children took to the streets one day. There will never be another Soweto. There are many kinds of death, and Soweto knows them all; South Africa too, and
Southern Africa. You cannot kill children like cattle and then hope that guns are a monopoly.20
The anger created by the shoot ing of the chi 1dren, and the increas ing pol it ical awareness among average blacks, gi ves
Serote new strength and hope for political change at the same time as it fills him with anger. The martyring of the children increases the threat to white control. The violence of the whites improves the cultural and psychological hold of Black Consciousness on the imaginations of township peoples.
The passive suffering Serote records in "Amen!
Alexandra"21 is countered by the strength and defiance he records in "What's in this Black 'Shit'" and "Hell, Well
Heaven." The black shit Serote writes about is not that of the black man who swallows back his anger and bile to say
"baas" to a white official, but that of the man who curses him loudly to his face. 22 The willingness of Serote's character to face a direct confrontation shows a breakdown of the politically indifferent attitude of blacks as seen in
the curser's father. Once protest becomes verbal and directed outwardly rather than inwardly, positive action becomes possible. In "Hell, Well, Heaven" the passivity and suffering of the past are overturned by moving forward with determination: I do not know where I have been,
To have despair so deep and deep and deep
But Brother,
I know I'm coming. 23
The strong walking rhythm of this poem along with its gospel tone and refrain emphasize a sense of hope in opposition to the despair of an unchanging hell. As Alvarez-Pereyre points out, "Serote is the voice of the Black Consciousness movement, minus its didacticism but with the lyrical power of the poet."24
Lewis Nkosi in Home and Exile isolates the strong musical influence on urban African writing:
... South African writing abrasions and tensions of society; it was fast, jazzy, ill at ease .... 25 reflected the a colour-bar violent, [and]
Jazz, with its fast-paced energy and violent rhythms, provides the angry emphasis of protest poetry; moreover, the rhythms of the blues underline black suffering. The characters in these poems are often either victims or victimizers; rather than simply expressing individual suffering, they often criticize prevalent attitudes of indifference or passive acceptance in township communities.
The protest against social, rather than merely individual, problems is part of the African oral tradition, especially
in ozibong'o or praise poetry. Al though Kunene uses praise poetry as a source of traditional narrative forms and motifs,26 Gwala, Jensma, and Mt s hal iuse Zu 1u 0 r Xl:lQ1Hl....fQrms..__ ,.. --,._-_...,.•._...,.>._~-~-~---'- blues. The dramatic tensions between rural traditions and urban culture, between descriptions of political oppression and the outpourings of .iEl'epteEl.~:il;>.le vitCilii:;y and lJ.:tJ.Dlour, and between violent and passive attitudes, produce poetry of conflict and emotional intensity.
Wopko Jensma shares Serote' s need to break free from the status quo, and like Serote he uses language and a looseness of syntax to produce a sense of spontaneity.
Moreover, as Alvarez-Paereyre points out, Jensma is a master of phonetic ~j:)el!~:':1JL~.~ he crosses the barriers of language and the restrictions of spelling. 27 While Jensma celebrates concentration on jazz rhythms and sounds.' ~ . h~ i.s a 1.:;;; 0 possessed by a need to describe the physica-l viol~nce and destruction 0 life which dominates township life. In
",Toburg Spiritual, II the first
--~----...\..~---- ----"".'- sequence is written in phonetic Englisl1__lI~()m the point of view of a young man who
The narrator's speech is
The cool, . relaxed ton~ of the n::irxatur.911anges in the second sequenc.e lp~:tElad, he repeats the "i saw her" structure, indicating his role as observer, who sympathizes but who cannot act. 29 The poverty, mutilation, self-destruction, and humilation Jensma sees is only momentarily relieved by a grin or an act of
heroism. Unable to turn away and yet also unable to act, the narrator becomes a vessel through whom the reader learns of black experiences.
Jensma finds escape from inaction in the__ rhythms.--_an4 movement of jazz. Numerous poems, like "Pullin Strong at
Eleven-Forty-Fi ve," are dedicated to jazz mus icians, 1 ike
Champion Jack Dupree. Jazz infuses "living with the rhythm and freedom which tends to be suppressed in everyday life .... "30 A fight over a woman takes place against a musical backdrop: till morn in an eevnin peewee'n malombo jazz oh gee boys, who's dat man dere blow a flute, boy you's my kinda guy -- oh hea'm his byebye baby any monday walkin a of blues as jimmy rushing says: any monday 'n she aint your girl, she aint my girl no, she's anybody's goddamn gir131
The humour and vi tali ty of this poem is carried by its dialect and by its jazzy beat, rather than just by its subject. The daily speech and concerns of township blacks is augmented by the musical elements.
Mafika Gwala also focuses on the value of jazz music to black ghetto life. However, unlike Jensma or Serote, Gwala
"tries to straddle the tradi tional and the new, the rural and the urban, the praise song and the jive, human and Black consciousness. ft32 For instance, Gwala illustrates the black view of contraceptives as anti-life and as an attempt by whites to suppress the black population:
She laughs
She bitterlaughs -- scoffs at the Pill and Abortion.
Points out white immigration and the "Botha Baby".
Add: "Contracepted sex would spoil my womanhood.
Beside, to fall pregnant is to continue with LIFE".
She dances
She dances to a live tune.
Jazz never was stamped "Made in USA"33
For Gwala jazz is African life; the language of jazz, even more than township slang, epitomizes the black identity.
However, although Gwala is always defiant, his vision is not
always attractive. In "Gumba, Gumba, Gumba," Gwala delineates the daily struggle for survival in Soweto. 34 The daily obscenities, indignities, and death are heard through language, understood through language, but retaliation is not just in the words or music but in the violence and revolutionary struggle as well. For blacks, the word
"struggle" is in itself a euphemism for revolution. Even the world of Jensma' s sparkling hot jazz is not immune to the grim actualities.
In 1971 Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali sold 16,000 copies in
South Africa of his first volume of poetry, entitled Sounds of a Cowhi de Drum. 35 Mtshali's success stems in part from his emphasis on his Zulu roots and in part from his distinctly Sowetan mixture of English with Zulu and
Afr ikaans .36 Mtshali, like Kunene, speaks to the detribalized of the fragmented roots of their indigenous
culture. However, like Jensma and Gwala, he also addresses the urban African in the major images and dialects of his daily life. Above all Mtshali's poetry combines irony and compassion for the blacks victimized by apartheid. Similarly to Serote's glue-drugged boy, Mtshali' s IIBoy on a Swing ll emphasizes the helplessness and naivety of the children.
The boy asks his mother, IIWhere did I come from? / When \\li11
I wear long trousers?1I questions a boy of any colour might ask. However, these innocent questi ons are followed by a final, adult question IIWhy was my father jailed?ff 37 The last question is the starting point for anger and political awareness. Suddenly a boy at play becomes a potential soldier of the ANC.
Other victims, however, are treated wi th less pathos and more bitterness when Mtshali paints them as their own 0PI?xe~si on. In ffThe
Washerwoman's Prayer, II the sympathet ic des cript i on of her
II raw , knobbly and calloused ll hands leads into a dramatic prayer to God asking "Why am I so tormented?" The sympathy for the washerwoman's misery is undermined, however, by her grateful acceptence of the Lord's response: liMy child! Dear child!", she heard, ffSuffer for those who live in gilded sin,
Toil for those who swim in a bowl of pink gin. 1I38
She not only misses the sarcasm in the line but she does not question the justice or the morality of a God which endorses white supremacy. Moreover, she wi 11 ingly suffers not for her own sins passivity is but for the in part s ins of her whi te employers. Her responsible for her suffering.
Njabulo S. Ndebele argues that Mtshali's poetry emphasizes the utter hopelessness of an unquestioning and an unchanging society.39 Unlike Serote or Gwala, Mtshali does not celebrate the positive, life-giving aspects of township culture, "their moments of joy and creative togetherness, and their search for themselves -- all of which would lead to a celebration of their struggle for survival. "40 The passive, apolitical attitudes of the 1111npe1.1proletariat are at the root of Mtshali' 13 anger; his protests are directed not at the injustices of the whites but at the compliance of the blacks.
In "The Detribalised",41 Mtshali describes the cultural emptiness of a township couple who have little in the way of education but who wear American and European fashion, who use "Artra, Hi-IJite / skin lightening cream," and who unkink their hair. They have no bonds to tribal culture but they have also no urban culture which is not borrowed from white society. Although the unnamed man has gone to jail in
Johannesburg, he is not po 1 i tical and reads the spec i al black edi t ions of whi t e-controll ed newspapers. In short,
Consciousness but they also aspire to pass for white. this detribalized couple not only totally lack Black
the unnamed man never calls a whi te man "baas", he is victimization is not the washerwoman's, implicitly compliant towards religious the like status quo. His but cultural and ideological. The detribalized are not heroic
victims; they are neither admirable nor sympathetic.
Mtshali himself says that "In my writing, I'm not trying to elicit sympathy, I'm not indulging in self-pity, I'm not apologizing for anything."42
On the other hand, not all of Mtshal i 's poetry is di rect ed in anger agains t black comp lacency. Some of his poems, like the one which eulogizes Mtshali' s brother Ben, are also a promise of change and revenge. This poem is
... germinated in the seedbed of seething fury, the fury of an endless search -relentless for the truth -though no truth will ever alleviate the sorrow at the loss of my bother, Ben.
It is to him that I dedicate my entire life.
It is to him that I devote my whole being, to ferret out every fact that will lead me to the skulking perpetrators of the dastard deed, that rendered my twn beloved nieces,
Thembi and Zanele, fatherless. 43
The sheer determination and sincere grief and fury which fill the poem do not dwell on victimization but on victory, not on acceptance but on revenge.
_.-_.--~~.....,.....-~~_."~_.~~---~'-.~._~~ - At the same time Mtshali acknowledges that uncovering the truth will not alleviate the present suffering,_but it will satisfy a need to strike back. Hope lies in strength and in angl?T ~ not in
Although Sipho Sepamla has lived all his life in
Soweto, and although he has edited New Classic and
periods. he has never been exiled or imprisoned for long
Instead, he seems to wri te protest poetry which the state will tolerate. 45 Sepamla's poetry tends to be
directed more towards the reforming views of white liberals than towards raising the consciousness of black workers.
For example, in "Measure for Measure", Sepamla addresses himself to white officials and in an ironic tone seems to comply with white policy: count me enough wages to make certain that i grovel in the mud for more food teach me just so much of the world that i can fit into certain types of labour and when all that is done let me tell you this you'll never know how far i stand from you46
The digni ty of Sepaml a's speaker is founded in a strong sense of self-worth despi te the poor economic and social posi tion his low wages and lack of education dictate. The inability of the white official to understand the black speaker is a weapon of resistance. In "Chi 1 dren of the
Earth" the poet varies his choice of stanza patterns and language to contrast the official social policies of the
Nationalist government with the real poverty and social problems they create. 47 S e pam 1a i sol at e s soc i ali11 n e sses and combats the whi te-washed rhetoric of the state wi th direct language which translates the double-speak into what
"that is" in actuality.
Sepamla's main talent lies in his ability to expLoit language for humorous effects. He combines a style of broken English with "township Xhosa" and "tsotsi-taal"48 to induce a linguistic interplay which underlines his point.
I !
For instance, in "The Bookshop" the speaker's good-natured banter is strengthened by his broken grammar and his assertions of literacy and ironically undercut by the speaker's apologetic tone:
Here I is
Too literate to reads comics and the Bible
I walks into a bookshop a newspapers in one armpit
The likes of me can be excused for being literate
Besides a good sight is a literate me49
The pun on "a literate" reveal the speaker's ability to create sophisticated linguistic play while at the same time
pleading ignorance. Moreover, the speaker's love of
English-language magazines while at the same time rejecting childish comics and whi te religion indicates a selectivi ty of cultural stimuli. The beginning of cuI tural awareness comes with the beginning of literary judgement.
