The Flame Tree of Freedom: Poetry and Apartheid
June 1, 2003
Jun 1, 2003
21 Min read time
edited by Peter Anderson and Kim Cooper
If the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990 signaled the imminent collapse of apartheid, what did the prospect of massive social change mean for South African poetry, a poetry for many years enmeshed in the liberation struggle? In an attempt to trace the patterns of response that are beginning to develop, the Boston Review invited South African poets to contribute new work.
We are grateful to Andries Oliphant, general editor at the Congress of South African Writers, and to Robert Berold, editor of New Coin, for their assistance in this project. Read the poems here.
Once, long ago, in a city that is now irrevocably changed, I met a man I should have loved. I sat next to him in a well-lighted room. Before us was a table with a bowl of flowers. He had nothing in his hands, no notebook or file or pieces of paper, but sat as I did, watching the pale faces of the small crowd scattered around the room. Beyond was the broad summer's night, which seemed to stir with secrets: close by was a cricket's sharp chirping; then came the liquid notes of a set of bamboo wind-chimes and the whisper of leaves