Other poems, like "To Whom It May Concern", parody the language of official documents such as passes. The bearer of the pass is allowed to travel "Subject to these particulars / He lives / Subject to the provisions / Of the
Urban Nat i ves Act of 1925 / Amended often". 5 0 Sepamla's love for Soweto and his pride in the vi tal i ty of township culture enables him to mock Passes, to criticize apartheid sharply and to use sophisticated language. Even more than
Gwala and Jensma, Sepamla is conscious of the musicality of words. In such poems as "The Blues is You in Me" and "The
Soweto Blues,"51 blues beats are used to slow down lines and to reveal the dreary depression or to create a fast tempo in line with the upbeat anger or the poet. Sepamla's "use or irony [is) more powerful and more varied than Mtshali's
He does not have Serote' s forcefulness .... " 5 2 Certainly,
Sepamla's sense of humour celebrates the cuI tural variety and endurance of Soweto as much as it cri ticizes social problems. The explosion of poetry in Soweto and Alexandra in the seventies, both in defiance of oppression and in celebration of life, has its roots in jazz and the blues, as well as in traditional oral poetry. Moreover it touches on all aspects of township daily life as well as on various crises in the struggle to end apartheid. Township poetry is both angry and enco~~~ging; it is both hopeful and desperate for change. Although it is dominated by the ideology of Black
Consciousness, and although it records black experience, it is not exclusively written by blacks, nor are its messages confined to Soweto. It exposes stereotyped behaviour and tries to speak for the victims of oppression everywhere in
South Africa while at the same time speaking to them. Above all, township poetry is a balancing of tensions to produce a vi tal cuI ture which is one of the few things .. most urban
South Africans have left to lose and which is perhaps the one thing that keeps poets like Sipho Sepamla going:
I will hay'e to ask for my slum location again
L feel a lot went wrong when I was moved from it a lot died in the process
I lost my stance for standing up straight
I lost the rhythm of walking right
I lost my sense of humour
I lost the feel for loving
I lost my sense of smell
... I know I don't just want fresh air
I need the smell of sweaty life oh yes I want to live colourfully once more53
-r r-i E:' t~ f:~ ri Sf) r' ~:~ fl ci C: tt J t. tl r t'\ ~ .r a .l k .i r'~ 9 t C) t r! G' P E~ i":i c: r! r t". C:." (-::! words have lost meaning like all notations they've been misused most people will admit a whining woman can overstate her case
Let's talk to the peach tree find out how it feels to be in the groundl
A word often associated wi th South African poet.ry is
" comm i t men t II : commitment to political protest, to human communication regardless of colour barriers and censorship, and to African cuI ture regardless of Western influences.
However, the diversity of languages, ideologies, and cultural backgrounds has led to a struggle, not just against the II gagging ll of poets by the censors, but to define what constitutes South African culture. Afrikaners,
English-speaking South Africans (ESSA), and Africans are all looking for artists who will articulate their group's place in South African culture and who will elevate their group's achievements and aspirations over all other contributors to the cultural matrix. Geoffrey Haresnape points out that llmany reformers and activists need versifiers to bring emotional and incantatory powers into the service of their political programmes. ll2 As Sepamla's llTalk to the Peach
Tree ll suggests, commitment to propaganda often interferes with the commitment to meaningful communication as the poets overstate their case. In turn, the censors encourage some voices and inhibit others, not necessarily according to the degree of commi tment but according to how the Nationalist government perceives the "subversiveness" of any individual
poem or poet. Breyten Breytenbach was published from prison, albei t regard him as while Dennis slightly censored, the volksdigter of
Brutus was banned because many Afrikaners the Afrikaans language, even after release from prison on the grounds that he is a Communist. 3 How successfully any poetry influences the shaping of South
African society can be in part evaluated in light of how strongly the censors seek to control or suppress it.
The Afrikaner hegemony over government policies "was built on a foundation of language and culture, church and politics."4 The Nationalist state has incorporated most of the media, including radio, television, and the
Afrikaans-language newspapers into its power structure. 5
Moreover, the government has set up a comprehensive network of censorship laws to protect Afrikaans culture from foreign, ESSA, and black influences even when they do not express overtly political themes. Sexual explici tness, as
John Dugard threatening Communism. 6 explains, is seen as being particularly and is associated, however distortedly, with
The Pub 1 i cat ions Appeal Board annually publishes a digest of banned books. Many books are censored on the grounds that they are pornographic. Christopher Hope regards the digest as proof that the censors' chief aim is not to prohibit politically subversive material but to regulate all aspects of publication which might threaten
Afrikaner cultural values.?
White liberals have long protested literary censorship as a dangerous practice inhibiting artistic freedom and the
exchange of intellectual ideas. respond with self-censorship,
However, numerous liberals and a tendency to write uncontroversial verse. Stephen Watson views the liberal poetry of Guy Butler and Christopher Hope as disastrously bland, consisting "of so much unleavened, if not half-baked dough."S While Watson is perhaps extreme in his aesthetic condemnation of liberal poetry, he is not nearly as harsh as
Steve Biko, who accused white liberals of attempting to speak for blacks rather than permi tting blacks their own voice. Biko resented the whi te intellectual's arrogance which assumes the role of negotiator between black and
Afrikaans cultures and thus inadvertently contributes to the silencing of black voices. 9 Moreover, despite liberals' avowals of intellectual openness, they often engage in racist discourse. Sepamla's "Civilization Aha," reveals the ideological collusioIl __b_eJ:wf1en the explicitly racist policies of the government and Christianity: i thought of a whiteman the first time i saw god's portrait i thought of a blackman the first time I met satan on earth i must be honest it wasn't only bantu education it was all part of what they say is western civilization. 10
Even Christianity, the most well-intentioned aspect of white culture, is viewed as detrimental to Black Consciousness and culture. By attaching a positive meaning to "white" and a negative one to "black," white supremacist doctrine becomes
fixed intgxeligious discourse. The dangers of hidden or inadvertent censorship of ideas is difficult to assess, when long-term goals of persuading the government to alter apartheid have the immediate result of aiding the efforts of official censors to silence dissent.
The ability of writers to disseminate ideas is hampered by the double barriers of language and illiteracy. Although there are almost twice as many Afrikaans speakers as there are white English speakers, most South African literature is written in English. 11 Afrikaans, Zulu, and Xhosa speakers, while often versed in English, are nonetheless at a cultural disadvantage. Both Al varez-Pereyre and Ezekial Mphahlele argue that the advantages of wri ting English outweigh the disadvantages. For example, the use of English allows
African poets to experiment wi th new forms and provides a written tradition which encourages poets to confront adversity.12 Moreover, the poet's audience is greatly increased if he writes in English than if he writes in Zulu or Tswana. 13 However, Lewis Nkosi argues that African culture cannot be reclaimed from colonial ideologies if writers wage the battle in a European language. 14
Ironically, Western mythologies and imagery have replaced tradi tional African cuI tural emblems even in poetry which protests white supremacy:
(Apollo was martyred by the masters and the keepers of the keys of the kingdom made us eat husKs and baboon flesh while they drank the nectar)15
Nort j e' s prot es t agains t the economi c depress i on of black
Africans associates African images of husks and baboons with poverty and ignorance, and Wes tern images of nectar wi th
white economic and educational superiority. Nortje's choice of classical mythology undercuts the value he places on black poets when he identifies the poet with Apollo, a figure alien to the African context.
Further difficulties in communication result from the low literacy rate (51%) among blacks as compared to the over
70% literacy of whites, Asians, and Coloureds. 16 A large percentage of the black population is cut off from ideas which are presented in written form. Although African poetry is traditionally performed orally, and although both rural and urban black poets continue to reci te poetry to large audiences, the transmission of white and coloured poetry exiled to illiterate blacl{s, is curtailed. poet succeeds in get t ing his poetry
Even if published an in South Africa under a pseudonym,l? he cannot be assured even then that his poems will reach the illiterate or semi-literate. of 1 anguage and 1 i teracy, a mul t i tude of censorship
Beyond the limitations poet is also subjected to designed to eliminate the ideological enemies of the laws the Nationalist government, namely Soviet Communism, Western liberalism, black theology and nationalism, and Black
Consciousness itself. 18 The 1974 Publications Act is the main mechanism of Ii terary censorship and, while it has reduced the severity of obscenity and blasphemy censorship, it has also increased political censorship, especially that of black protest. Under this act, magazines, journals, reviews, and anthologies produced by black artists and editors are banned. I9 In addition, the Advocate General Act makes it an offence to comment on official corruption and misconduct. Poets themselves are most often banned under the Suppression of Communism Act (1966) . The act is extensively used to ban and/or to expel actual Communists as well as non--Communists, and anti-Communists. 20 The
Government defines a terrorist almost as loosely as it defines a Communist. Under the Terrorism Act a terrorist 18 anyone who has lithe effect of encouraging forcible resistance to the government,1I or whose actions are viewed as II caus ing feelings of hostility between whites and blacks. 1I2I
Nadine Gordimer places in perspective the resul ts of the comprehensive network of legislation:
In South Africa there are 97 defini tions of what is officially "undesirable ll in literature: subversive, obscene, or othervise
II offens i ve" . They are not always invoked, but are there when needed to suppress a particular book or silence an individual writer. 22
In contrast to the numerous official definitions of what is subversive, Oswald Mtshali's assertion that "Writing poetry is not a subversive pastime ll23 seems a naive, or at least an unrealistic defence. The content of a poem is not easily separated from the poet's politics since anyone banned under the Internal Security Act, whether living in South Africa or abroad, cannot be quoted or published without official
permission. 24 Any writing by a person under a political ban, no matter what the subject or form, is automatically banned. Thus, Dennis Brutus, who was banned for his activities as a critic of apartheid in sports rather than for his activities as a poet, cannot be published in South
Africa and, as far as South African literature is concerned,
"Brutus could be described as a black hole. "25 No matter how innocuous the poem, the poet's status as a subversive makes his writing subversive.
Censorship legislation is not the end of Government interference in a writer's life.
Andre Brink asserts that there is a special section of Security Police whose operations are directed towards the surveillance and intimidation of writers (always bearing in mind that our lives were still easy compared to those of Black wri ters who could, and still can, be openly persecuted with the crudest and most brutal of means insul t, assault, detention, 'banishment,' deprival of income, of social contact, or of the means to pub 1 ish ... ) .26
If attacking the poet is insufficient to stop him from publishing, the publisher is also open to attack. On March
13 and 19, 1987 the publishing offices of Ravan Press were vandalized. On the first occasion two men stole money and defaced property and on the second occasion three men pet rol-bombed the offi ces. 2 7 No one can claim that such extreme response to black wri ters and their publishers is rational or justifiable on the grounds that the literature is violent.
One result of official censorship and of the violence
is the strong psychological pressure NOT to write, especially among those writers who not only stay in South
Africa, but who have either had a book banned or are under a personal ban. "Having a book banned," says Sepamla, whose novel A Ride on the Whirlwind, and whose volume of poetry
The Soweto I Love, have both been banned, "di scourages, demoralises and depresses yoU."28 The emotional cost to the writer is high, but so is the cost to the quality of writing. Prison, exile, bans, and police surveillence isolate many writers not only from their potential audience but from their fellow writers. Sepamla argues that isolation is detrimental to writers not only because it prevents the exchange of ideas, but also because it prevents the exchange of technical know-how. 29 Young writers cannot learn from the successes and failures of older writers; they are cut off from the benefi ts of an unpruned tradi t ion.
Lacking a literary past, many poets write in a vacuum, wi thout a sense of direction and wi thout a well-developed aesthetic judgement.
A third effect of censorship is the gagging of many writers; not only do they stop writing protest poetry, but they simply stop writing. Don Mattera, a poet banned for his political activism, was placed under a five-year ban
November 20, 1973 which was renewed for five years in 1978 and finally lifted in May, 1982. Although the ban has been
removed, Mattera is unable to overcome the silence produced by long-term isolation:
I was one of the most gregarious beings I know. I was a people's man. And now having been cut off from the people, and taken away from the very important, very vital life of peopleness and moving around, of touching and being touched, and suddenly thrown into a world of isolation and rejection .... I moved into this lonely world, the world of the forgot ten, the world of the and you die. I died. dying and I stopped writing. to write. I couldn't see writing again. 3D twilight people
It was a heavy
And I refused the purpose of
Mattera movingly describes two extremes: the gregarious man and the silenced man, the social being and the forgotten being. Mat tera lost direction and purpose, and, al though the ban is now lifted, he remains directionless. Moreover, the gagging of individual writers and writing has a cumulative effect over time. It is not just writers but all
South Africans who are silenced. Lewis Nkosi argues that
"Under the circums tances it is di ffi cuI t to see how South
Africans can recover their lost potential for speech. "31
"Under the censor's guillotine," by Pitika Ntuli, describes poignantly the stifling of poetry.32 The brutal treatment of the poet dissolves his voice into the elements and his words are dissolved into meaningless sounds. However, Ntuli does not despair, realising that the wind carries sound, the beginn ing of speech. Despite the oppressor's violence, poetry cannot be completely guillotined as long as the potential for speech remains.
How to oppose censorship is an open debate amongst most
South African wri ters. Two strategies have emerged: the first, advocated by Nadine Gordimer, is to boycott the whole censorship apparatus; the second is to work within the system and appeal any banning of one's own books.
Gordimer's famous statement that "We shall not be rid of censorship until we are rid of apartheid"33 has been taken up by Sipho Sepamla and Breyten Breytenbach. 34 This comprehensive disdain for all censorship and the whole apartheid system is echoed by Andr~ Brink, who writes that
"Unless every single author in the country can be assured of a 'square deal' there can be no peace of mind for anyone alse [sic]."35 However, despite the ideological purity of these writers, "total boycott" translates as exile or as not writing at all.
The struggle against individual banning orders is fought on numerous fronts. Even the choice of poetry over prose is in part a tactic employed by black writers to avoid censorship.36 While a volume of poetry by one poet is easy to ban, anthologies, poetry journals, mimeographs, and oral recitations by numerous authors make censorship a more complex, less successful venture. For instance, al though individual issues of 8taffrider are banned and sometimes unbanned, Kirkwood has not withdrawn the journal from publication. Instead, his strategy is to distribute as many copies of any given issue as possible BEFORE banning becomes official, thus assuring that some censored malerial reaches the public. 37
Dennis Brutus employed yet another strategy after his
release from Robben Island and before his exile. Although he was prohibi ted from wri ting poetry, he was allowed to write letters. Working within the proscribed limits, Brutus found a creative outlet by writing a series of poem-letters, mostly to his sister-in-law, Martha, which have since been published as Letters to Martha (1968). Another attempt to circumvent censorship and still reach a wide audience was
Medupe, formed in 1976. Medupe organized poets to reci te their revolutionary poems in the schools and public halls of
Soweto. 38 Al though Medupe was banned in 1977, reci tat ions by groups of poets continue to appeal to township dwellers.
At other times publishers and poets go through official channels to appeal the banning of individual books and/or individuals. Sometimes successful, publishers are aware that unbannings, even more than bannings, tend to occur randomly. Mongane Wally Serote, living in Gaborone, Botswana, has written two sixty-page poems: No Baby Must Weep (1975) and
Behold Mama, Flowers (1978). The refrain of these two long poems is a single line: "i can say. II Serote emphasizes not only his ability to speak out, but through his insistent repetition of the line reaffirms his commitment to speech, and his compulsion to speak, despite all efforts to silence him. This is the most difficult and frustrating strategy against censorship: the dogged refusal to be silent, the pers is tent, con t inuous outpour ing of poetry despi te bans, threats, violence, or exile: i can say hurrah i can hear voices and voices and voices saying child honey-child i love you i can hear voices and voices and voices replying hurrah i can say
i GtlIl Si:1Y one day the laughter will break39
Serote can say that there will be future laughter; he can say that the voices of South Africans will grow louder and more triumphant, and that communication between people will become loving, He also can and does assert his identity and his right to speak his vision of the truth.
Furthermore, in Behold Man# Flowers, Serote asserts that despite attempts to silence him or to make him rescind
his previous writing, and despite any of his own inadequacies as a wri ter, no one and nothing can make his words go away: and i will never ever be able to say it the way i should say it a man can point at you and take his finger back but his word he can never take back i can say if you don't know about storms they will take you they will wipe you away i can say there is nothing that we know in the end i can say, ah behold the flowers i will say again behold the flowers, they begin to bloom!40
Serote's determination never to be silenced and never to give in to violence is as
Nonetheless, the poet's impress i ve as it stubborn refusal is to repetitive. halt the
outpouring of words is only one element of the whole battle.
Words alone cannot bring down the Nationalist Government and with it the whole bureaucracy of censorship. As Lewis Nkosi exasperatedly quips, "You would think that the South African
Government should have been written to death by now."41 The writer needs more than words and determination; he needs the patience to outlast the pro-apartheid propagandists.
Whatever Western forms, aesthetic atti tudes, and languages find their way into the poems and whatever African traditions influence contemporary poets, the main thrust of the South African poetry wri tten since Sharpeville (1960) has been protest, commitment, and explanation. Nkosi argues that these three qual i ties have become expected of good writers. 42 Both Dennis Brutus and Sipho Sepamla agree that the provision of a true record of South African poli tics cannot be separated from poetry; in fact, it is the purpose of poetry in South Afri ca. 43 Moreover, the need for a positive perception of black culture to counteract Afrikaner cuI tural hegemony has always been the main focus of the
Black Consciousness movement, especially in the Townships.
Those critics, mostly white, who reject the openly political, often revolutionary aspects of the poetry usually do so on aesthetic grounds. What they fail to consider is that revolutionary poetry must necessarily chose to create a revolutionary aesthetics:
The black poets who have sprung from seemingly nowhere are the oases in the bleak desert of black man's life from where he will drink the waters of liberation as he forges his way to the green pastures of complete freedom. 44
Beyond recording the truth, beyond protests and explanations of apartheid or of black experience, contemporary South
African poetry is commi tted to hope for change and for a
better life. Despite prison, exile, poverty, and despair, the poet continues to voice alternatives:
So give me a pen
I will write only a snippet of taut verbal muscle, a sinew of controlled emotion;
I hope to strike a responsive chord in the jaded soul of the forlorn whose diminished ego lies in a pile of rubble. 45
Mtshali, like Serote, Sepamla, and the rest, attempts to ins til opt imi sm, not through shri 11 slogans promi sing the annihilation of the whites, but through beautiful, succinct, and inspirational verse. The poe try, however, is on 1 y part of a whole cultural network of films, paintings, photographs, theatre, dance and music. 46 The various cultural aspects seek to give lasting and sustaining hope to the African people. More than this, South African culture, in whatever form, reaches out to the rest of Africa and the world with a message that. commitment. is a necessary condition of good art.
Steve Biko viewed South African cuI ture as It A cuI ture of defiance, self-assertion and group pride and solidarity." 47 However, the culture also exists under the pressures of diversity and segregation along the colour bar.
Language, ideology, and the gap between white and black cultural groups reveal how the struggle for cultural hegemony merges wi th the struggle for poli tical control.
Although all writers are unified in their disdain for
censorship, the views of poetry's proper subject and purpose, of aesthetics and of what consti tutes cuI ture are vastly different. While poems about prison, exile, and township life are a large component of South African poetry as a whole, poetry by women, oral poetry, and poetry of the tribal homelands are also worthy of extended study. Despite opposition, censorship, and a racist government, South
African poets continue to be committed to giving a voice to a people divided by conflict:
We have set out on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere on the distant horizon we can see the glittering prize. Let us march forth wi th courage and determinat i on, drawing strength from our common plight and our brotherhood. In time we shall be in a position to bestow upon South Africa the greatest gift possible a more human face. 48
Steve Biko
Chapter One
1The definition of South African literature is itself difficul t. Guy But ler and Chris Mann, A New Book of South
African Verse in English (Cape Town: Oxford University
Press, 1979) inc 1ude Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kip 1ing, who have written poems about South Africa but who cannot be considered South African poets. On the other hand, poets like Dennis Brutus and Es'kia Mphahlele have lived outside of South Africa for more than twenty years. Moreover their poetry and critical writings are banned in South Africa and yet they are still considered, by some at least, to be South
African poets. To further complicate the issue, colonial and modern literature in both English and Afrikaans ignore, sometimes even seek to deny, the existence of black South
African oral poetries and poetics. The complex Ii terary past of this country does not allow an easy isolation of those characteristics which identify South African literature. 2Sipho Sepamla, "The Black Writer in South Africa
Today: Problems and Dilemmas," Soweto Poetry, ed. Michael
Chapman (Johannesburg: McGraw-Hill Book Company 1982) 115.
3Douglas Livingstone, "The Poetry of Mtshali,
Sepamla and Others in English: Notes towards a
Evaluation," Soweto Poetry, 157.
4Lionel Abraham, "Black Experience into English Verse:
A Survey of Local African Poetry, 1960-70," Soweto Poetry,
5 For a summary of the typical cri t icisms, see Anne
MeC1in toek , '" Az i kwei aw' ( We Will No t Ri de): Pol i tics an d
Value in Black South African Poetry," Critical Inquiry 13.3
(1987): 619, and Mbulelo Mzamane, "from 'Literature and
Politics among Blacks in South Africa," Soweto Poetry, 150.
See also Cosmo Pieterse, Introduction, Seven South African
Poets, xi-xii, and Barry Feinberg, Introduction, Poets to the People, 17-18 for defensive reactions to negative criticisms. 6David Maughan Brown, "Black Cri ticism and Black
Aesthetics," Soweto Poetry, 50. He. also asserts that the reader must be aware of the traditions, customs, and mythology of the writer and that there exists a black aesthetic drawn from the black environment, way of life, and beliefs. 7Post-structuralism function of literature
Althusser, "Ideology and has long asserted the political as an institution. See Louis
Ideological State Apparatuses,"
Lenin alld Philosophy, Michel Foucaul t, Roland Barthes, and
Jacques Derrida, for explorations of the hegemonic aspects of literature. The assertion of literature's political function is also evident in Camus and Sartre, both of whom are very influential in African critical thought. Also see
Nelson Mandela, "The Shifting Sands of Illusion," No Easy
Walk to Freedom, Fore. Ruth First (1965: London: Heinemann,
1986) 35 for a concise criticism of the ideology of the
Liberal Party.
8 Stephen Watson, "Recent White South African Poetry & the Language of Liberal ism," Standpun te 36.2 (1983): 14--15.
9 As quoted in McC 1 intock, 620. See Appendix A for a glossary of South African terminology.
10Watson, 16-17.
11 Watson, 16. "Their [whi te, Engl ish-speaking] poetry cannot avoid reproducing the prosaicness, the tawdriness -some would say the banality -- of a people whose aesthetic first commandment would probably be it must be Rational, it must be Reasonable."
12Watson, 16.
13 Jacques Al varez-Pereyre, The Poetry of Commi tmellt in
South Afri ca, trans. Clive Wake (London: Heinemann, 1984)
14 Chri stopher Hope, "In the Mi d4le of Nowhere" Tile
Country of the Black Pig (London: London Magazine Editions,
1981) 6. See Appendix C for complete poem.
15For a definition of "Coloured" and for the new politcal positivism of the term "black" see Appendix A.
16See Cosmo Pieterse's interview with Dennis Brutus
(n. t. ), African Wri ters Talking, eds. Cosmo Pieterse and
Denn i s Duerden (New York: Afri cana Pub 1 i shing Corporat i on,
1972) 56 and Lewis Nkosi' s interview wi th Mazisi Kunene
(n.t.), African Writers Talking, 85.
17Pieterse, 85.
18Brutus, in particular, has been criticized for a lack of militant poetry; see Alvarez-Pereyre, 138. See also R.N.
Egudu, "Pictures of Pain: The Poetry of Dennis Brutus,"
Aspects of South African Literature, ed. Christopher Heywood
(London: Heinemann, 1976) 131-144.
1 9 Alex 1 a Gurn a i n t e r view wit h Ma z i s i Ku n en e ( n . t. )
African writers Talking, 89. ",. .in .B.IrlCa the emphasis is always on the symbol, the symbol which in essence is the representation of the attitude of the community, and in
fact, it is the easiest access to a communal expression, for it contains communal meaning."
20Dr. Ullyatt's argument is
Dr. Ullyatt also criticizes the pol i tical themes and the 1ack of their poems. summarized in black poets a lightness
Brown, 52. for their of tone in
21Hedy Davis' argument is also summarized in Brown, 47.
Brown also summarizes critical responses made by Jos
Slabbert and Kelwyn Sole in the same issue of Contrast as
Davis makes her criticisms.
22Christopher Heywood, !!Introduction: The Quest for
Identity," Aspects of South African Literature, xiv. See also the criticism of Hedy Davis as cited above.
23S ee Cosmo Pieterse's interview of
(n.t.) African Writers Talking, 59-60.
Moyana, "Problems of a Creative Writer in
Aspects of South African Literature, 86.
24Alvarez-Pereyre, 39.
25Alvarez-Pereyre, 39.
Dennis Brutus
See also T.T.
South Africa,"
26Mazisi Kunene, "South African
Aspects of South African Literature, 33.
27Alvarez-Pereyre, 39.
Oral Traditions"
28Mokoena Xihoshi, "Poetry Towards the Revolution,"
Sechaba (Apr. 1981): 16. See Appendix A for note on Sechaba.
29Alvarez-Pereyre, 4-5, and 261.
30 Sepam1a, 117.
31Alvarez-Pereyre, 4-5.
32Pieterse, 58.
33Cosmo Pieterse, "Song (We Sillg) , "
People, ed. Barry Feinberg (London: George
J~td., 1974) 65.
Allen to the
& Unwin
34Cosmo Pieterse, "Guerilla," Poets to the People, 66.
35Wopko Jensma, "Joburg Spiritual" "Poetry
Apartheid," ed. Peter Rodda Transatlantic Review
(1976/77): 101-103. See Appendix C.
36Jensma, 101-103.
37S ee Appendix A.
38As quoted in Alvarez-Pereyre, 161.
3 9 8 i p h 0 Se pam 1 a , " The 8 0 wet 0 B1 u e s , "
EartlJ (Johannesburg: Ad. Donker (pty) IJtd.,
4oXihoshi, (May 1981): 15.
ClJildren of
1983) 52. tlJe 41 Oswal d Mtshal i, "B 1ack Poet ry in South Afr i ca: What
It Means," Aspects of SoutJl African Literature} 127.
42Xihoshi, (May, 1981): 15-16. He goes on to say that
"the poem allows us to be expert by proxy, to enter through the channel of language and its attributes, areas for exploration and strata of experience that would otherwise have been relatively remote, fairly abstract."
43Sipho Sepamla, "Mkize," ClJildren of tlJe EartlJ} 17.
44 A. 8. van Niekerk, nominee, are you listening to tlJe drums? (Cape Town: Tafelberg Publishers (Pty) Ltd., 1982)
45Mongane Wally Serote, "What's in This Black '8hit',"
Poets to tlJe People, 69-70. See Appendix C.
46Censorship and its effects on South African poetry will be discussed in Chapter Five.
47McClintock, 598.
48Breyten Breytenbach as quoted in Alvarez-Pereyre, 26.
49Moyana, 92.
A nictionary of
Sub-SalJaral1 Afri ca
Dalgish (Westport,
See also the entry for "kitchen-kaffir,"
Afric8Bisms. COB tribu ti 011S of the to the E11glislJ Language, ed. Gerard M.
Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982) 88.
50McClintock, 597-598.
51The Bantu Education Acts (1953-1959) enforce segregated education from primary school to the universities. They also prevent Africans from gaining access to European ideas which subvert apartheid, pro-tribalism, policies. Resentment among Africans is very well summarized in 1957 by Nelson Mandela in the ANC journal
Liberation: "The friendship and interracial harmony that is forged through the admixture and association of various racial groups at the mixed universities constitute a direct threat to the policy of apartheid and baass}rap and the
[Bantu Education] Bill has been enacted to remove this threat." (Nelson Mandela, "The Doors are Barred," No Easy
Walk to Freedom, 50).
52Kunene, "South African Oral Tradition," 24.
53Kunene, 24. See also Brown, "Black Criticism and
Black Aesthetics," for specific studies on the functions of
African oral culture.
54Alvarez-Pereyre, 117.
55 Mtshal i, 124. He goes on to say that "'I'hrough my poetry I am trying to gather the scattered pieces 0 f my cuI ture, and this is not only my goal, but it is also that of the crop of other poets who have sprung up like mushrooms in the stormy life of the blackman. It is dictated by the political ideology ... known to the outside world under the insidious name of apartheid", 125.
56Tony Emmett, "Oral, Political and Communal Aspects of
Township Poetry in the Mid-seventies," Soweto Poetry~ 177.
Emmett quotes Ruth Finnegan, Oral Literature in Africa
(London: Oxford Uni vers i ty Press, 1970) 19: "The praise poems of the Bantu people of South Africa are one of the most specialised and complex forms of poetry to be found in
57Alex la Guma interview with Kunene, 89.
58McClintock, 618.
Chapter :Fwo
lD.M. Zwelonke,
1973) 40-41.
Robben Is1alJd, (London: Heinemann,
2The Rivonia Trial Group consisted of nine men, including Nelson Mandela, who defended them. The others are
Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada,
Dennis Goldberg, Lionel Bernstein, Elias Motsoaledi and
Andrew Mlangeni. All except for Bernstein, who was acquitted, were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben
Island. See the transcript of the defence during the 1964 trial in Nelson Mandela, No Easy Walk to Freedom, 162-189.
3For instance Breyten Breytenbach served his seven years in the Pretoria Central Prison ("Beverley Hills") and in Pollsmoor Prison, Cape Town. Mandela was transferred to
Poll smoor around 1980 in an at tempt to dismant 1 e "Mandela
4Zwe l onke, 15.
5S ome of the methods of torture and interrogation are graphically described in Breyten Breytenbach, The True
Confessi ons of an Albino :Ferroris t (London: Faber & Faber,
1984) 349-352. The methods include "the submarine" (holding the prisoner's head underwater until he drowns or faints),
"the aeroplane ride" (prisoner hung by the elbows or knees), or "t e 1ephon ing" or "p 1aying the radi 0" (touching var ious parts of the prisoner's body with electrodes). Many of
Brutus' poems and much of Zwelonke' s novel describe these and other forms of torture.
6Breytenbach, 304-305. Zwelonke, isolates cell "el" as the "Un i vers it y of Makana" around whi ch the cuI tural and educational lives of the prisoners are centred.
7Zwe l on ke, 15, 69, 96, and Breytenbach, 281-282. See
Appendix A.
~Hreyten Breytenbach, "'I am not anymore' ," Index 011 Censorship, 3 (1983): 5: c rim ina1 s are d irec t vic tims 0 f the d amage has done by ripping families asunder. prisoners have it relatively better; they are an Afrikaner
"Mos t of the that Apartheid
The political an elite."
9Zwe l onke, Breytenbach, and Dennis Brutus describe homosexuali ty as one of the most perverse parts of prison
1 i fe since the "women" are usually unwi 11 ing and often raped. The warders often force sexual relations between prisoners for their amusement. The writers report that homos exual act s often co incide wi th coprophi 1 ia, necrophilia, self-mutilation, drug abuse, and madness.
Zwelonke describes a young man who becomes a tsotsi as a resul t of forced sodomy. Breytenbach' s descript ion of the criminal subculture in Pollsmoor Prison includes stabbings, mutilations, gang rape, and ritual murder and cannibalism,
(272-272). Finally, since South African jails are overcrowded and since people are often arrested and held without trial, the officials are only interested in accounting for the correct number of bodies, dead or alive.
The indi vidual prisoner is of no interest, and therefore he is vulnerable to practically any form of outrage upon his person from fellow prisoners and the warders alike. l°Breytenbach, 282. llBesides the separation of white and black prisoners and besides the relatively considerate treatment white prisoners receive (including more and better food), the racial tensions are strong between the prisoners (called
](affirs, Hotl10ts, or Bal1diets) and the prison warders
(baeres). Guards insist on being called baas by coloureds and blacks. Political prisoners are sometimes called meister, but otherwise they are scorned.
12For example, Breytenbach's poem, "Letter from abroad to Butcher," describes the death of Steve Biko and has, according to Breytenbach, had some influence in creating legal provisions for supervising the health of prisoners.
See Breytenbach, "'I am not an Afrikaner anymore," 5.
13Zwelonke, 146.
14Zwelonke, 150-151.
15Zwe l onke, 151.
16Zwelonke, 149.
17 Anthony Delius is of mixed Afrikaner and English descent. He lives in self-imposed exile in London, England, where he has been an important contact for recently exiled
South Africans. His poetry is not banned by the South
African government.
18Anthony Delius,
Apartheid," 94.
"The Island," "Poetry Under
19Dennis Brutus, "Robben Island Sequence," Stubborn
Hope (London: Heinemann, 1978) 58-59. See Appendix C.
20Brutus admits that after two months in solitary confinement on Robben Island, he tried to commit suicide.
See William E. Thompson, "Dennis Brutus: An interview,"
Ufahamu 12/13 (1982/1983): 73.
21T.T. Moyana, "Problems of a Creative Writer in South
Africa," Aspects of South African Literature, 94.
22Thompson, 73.
23Thompson, 74.
24Thus, Brutus's poems about exile are written in the same direct s tyl e he evo 1ved in hi s prison poems. See section on Brutus's exile poems in Chapter Three.
25 Hous e arres t between 6 pm and 6 gatherings for any publishing material. means Brutus could not leave his house am, could not participate in social purpose; he was also banned from
26Dennis Brutus, "6", Letters
Heinemann, 1968) 7. Also printed in
London: Heinemann, 1984) 57. to Martha (London:
A Simple Lust (1973:
27Brutus, "5" Lettel's to Martha, 6, and A Simple Lust,
28Brutus, "17" and "18" Letters to Martha, 18-19, and A
Simple Lust, 65-67.
29 Brutus, "IJonging," Letters to Martha, 1, and A Simp]e
Lust, 46.
30Breytenbach's first prison poems were published as
Voetskrif ("Footscript") while he was still in prison. As he was not allowed to revise his poems, or to communicate wi th his publishers at the time, and since his poems were censored by his interrogators, Breytenbach himself will not endorse this text as an acceptable edition.
31Breytenbach, 154-155.
32See Emile Benveniste, "Subjectivity in language," in
Problems in General Linguistics, trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek
(Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miama Press, 1971) 224:
"It is in and through language that man constitutes himself as a subject, because language also establishes the concept of 'ego' in reality, in its reality which is that of the being." Not only does Breytenbach (or anyone else) establish his subject position by employing the pronoun "I", the mutability of language allows for a mutable concept of self. Breytenbach can take up mul tiple subject posi tions; thus, he is the writer, the author, the prisoner, Afrikaner, white, colourless, and/or a surrealist within the context of a single paragraph.
33See Michel Foucault, "What is an Author?" Screen 20.1
(1979): 19: " ... the function of an author is to characterize the existence, circulation, and operation of certain discourses within a society."
34Breytenbach, 155.
35Breytenbach, 269.
36Breytenbach, 277-278. prison slang, see Appendix A.
37Breytenbach, 357.
Breytenbach, In Africa even
Denis Hirson (London: John edition includes the original versions, see Appendix C.
For a more complete list of
Also printed in Breyten the flies are happy, trans.
Calder, 1976) 92-95. This poem in Afrikaans. For both
380swald Mtshali, "A Song for South Africa," Fireflames
(Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: Shuter & Shooter (pty)
Ltd., 1980) 27-28. This is an abridged version of an earlier poem, "In the Island of Heroes," South African
Voices (Austin, Texas: African and Afro-American Studies and
Research Center in association with Harry Ransom Center, the
University of Texas at Austin, 1975) 9-11. The poem was originally written in Zulu.
39Mtshali wrote the poem in response to a performance he saw of a musical play, Shanti.
4°Walter Sisulu formed the ANC Youth League which ended the ANC's policy of strictly passive resistance. See note 2.
41Mtshali, 28, 11. 41-53:
From the sea came the cries of dolphins and porpoises and the lamentations of the prisoners' children,
"Oh! you creatures of the Sea, when will you bring back our fathers from the Island of Sorrow?"
The swordfish leaped in a parabola over the surface of the Sea; the sharks and whales replied,
'Beloved children of Africa, be ready, take courage, the time is near, freedom will soon be yours.'
42Mtshali, see lines quoted above.
43Ilva MacKay, "Mandela and all Comrades in prison,"
Malibongwe. ANC Women: Poetry is Also Their Weapon
([Johannesburg]: n.p., [1980]) 79.
Chapter Three lDennis Brutus, "By the Waters of Babylon," Seven South
African Poets, ed. Cosmo Pieterse (London: Heinemann, 1971)
2Barry Feinberg, Introduction, Poets to the People:
South African Freedom Poems, 17-18.
3Lewis Nkosi, Home and Exile (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1965) 101.
4Dennis Brutus, "A troubadour, I traverse all my land,lI
A Simple Lust, 2. See Cosmo Pieterse's Interview with
Dennis Brutus, African Writers Talking, 54-55 for a discussion of Brutus' troubadour and Don Quixote motifs.
5Brutus, "I will be the world's troubadour," Stubborn
Hope, 22-23.
6Brutus, "I am the exile," A Simple Lust, 137.
7Pieterse, 56.
8Pieterse, 55-56.
9 Dennis Brutus, time," A Simple Lust,
95. that we conquer and dominate
10 Brutus, lISherds," StubborJl Hope, 30-31. a variation of "shards" and is a derivative of
"Sherds ll is
meaning the pieces of a broken earthenware pot. llSee Brutus, "What thrusts of loneliness," Stubborn
Hope, 32--33. For other homesickness poems see "November
Sunlight silvers my grimy panes," A Simple Lust, 103, and inability to adapt to new environments, see "Having fled, I playa fugitive's jealousy," Stubborn Hope, 65.
12 Brutus, "Not in my hands," Stubborn Hope, 79.
13Brutus, "Eight years in exile," A Simple Lust, 119.
14 Nadine Gordimer, "Eng1 is h- Language
Politics in South Africa," Aspects of
Literature, 114.
Literature and
South African
15Brutus, "The impregnation of our air," A Simple Lust,
16 Brutus, "Sequence for South Afr ica," Stubborn Hope,
17Brutus, "There are no people left in my country,"
Stubborn Hope, 41.
18Thompson, 74.
19Brutus, "In my part of the world," Stubborn Hope, 36.
See Appendix C.
2°Pieterse, 37.
21Brutus, "I am alien in Africa and everywhere," A
Simple Lust, 121.
22See Brutus "Our allies are exiles," Stubborn Hope,
23Alvarez-Pereyre, 241.
24Cosmo Pieterse,
Poets, xii.
Introduction, Seven South African
25Alvarez-Pereyre, 149.
26Cosmo Pieterse, "Love Exile Land," Ecl10es and
Choruses: "Ballad of the Cells" and Selected Shorter Poems
(Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Center for International
Studies Africa Program, 1974) 41. See also Pieterse's poem,
"Exile," Present Lives, Future Becoming (London: Hickey
Press, 1974) 1. See also Alvarez-Pereyre, 152 for a thorough commentary on this poem. See Appendix C for complete poem.
27Alvarez-Pereyre, 156.
28 Authur Nortj e, "Poem:
(London: Heinemann, 1973) 114.
2 9 Nk os i, 123.
South Africa," Dead Roots
30M.J.F. Chapman, "Arthur Nortje:
English in Africa 5.1 (1978): 60.
Poet of Exile,"
31 Charles Dameron, "Arthur Nortje: Craftsman for His
Muse," Aspects in South African .literature, 160.
32See Nortje, eater," 80, "Quiet
Answers," 138-141.
"Near-mad," 69, "Message from an desperation," 99, and "Questions
33Nortje, "The long silence," 24.
34Andr~ Brink, n.t. Worldview, Sept. 1982, as quoted in
Index on Censorship 13 (1983): 11.
35Nortje, "Freedom," 98.
36Brutus is much older than Nortje was and was once his
English teacher. Many of Nortje's early poems show his debt to Brutus in form and imagery. See Alvarez-Pereyre, Chapter
9, 130-169.
37For example, Nortje's admiration comes across in the following stanza:
36,000 feet above the Atlantic
I heard an account of how they had shot a running man in the stomach. But what isn't told is how a warder kicked the stitches open on a little-known island prison which used to be a guano rock in a sea of diamond blue.
38Nortje, "Autopsy," 52-54.
Sepamla," 258.
Gray, "Stephen Gray Interviews Sipho
4°Sipho Sepamla, "The Exile,"
(Johannesburg: Ad Donker, 1975) 15.
Hurry Up to It!
420swald Mtshali,
Poetry, fI Contemporary
Symposium, ed. Bernth
Continents Press, Inc.,
41 The poems read at this symposium were subsequently published in a volume, Bernth Lindfors, ed., South African
Voices (Austin, Texas: African and Afro-American Studies and
Research center in Association with the Harry Ransom Center,
The University of Texas at Austin, 1975).
"Panel on Contemporary South African
Black South African .L.J. r.erature: A
Lindfors (1976: Washington: Three
1984) 66-67. Please note that at
this symposium both Mongane Wally Serote and Oswald Mtshali announced their intentions to return to South Africa. Their poetry shall be discussed in Chapter 4.
Chapter Four
1 Nadine Gordimer, "Engl ish-Language
Politics in South Africa," Aspects of
Literature, 118-119.
Li terature and
South African
20swald Mtshali, "Black Poetry in Southern Africa: What it Means," Aspects of South African Literature, 122.
poetry, will be
"[fie 1976 protest which
~ The 1960 :::iharpeVllle massacre and
Riots both led to large outpourings of especi all y among black poets, some of discussed in this chapter.
4The Sharpeville and Langa massacres occurred on March
21, 1960, when two di fferen t po 1 ice groups pan i cked and fired on unarmed protesters.
5C.J. Driver, "Afternoon in an African Township," Seven
South African Poets, 54.
6Jennifer Davids, "I,ocation Fires," Searching for fiords
(n.p.: Mantis Editions of Southern African Poets, 1974) 2.
7These journals are not all currently published. As the nationalist government has bans on certain journals, or on certain of their issues, such as Classic and Staffrider, for being too subversive, new journals are founded to replace them.
8Michael Vaughan, "Staffrider and directions wi thin comtemporary South African literature," Literature and
Society in South Africa, ed. Landeg Whi te and Tim Couzens
(Harlow, Essex: Longman Group Limited, 1984) 196.
9Sipho Sepamla, "About Staffrider," Soweto Poetry, 198.
It is important to note that al though black wri ters often appear to be dependent on whi te publishers and edi tors,
Sipho Sepamla has edited both Staffrider, New Classic, and
S'ketsh. Thus, blacks are not completely without access to powerful positions within the publishing industry, although it remains difficult for most black writers.
10 Motshi 1 e Nthodi, "s t affri der," Staffri der 1.1 (March
1978): 28 as quoted in Vaughan, 200-202.
IlMazisi Kunene, Emperor Shaka the Great. A Zulu Epic, trans. by the author (1979: London: He inemann, 1984). Al so see Mazisi Kunene, Anthem of the Decades, trans. by author
(1981: London: Heinemann, 1986).
12Mazisi Kunene, "The Screams," Poems of Black Africa, ed. Wole Soyinka (1975: London: Heinemann, 1985) 207.
13Alvarez-Pereyre, 127-128.
14Alvarez-Pereyre, 38-39.
15Lerato Kumalo,
"Chi Idhood in Soweto," Mal ibongwe
16Ilva Mackay,
Appendix C.
"Mayibuye," Malibongwe, 46. See
17Michael vhapman, !!Interview with lYlOngane Serote
(1980)" Soweto Poetry, 113. Serote's first four collections of poetry are: Yakhal'inkomo (1972), Tsetlo (1974), No Baby
Must Weep (1975), and Behold Mama, Flowers (1978).
18Mongane Wally Serote, "Ode to Somebody,"
(Johannesburg: Ad. Donker, 1974) 13.
19Sero te, "A Sleeping Black Boy," Tsetlo, 37.
20Mongane Serote, "Time has run out," the night keeps winking (Gaborone, Botswana: Medu Art Ensemble, 1982) 5.
21S ero te, "Amen! Alexandra," Tsetlo, 14.
22Wally Serote, "What's in this Black 'Shit' ," Poets to the People, 69-70. See Appendix C.
23Serote, 71-72.
24Alvarez-Pereyre, 190.
25Lewis Nkosi, Home and Exile, 117.
26Lewis Nkosi, Tasks and Masks: Themes and Styles of
Afrian Literature (Harlow, Essex: Longman Group Limited,
1981) 81.
27Alvarez-Pereyre, 109.
28Wopko Jensma, "Joburg
Executi on (Johannesburg: Ravan
Appendix C.
29Jensma, 39.
30Alvarez-Pereyre, 105.
Press Ltd.,
1973) for 38.
;:s J. J ensma, "pullin ;Strong atEleven-Forty-Fi ve,!! Sing for Our Execution, 19-21.
It's gettin
Saunders and pag. No. 36.
32 Cherry Clayton, "Mafika Gwal a's .To1 ' i inkomo:
Straddling Praise Song and Jive," Soweto Poetry, 84.
Pascal Gwala, "The 'Chewing' of her Time," late, and other poems from Ophir, ed. Wal ter
Peter Horn (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1974) n.
34M. Pascal Gwala, in South Africa, ed.
Heinemann, 1978) 54-56.
35Peter Rodda, ed.,
"Gumba, Gumba, Gumba," Black Poets
Robert Royston (1973: London:
See Appendix C.
"Poetry under Apartheid," 91.
36Alvarez-Pereyre, 185.
37 Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshal i, "Boy on a Swing," Sounds of a Cowhide .Drum (New York: The Third Press, 1972) 5. Please note there are some additions and deletions to the American edition from the 1971 South African first edition.
38Mtshali, "The Washerwoman's Prayer," Sounds, 7.
39Njabulo S. Ndebele, "Artistic and Political Mirage:
Mtshali's Sound of a Cowhide .Drum," Soweto Poetry, 192.
40Ndebele, 192.
41Mtshali, flThe Detribalized," Sounds, 52--53.
420swald Mtshali,
Poetry, " Comtemporary
Symposium, 15.
Black on Contemporary South African
South African Literature: A
430swald Mtshali, "This Poem is for Ben," Firef1ames,
44S'ketsh is a journal of black dramatic literature;
New Classic is both poetry and short stories.
45Sepamla has had one volume of poetry, The Sorveto I
Love, and his first novel, A Ride on the Whirlwind, banned.
Despite this, Sepamla himself has never been banned and in
1984 was finally allowed a passport to visit Europe and the
United States and to publish subsequent articles.
46Sipho Sepam1a, "Measure for Measure," Tile Soweto I
Love (London & Cape Town: Rex Collings with David Philip,
1977) 14.
47 Sipho Sepamla, "Chi 1dren of the Earth," the Earth, 67-68. See Appendix C.
48 Mothob i Mut loatse, "Sepaml a tightens
Screws: Review of Sipho Sepamla's The Blues is
Children of the Loose
You in Ne, If
Soweto Poetry, 81. "Tsotsi-taal" is a combination of
English and Afrikaans spoken by township robber-gangs; often the linguistic interplay is meaningless as words and Bounds are used for rhyming or rhythmic effects. Township Xhosa is a dialect of tribal Xhosa which is spoken in the townships and which has been influence by other Bantu languages, such as Zulu, and by English.
49Sipho Sepamla, "The Bookshop," Hurry Up To It! 13-14.
50Sepamla, "To Whom It May Concern," 9.
51Sepamla, "The Blues is You in Me," The Blues is You in Me, (Johannesburg: Ad. Donker, 1976) 70-71, and "The
Soweto Blues, II Children of the Earth, 52-53.
53Alvarez-Pereyre, 225.
54S epamla, "When I Lost Slum I,ife," The Soweto I Love,
Chapter Five
ISipho Sepamla, "Talk to the Peach Tree," The Soweto I
Love, 34-35.
2Geoffrey Haresnape,
Contemporary South Africa,"
Creative in Africa
Artist in
8.1 (1981):
3See Chapter 2, note 30 for Breytenbach. Dennis
Brutus' Thoughts Abroad (Austin Texas: Troubadour Press,
1970) was published under the pseudonym of John Bruin.
While still living in South Africa under house arrest, however, he was not permi t ted to compose poems. His exi Ie poetry is also prohibited in South Africa.
4William A. Hachten and C. Anthony Giffard, Tile Press and Apartheid. Repressi011 al1d Propaganda in South Afri ca
(Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1984) 179.
5Donald Woods, "South Africa: Black Editors Out," Index on Censorship 10.3 (Jun 1981): 33.
6Hachten, 157-158.
7Christopher Hope, "Visible
Censorship 11. 4 (Aug 1982): 8.
8Watson, 13.
Jailers," Index on
9Steve Biko, I write what I Like (London: Heinemann,
1978) 20-24. lOSipho Sepamla, "Civilization Aha," The Soweto I Love,
11Hachten and Giffard, ix and 263.
12Cosmo Pieterse's interview with Ezekiele Mphahlele,
(n.t.) African Writers Talking, 101-112.
13 Al varez-Pereyre, 170.
14Lewis Nkosi, Tasks and Masks, 2.
15 Arthur Nort j e, "Ques t ions and answers," .Dead Roots,
16Hachten and Giffard, 264.
17S ee note 3.
18Hachten and Giffard, 87.
19Hachten and Giffard, 172.
20Hatchen and Giffard, 144. Poets and writers expelled under the Suppression of Communism Act include Mazisi
Kunene, Dennis Brutus, Es'kia Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi, Can
Themba, and Cosmo Pieterse.
21Hachten and Giffard, 115.
22Nadine Gordimer, "New Black Poetry in South Africa,"
Tile Black Interpreters. Notes on African Writing
(Johannesburg: Ravan Press Ltd., 1973) 52.
Sor'lleto Poetry,
A. Barnett,
"Interview with Oswald Mtshali,"
24Hachten and Giffard, 112.
25Colin Garder, "Brutus
African Literature 15 (1984): and Shakespeare,"
Researcil in
26Andre Brink, "The Failure of Censorship," Index on
Cellsorship 10. 6 (Dec. 1981): 10.
27"Ravan Press Petrol-Bombed," Index on Censorship 16.5
(May 1987): 3.
28Sipho Sepamla, "The Price of Being a Writer," Index on Censorship 11.4 (1982): 15.
29Stephen Gray, "Interviews Sipho Sepamla," 257-262.
30Essop Patel, "Don Mattera: Out of the Twilight,"
Index on Censorship 13 (1983): 8-9.
31I,ewis Nkosi, Home and Exile, 121.
32Pitika Ntuli, "Under the censor's guilotine," Index on Censorship 15.9 (Oct. 1986): 19. See Appendix C.
33 Nadine Gordimer, "Ne\'I1 Forms of Strategy -- No Change of Heart," Critical Arts 1.2 (June 1980): 27. Reprinted in
Index on Cellsors]lip 10.1 (Feb. 1981).
34"Writers and Repression," Index 011 Censorship 13.5
(Oct. 1984): 28.
35Andre P. Brink, "Censorship and the Author," Critical
Arts 1.2 (Jun. 1980): 26.
36 Nadine Gordimer, "Engl ish-Language Li terature and
Politics in South Africa," Aspects, 116:
I believe these new young black writers instinctively attempt poetry rather than prose because poetry is the means of literary expression least accessible to the rules-of-thumb employed by the Censorship
37Hatchen and Giffard, 173.
38Michael Chapman, ed. Soweto Poetry, 155.
39Mongane Wally Serote, No Baby Must Weep, 58-61. The same section of the poem is published as "I can Say," A New
Book of Afri can Verse, ed ..Tohn Reed and CLi ve Wake (London:
Heinemann, 1984) 92-94, and South African Voices, 14-15.
4°Mongange Wally Serote, Behold Mama, Flowers, 60-61.
41Nkosi, Home and Exile, 35.
42Nkosi, Tasks and Masks, 76.
43Gray, 257, and Thompson, 74.
44 Oswal d Mtshal i, "B 1ack Poet ry in South Africa: What it Means," Aspects, 125-126.
450swa1d Mtsha1i, "A Long Poem," Fireflames, 63.
46Wa11y Serote, "What can the World Learn
African Literature?" Sechaba (July 1986): 18.
47Biko, 46.
48Biko, 98. from South
This glossary includes terms from Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa,
Sotho, and from "kitchen-kaffir." It also includes abbreviations, anachronisms, and slang terms which are relevant to the political situation in South African or tvhich are commonly found in South African poems. The main sources are .Tean Branford, A J)ictionary of South African
English (Cape Town: Oxford University Press, 1978) and
William A. Hachten and C. Anthony Giffard, The Press and
Apartheid: Repression and Propaga11da ill South Africa
(fijadison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1984). 1 nave also used Steve Biko's I Write What I Like for definitions of Black Consciousness terminology.
The term by which the indigenous black population is generally known; a replacement for "non-wIll te. "
One of the two official languages, used by Afrikaners (60% of total white pop.) and by most Coloureds. Evolved from Cape
A South African citizen of Dutch descent, whose home language is Afrikaans.
A linguistic usage transferred from
Afrikaans to English.
Alexandra: a black ghetto outside
.Tohannesburg. Township from which Wally
Serote originated.
Amandla (ngawetu) "Power (is ours)": popular slogan of the
African National Congress: the main organization of blacks and coloureds whose goal is to end apartheid. The ANC is banned in South Africa.
"Separateness": the political policy of separate development for all races.
Adopted since 1948 by the Nationalist
"Master": how an African must address a white. "Boss-ship": mastery in the political sense of white supremacy.
(Plural form) Long-term prisoner, also known as mugus, skebengas, or skollies.
An action by the Minister of Justice to restrict a person's freedom of movement, association, and expression. It sometimes includes house arrest; organizations and publications may also be banned.
The term by which the South African
Government designates all black
Africans. Also a group of related languages spoken by Central and Southern
Africans. In Zulu, "bantu!" can also mean
"what a shame!".
So-called "tribal lands" or the independent African homelands; frequently derogatory. 102
Barberton Homebrewed beer sold in shebeens which eventually poisons the drinker's body and drives him insane.
Black Steve Biko defines blacks "as those who are by law or tradition politically, economically and socially discriminated against as a group in the South African society and identifying themselves as a unit in the struggle towards the realisat.ion of their aspirations."
-I Write What I Like, 48
Black Consciousness Steve Biko defines it as "to make the black man come to himself; to pump back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth."
-I Write What I Like, 29
Boer An Afrikaner; also slang term for a prison guard or policeman; pejorative.
Classic See Opir.
Clearlink Variant of Afrikaans "kleurling":
Clifton Beach "Whites Only" beach in Cape Town.
Comb mondfluitjie
Dingaan's Day
Freedom Charter
Gogog harp
"I Write What I
A South African of mixed racial descent, speaking either Afrikaans or English.
Also a racial classification under the
Populations Registration Act.
Comb used as a mouth organ.
Offensive term of address or reference to an Indian.
Offensive term of address or reference to an African.
Marijuana or hashish.
December 16th, anniversary of Afrikaner victory over the Zulus (Dingaan was the
Zulu king who was defeated); also called
Blood River Day.
Ditches (usually dry).
English-Speaking South Africans.
The charter of the ANC which sets out its goals and demands for equal rights for all South Africans, black and white.
A rudimentary harp made from a petrol can and a bow, the cord of which is plucked.
Location slang, associated with jazz and jive. Armoured police vehicle; also called Areas designated by the government as rural homes for various African tribal groups. Title of a series of articles published in the SASO newsletter by Steve Biko under the pseudonym "Frank '1' a 1k. "
Zulu bards who compose praise poetry.
Generic term for (Zulu) praise song or poetry; chanted by imbongi in honour of chief or king.
1 O~i
Joburg Johannesburg
Kaffir Originally referred to a member of the
Xhosa tribe. Pejorative name for blacks (like "nigger"), usually used by
Afrikaners; others are: hotnot
(derivative of Hottentot), koe1ie (Indian
- coolie), houtkop (blockhead), outa
(elderly coloured man-servant), aia
(child's coloured female nurse), jong
(young fellow, boy), meid (coloured girl), k10ng (black servant boy), and skepse1 (creature).
Kitchen-Kaffir A pidgin language composed of Xhosa,
Zulu, Afrikaans, and English.
Kwashiorkor Children's disease caused by protein deficiency; often fatal.
Location A segregated area on the outskirts of a town or city set aside for black housing and accommodation, which most whites require a permit to enter.
Makana Island Another name for Robben Island, the prison fortress where political prisoners like Nelson Mandela are kept.
Mankantshana Colloquial name for a traditional beer; other beers and alcoholic concoctions are: mokoko Ol1l:s]lebi.le1.1g', mquambotlJi, mbamba, sebapa 1e loesenke,, pat1clJlJa ke-ho--seshe, and a Zulu beer called utshwalu. Also see barberton.
Mankunku A musician
Match-box Tiny outhouse.
Mayibuye i Afrika "Come back Africa": common cry or motto of ANC; also title of official ANC song.
Mbaqanga Soweto-originated mixture of jazz and
Zulu music.
Meal-stop A common punishment in prison in which the prisoner is forced to fast.
Mealie-cruncher An offensive term for Afrikaner of lower class; also called crunchie, hairy
(back), kra.ns a tide te, and Kra.l1s.i e (rock spider). 104
Mealie Meal
National Party
Republic Day
Robben Island
Ground maize, corn: staple food of much of the South African population.
Maize porridge
Ruling party of South Africa since 1948, representing almost exclusively Afrikaner interests. Steve Biko defines it as: "If one's aspiration is whiteness but his pigmentation makes attainment of this impossible, then that person is a nonwhite."
-- I Write What I Like, 48.
European (white) support group for the
(1967-1976) one of numerous Johannesburg poetry journals which published political poems by such people as Serote, Mtshali,
Gwala, and Jensma. Others are: Fighting
Talk, The New African, Classic, Africa
South, Purple Rel10ster, Staffrider,
Tral1sition, etc.
Afrikaans for grandfather or old man.
Pan-African Congress. Outlawed political party representing African interests. Cape Town Prison.
Xhosa word for "pure", a 1962 resistance group which formed the armed wing of the
May 31st, the anniversary of the Treaty of Vereeniging, which ended the Boer War
A small island in Cape Bay used as a prison. Traffic lights.
Armoured cars that patrol the African townships to impose order and sometimes terror. 105
Shebeen queen
Special Branch
The journal which acts as the offical mouthpiece of ANC policies.
(From sestig, "sixty"), a group of 1960's
Afrikaans writers who wanted to break with the conformism of the Afrikaner culture. The group included Breyten
On March 21, 1960 police fired on peaceful black demonstrators in the
Sharpeville Township, wounding 200. On the same day police fired on demonstrators in Langa Township.
Term of Irish origin for an illegal drinking establishment in a township.
A black woman who runs the shebeen
(also --- king).
Pejorative name for blacks.
From Afrikaans "sluk", to swallow, meaning to be taken in, cheated.
Acronym for South West Townships; with a population of 3/4 million, it is the largest black township.
Prison punishment in which one is placed on a diet of rice-water.
A branch of the police who investigate political as opposed to civilian matters.
Literally, one who boards the train at the last minute and sits on the roof or hangs from the side to get a free ride to and from the white city and the townships; also a multiracial South
African literary magazine stated in 1978 in which numerous young poets have been published in English and in vernacular languages. An Afrikaner literary journal.
Afrikaans language (also tongue, speech).
A singer.
Area set aside for urban coloureds and
Township Art
Umkonto We Sizwe
Africans, usually located near a white city. Sometimes used perjoratively to denigrate black poetry, music, etc. Used here simply to distinguish certain thematic similarities in works.
Young thugs, thieves, who travel in gangs of three or four, usually flashily dressed and armed with a knife or another weapon. (Also called skolly).
"The spear of the nation": name for the armed units of the banned ANC.
Mouth harp.
Narrow-minded or bigoted; applied to ultraconservative Afrikaners.
Broad-minded or enlightened; applied to more flexible Afrikaners.
Go away, be off: usually spoken to dogs, offensive to humans.
Afrikaans word for "the people" or "the nation": refers to Afrikaner nationalism.
Entertainment (Censorship) Act
Suppression of Communism Act
Bantu Education Acts
LEGISLATION: Riotous Assemblies Act
- Extension of University Education Act
POETS' LIVES: Mazisi Kunene exiled to London
LEGISLATION: Unlawful Organizations Act
HISTORICAL EVENTS: Sharpeville Massacre
- ANC and PAC banned
- Sobukwe detained
POETS' LIVES: Barry Feinberg exiled to London
- Breyten Breytenbach exiled to Paris
POETS' LIVES: Cosmo Pieterse banned under Riotous
- Assembly Act
LEGISLATION: General Law Amendment Act
- Publications and Entertainments Act
HISTORICAL EVENTS: Formation of Publications Control Board which may ban both the content of books and the Authors themselves
~ Mandela sent to Robben Island
- The Classic begins publication
POETS' LIVES: Dennis Brutus arrested; he escapes only to be shot and recaptured at a later date
POETS' LIVES: C.J. Driver detained (90 days), exiled to
- Brutus sent to Robben Island (18 months)
- Pieterse exiled to London
POETS' LIVES: Brutus placed under house arrest (1 year)
POETS' LIVES: Brutus exiled to London
- Arthur Nortje exiled to London
- Kunene, Mphahlele, Nkosi, Pieterse, Can
Themba, and Dennis Brutus banned under the
Suppression of Communism Act
LEGISLATION: Terrorism Act
HISTORICAL EVENTS: Formation of Ophir
HISTORICAL EVENTS: Steve Biko forms South African Students
Association (SASO)
POETS' LIVES: Brutus publishes Letters to Martha, which is banned in South Africa
POETS' LIVES: Wally Serote imprisoned under Terrorist Act
(9 months, released without being charged)
POETS' LIVES: Arthur Nortje commits suicide just before he was to be deported from U.K.
- Kunene publishes Zulu Poems (banned)
POETS' LIVES: Pieterse edits Seven South African Poets
.- Oswald Mtshali publishes sounds of a
Cowhide lJrum, making record sales
HISTORICAL EVENTS: Ravan Press founded; promotes Black
- National Black Theatre Festival
POETS' LIVES: James Matthews and Gladys Thomas publish Cry
Rage! (banned)
- Serote publishes Yakhal'inkomo
HISTORICAL EVENTS: Strikes in Durban
POETS' LIVES: Nortje's lJead Roots posthumously published
- Brutus publishes A Simple Lust
HISTORICAL EVENTS: Black Renaissance Convention
- Angola and Mozambique decolonized
POETS' LIVES: Anthologies Black Voices Shout and Poets to tile People banned
- Serote publishes Tsetlo
- Jennifer Davids publishes Searching for
POETS' LIVES: Breytenbach arrested when he returns to South
_. South African Voi ces (Texas Syrnpos i um on
Contemporary African Writing) banned
-- Serote publishes No Baby Must Weep
- Serote and Mtshali exiled in New York;
Mtshali eventually returns to South Africa
HISTORICAL EVENTS: June 16, Soweto children demonstrate against being taught in Afrikaans;
Police fire on the children
- Ophir banned
- Sipho Sepamla becomes editor of the
New Classic
Sepamla publishes Hurry Up To It!
HISTORICAL EVENTS: Formation of Medupe Writers Association
-- The World (newspaper) banned
- Steve Biko dies in detention
POETS' LIVES: Sepamla publishes The Soweto I Love
- Pascal Gwala publishes Jol'iinkomo
-- Ravan Press launches Staffrider
Serot e pub 1 i shes Behold Nama, Flowers
- Brutus publishes Stubborn Hope
Kunene publishes Emperor Shaka the Great
- Serote receives fine arts degree from
Columbia University and moves to Gaberone,
HISTORICAL EVENTS: Cape Town Conference on Censorship
- Zimbabwe independence
- Sunday Post (newspaper) banned
POETS' I,IVES: Mtshali publishes Fireflames (banned)
HISTORICAL EVENTS: Multiracial Johannesburg Centre PEN disbands - Black African Writers Association formed POETS' LIVES:
Christopher Hope publishes III the Country of the Black Pig
Breytenbach released from prison
Pieterse teaching in Zimbabwe
- Brutus under threat of deportation from the United States
HISTORICAL EVENTS: Albertina Sisulu, Walter Sisulu's wife, is sentenced to two years in prison
- Publications Control Board removes ANC
Freedom Charter from the banned list.
POETS' LIVES: Breytenbach publ ishes COl1fessions of an Albino
Terrorist; refuses Herzog Award
- Sepamla and Breytenbach attend Index on
Censorship's conference in London on Jun.
LEGISLATION: New Constitution gives limited Franchise to
Coloureds and Indians
- State of Emergency declared, Jul. 20
HISTORICAL EVENTS: The Rand Daily Mail (newspaper) closes
- Alex La Guma, journalist and novelist dies in Cuba.
LEGISLATION: On Dec. 11, the Public Safety Act (953) is extended to provide harsh new press controls
HISTORICAL EVENTS: State of Emergency declared Jun. 12
- extensive restricts placed on the press POETS' LIVES: Serote moves to London to work for ANC ful]time
HISTORICAL EVENTS: Ravan Press offices vandalized and bombed - Gold miners' strike
POETS' LIVES: Breytenbach is refused a visa to visit South
Africa on the grounds of his conviction and his subversive history
- Serote publishes a new poem, A Tough Tale
I. Christopher Hope: "In the Middle of Nowhere"
They will not see how much we care for them, how we bend under their tantrums, live for them, only, like battered wives, decorated with bruises yet longing to kiss the handcuffs once again.
Well, let them believe the future lies in wait for us like a bomb in a Christmas box, primed under wraps and humming in its tinsel. Our duty is to stand against the hopeless armies their dreams recruit, fly-by-night guerrillas with bad maps desperate for the coming dawn and dying for that heaven their obsolete manuals depict as an eternal rainy season when the weather will close in for good, the cover thicken and the long-awaited push begin. To that end our armoured herds, the hard-nosed hippos grazing the furthest barbed-wire fences bossed by shorn conscripts squatting between patrols, snatching a freckled shade under the thorn trees, nervous circle of thumb and forefinger around the barrel, raising stiff rifles between their knees. They are our sons ... Is there nothing we will not do for them? Of course, they have too many goats and if, as they say, time is on their side then they'd better remember that in time nothing's sharper than a sheep's tooth.
Enough talk of freedom - irrigate! We offer a garden fat with confidence where the newly christened flowers, glaucoma and kwashiorkor, replace the sickening blooms of recent memory. And what do they want?
They want us dead. We teach them how to fall asleep repeating - Disused tractors rust a prayer powerful as diesel, only to know deep down they go on dreaming of driving us into the sea, not caring even to notice how well we swim or that we are all in the middle of nowhere.
Lately they have taken fervently to celebrating the anniversaries of their cruellest chiefs; naked engines they were, thudding in their black grease, terrible pistons stamping the heads of the tribes.
See how time is eating, sucking on the pinched glass nipple, a supper of sand. They would literally starve to see us dead, driven by a locust logic they feed on everything that promises. See, they say, the butcher-bird dreams in the thorn tree, the sun drills his dull, black coat dead-centre, his hook bill curves over his neat shirt front and is packed with teeth, and in his eye's a glitter no one would mistake for patience in bank managers
or hangmen. In the face of all our terrible effort their contempt goes on steaming like a mean soup.
Very well then, we must swallow it, take it lying down if needs be and show that on it we can more than survive. Somehow, we must soldier on
Dying will be the last thing we do for them.
II. Wopko Jensma "Joburg Spiritual"
we all sat roun a faia a cops squadcar hollar a stop a lump a fool we don't run but sit an grin. hell, Lod, i saw'm thump da nightwatch down his head a ball o'blood i a white: we don't want to see you here again. an what dat rna bitch scuttled round da cona. :i my pals all gon, 0 Lod
saw her sit on a sidewalk i saw her spit blodd in a gutter j saw her thorns in a burnt flesh i saw her stump for a foot i saw her clutch a stick i saw her eyes grin toothless i see her cut her own throat i see her corpse lie in Dark City i see her save B multitude
on my way to St. Peter's Gate i see a sign looming up -WELCOME
TO SOWETO: air-conditioned rooms with baths we can recommend the soap --
he sits in glory a red robe a golden throne a thorn crown the halo the cross the works
on his farm khaki shorts chev truck barbed \'I1ire smoke ring fencing pole the works
today is tuesday yesterday was monday tomorrow will he wednesday after that another day time after time the sea collapses to certain death on its burning beaches time after time our prime minister proclaims lasting peace and nails sharpeville on yet another burning cross today is dingaan's day yesterday was republic day tomorrow will be an ordinary day after that a similar day
III. Sipho Sepamla "Mkize"
Le fellow-ndini uMkize is a clown you know he can't outgrow ubugoduka he was landed here from Transkei via ijoini uTeba ngamanye amazwi then wathi break i-contact yakhe don't ask me how by luck wathi xwa indawo kwsSis Jane uSis Jane ke is a beautiful soul anytime amongst other things she owns i-skilpad
Ie clever-ndini uMkize because akana-shame takes this skilpad goes to his favourite shebeen dumps it on the table and says kwi-shebeen queen what's your offer just like that puur thing she thought uvelelwe she says to him drink on the house my dear
two days straight days later uSis Jane went to recover eso-skilpad walontya i-property kamkize out of a window uMkize is in shit-street ngoku he goes from place to place efuna i-accommodation serves him right
IV. Mongane Wally Serote "What's in This Black 'Shit'"
It is not the steaming little rot
In the toilet bucket,
It is the upheaval of the bowels
Bleeding and coming out through the mouth
And swallowing back
Rolling in the mouth
Feeling its taste and wondering what's next like it.
Now I'm talking about this;
"Shit" you hear an old woman say,
Right there, squeezed in her little match-box
With her fatness and gigantic life experience,
Which makes her a child,
'Cause the next day she's right there,
Right there serving tea to the woman
Who's lying in bed at 10 a.m. sick with wealth,
Which she's prepared to give her life for
"Hather than you marry my son or daughter."
This "Shit" can take the form of action
My younger sister under the full weight of my father,
And her face colliding with his steel hand,
"'Cause she spilled sugar that I work so hard for,"
He says, not feeling satisfied with the damage his hands
Do to my yelling little sister.
I'm learning to pronounce this "Shit" well,
Since the other day,
At the pass office,
When I went to get employment,
The officer there endorsed me to Middleburg,
So I said, hard and with all my might, "Shit!"
I felt a little better;
But what's good is, I said it in his face.
A thing my father wouldn't dare do.
That's what's in this blacJ< "Shit".
V. Dennis Brutus "Robben Island Sequence"
neonbright orange vermillion on the chopped broken slate that gravelled the path and yard bright orange was the red blood freshly spilt where the prisoners had passed; and bright red pinkbright red and light the blood on the light sand by the sea the pale light yellow seas and in the light bright airy air lightwoven, seawoven, spraywoven air of sunlight by the beach where we worked where the bright blade-edges of the rocks jutted like chisels from the squatting rocks the keen fine edges whitening to thinness from the lightbrown masses of the sunlit rocks, washed around by swirls on rushing wave water, lightgreen or colourless, transparent with a hint of light: on the sharp pale whitening edges our blood showed light and pink, our gashed sales winced from the fine barely felt slashes, that lacerated afterwards: the bloody flow thinned to thin pink strings dangling as we hobbled through the wet clinging sands or we discovered surprised in some quiet backwater pool the thick flow of blood uncoiling from a skein to thick dark red strands.
The menace of that bright day was clear as the blade of a knife; from the blade edges of the rocks, from the piercing brilliance of the day, the incisive thrust of the clear air into the lungs the salt-stinging brightness of sky and light on the eyes: from the clear image, bronze-sharp lines of Kleynhans laughing khaki-ed. uniformed. with his foot on the neck of the convict who had fallen, holding his head under water in the pool where he had fallen while the man thrashed helplessly and the bubbles gurgled and the air glinted dully on lethal gunbutts, the day was brilliant with the threat of death. sitting on the damp sand in sand-powdered windpuff,
the treetops still grey in the early morning air and dew still hanging tree-high, to come to the beginning of the day and small barely-conscious illicit greetings to settle to a shape of mind, of thought, and inhabit a body to its extremities: to be a prisoner, a political victim, to be a some-time fighter, to endure-·· find reserves of good cheer, of composure while the wind rippled the tight skin forming on the cooling porridge and sandspray dropped by windgusts depressed it: to begin, at the beginning of a day, to be a person and take and hold a shape to last for this one day .....
(afterwards the old lags came along with their favourite warders, to select the young prisoners who had caught their eye, so that these could be assigned to their span)
some mornings we lined up for "hospital"
-- it meant mostly getting castor oil -but what a varied bunch we were! for all had injuries -- but in such variety split heads; smashed ankles, arms; cut feet in bandages, or torn and bloodied legs: some, under uniform, wore their mass of bruises but what a bruised and broken motley lot we were!
VIA. Breyten Bretenbach "Taalstry"
"Clear as the conscience of a gun"
- Miroslav Holub
Ons is oud.
Ons taal is 'n grys reserwis van meer dan honderd jaar met die vingers styf om die snellers en wie sal soos ons kan sing wanneer ons nie meer daar is nie?
Soos in ons lewe salons die aarde verwerp en die wonderwerke van die vlees wat groei soos woorde spoel en klop --
JulIe sal die liggame vir one gedagtes wees en lewe p, pms sterwe te herdenk en die wysies uit ons beenbluite te tower ...
Van die struktuur van ones gewete en iut die skure van ons liefdadigheid het ons vir julIe swart konstruksies laat bout bliksems -skole, klinieke, poskantore, polisiestasies en nou waai die p~lume swart rook met die klop en die spoel van'n hart.
Maar julIe het nie mooi verstaan nie.
Die Taal moet julIe nag bemeester
Ons sal julIe die ABC van voorag voorse, ons sal julIe tou-wys-maak met die riglyne van ons Christel ike Nasional Opvoeding ...
JulIe sal leer om gehoorsaam te wees, gehoorsaam en onderdanig.
En julIe sal die Taal leer gebruik, pmderdanig sal julIe die gebruik want in ons Ie die monde med die gif in die klop en die spoel van die hart.
JulI_e__i_s__d1ie sout van ~ d_ie~ aarde k --k __ ~__ vy a a 1. Jll C C ;:, a ~ v 11 ;:, V lJ i:J i,3 \.. C:;.l.. \IV c; ;:;, JU a.ann.a l.J be; c; as julIe nie daar is nie?
JulIe sal die aarde bitter enbrak en glinsterend maak van die klank van ons lippe ...
Want ons is Christus se laksmanne.
Ons is op die mure om die lokasies met die geweer in die een hand en die masjiengeweer in die ander: ons, sendelinge van die Beskawing.
Ons bring vir julIe die grammatika van geweld en die sinsbout van verwoesting -- uit die tradisie van ons vuurwapens sal julIe die werkwoorde van vergelding ghoor stotter. Kyk, ons gee vir julIe nuwe nomde pasella rooi ore om mee te hoor rooi oe om mee te sien al polsende, rooi monde om die geheime van ons vrees te mag spuit: daar waar iedere loodpuntwoord vlieg sal'n spraakorgaan oopgebreek word ...
En julIe sal die Taal asseblief leer gebruik, gehoorsaam sal julIe dit gebruik, breek want ons Ie reeds met die doodstoggel se klop en se spoel aan die lippe ...
Ons, ons is oud ...
VIB. Breyten Breytenbach "The Struggle for the Taal"
"Clean as the conscience of a gun"
- Miroslav Holub
We ourselves are aged.
Our language is a grey reservist a hundred years old and more his fingers stiff around the triggers -and who will be able to sing as we sang when we are no longer there?
As we did when alive we will spurn the earth and the miracles of the flesh which grows throbbing and flowing like words --
It is you who will serve as bodies for our thoughts and live to commemorate our death, you will conjure up tunes from the flutes of our bones
From the structure of our conscience from the stores of our charity we had black contraptions built for you, you bastards schools, clinics, post-offices, police-stations and now the plumes blow black smoke throbbing and flowing like a heart.
But you have not fully understood.
You have yet to master the Taal.
We will make you say the ABC allover again, we will teach you the ropes of Christian National Education
You will learn to be submissive submissive and humble.
And you will learn to use the Taal, with humility you will use it for it is we who possess the mouths with the poison in the throb and the flow of the heart.
You are the salt of the earth -- with what will we be able to spice our dying if you are not there? you will make the earth glint, bitter and brackish with the sound of our lips ...
For we are Christ's executioners.
We are on the walls around the townships gun in one hand machine-gun in the other: we, the missionaries of Civilization.
We bring you the grammar of violence and the syntax of destruction -from the tradition of our firearms you will hear the verbs of retribution stuttering. Look what we're giving you, free and for nothing -- new mouths red ears with which to hear red eyes with which to see pulsing, red mouths so that you can spout the secrets uf uur fear: where each lead-nosed word flies a speech organ will be torn open ...
And you will please learn to use the Taal, with humility use it, abuse it ... because we are down already, the death-rattle's throb and flow on our lips ...
As for us, we are aged ...
VII. Dennis Brutus "In my part of the world"
In my part of the world,
In my part of Africa,
In my part of this continent of ours,
South Africa
(I am from South Africa) we have a very simple greeting:
\.,e say" Africa".
When we meet and when we part we say "Africa".
And when we wish to express our brotherhood our shared and common purpose we say "Africa".
And when we wish to show our love and declare our common will we say "Africa".
In my part of Africa we have a very simple greeting: we say ---
VIII. Cosmo Pieterse "Love Exile Land"
I shall not be sad
Though away from you
Who have harboured the love
Moving me -- stage for my passion, my sleepless bed.
It is particularly and first of all you I nestle in
Thought, till the wings of my dream
Seem to have strength to carry me over all oceans, and safe,
Love, arriving with you, at last, to settle down.
In that thought is a moment: we shall come together,
Driven in the going of an instant time as the social world gathers feathers
And contracts to its free common, that we may flower and fly further And become one, and grow on forever.
IX. M. Pascal Gwala "Gumba, Gumba, Gumba"
Been watching this jive
For too long.
That's struggle.
West Street ain't the place
To hang around any more;
Pavid's Building is gone.
Gone is Osmond's Bottle Store.
And West Street is like dry;
The dry of patent leather
When the guests have left.
And the cats have to roll like
Dice into the passageways ....
Seeking a fix
While they keep off the jinx.
That's struggle.
Miasmic haze at 12 noon
Stretching into the wilderness
Of uniformed gables ....
Vast and penetrating
As the Devil's eye.
At night you see another dream
White and monstrous;
Dropping from earth's heaven,
Whitewashing your own Black dream.
That's st.ruggle.
Get up to listen
To Black screams outside;
With deep cries, bitter cries.
That's struggle.
Struggle is when
You have to lower your eyes
And steer time
With your bent voice.
When you drag along -Mechanically.
Your shoulders refusing;
Refusing like a young bull
Not wanting to dive
Into the dipping tank
Struggle is keying your tune
To harmonise with your inside.
Witness a dachsund bitch shitting
A beautiful Black woman's figure too close by,
Her hand holding the strap;
In a whitelonely suburb.
Tramp the city
Even if you're sleepweary;
'Cos your Black arse
Can't rest on a "Whites Only" seat.
Jerk your talk
Frown in your laughs
Smile when you ain't happy.
That's struggle.
Struggle is being offered choices that fink your smiles.
Choices that dampen your frown.
Struggle is knowing
What's lacking in your desires
'Cos even your desires are made
To be too hard for you to grab.
Seeing how far
You are from the abyss
Far the way your people are.
Searching to find it;
Ain't nobody to cry for you.
When you know what's bugging your mama
You mama coming from the white madam's.
When all the buses
Don't pick you up
In the morning, on your way to work.
'Cos there ain't even room to stand.
Maybe you squeezed all of Soweto.
Umlazi, Kwa-Mashu
Into one stretch of a dream;
Maybe Chatsworth, maybe Bonteheuwel.
Then you chased it & went after it;
It, the IT and ITS.
Perhaps you broke free.
If you have seen:
Seen queues at the off-course tote;
Seen a man's guts -- the man walking still
Seen a man blue-eye his wife;
See a woman being kicked by a cop.
You seen struggle.
If you have heard:
Heard a man bugger a woman, old as his mother;
Heard a child giggle at obscene jokes
Heard a mother weep over a dead son;
Heard a foreman say "boy" to a labouring oupa
Heard a bellowing, drunken voice in an alley.
You hear struggle.
Knowing words don't kill
But a gun does.
That's struggle.
For no more jive
Evening's eight
Ain't never late.
Black is struggle.
x. Sipho Sepamla "Children of the Earth"
Children of the earth the earth of gods gods of the lost, the forsaken and the downtroddeen
it is with humility these words are spoken the yield of years bears witness of you you with hands that clawed the ground one night you with hand that hurled stones at bullets bullets talJr shit talk that is bullets split brains brains with blood that is you gave us a revised bantu education of nice-looking double-storeyed buildings of teachers scrambling for matric certificates certificates talk shit talk that is certificates that make good servants servants that are servile that is you gave us ebullient community councillors with long black flowing gowns pussyfooting councillors who raise rents for match-boxes match boxes are a life the life of being houses that is shit bricks and asbestos that suck in colds and disease that is you gave us high-rising masts for lights with orange lighting that makes us ghosts ghosts that inhabit concentration camps camps talk of being prisons that is camps talk of their dirt, rape and murders children of the earth the earth of gods gods of the lost, the forsaken and the wanderer you opened the way to Angola you opened the way to Tanzania you opened the way to Cuba they talk of your return in Soweto they talk of your return in Mamelodi they talk of your return in I{wa-Mashu consultations over you in Pretoria consultations over you in Cape Town consultations over you in Durban
children of the earth the earth of gods gods of the militant we shall weave your name in song we shall weave your name in song we shall weave your name in song children of the earth
XI. Pitika Ntuli "Under the censor's guillotine"
In my country
Our war begins when we try to drink the cauldron of sunset with our bruised eyes hands tied to our backs tongues sliced at the root our words one with the wind raw material of sounds we hear echoes before thoughts are uttered carve answers before words strike the eardrum our poems coming in waves of whispers
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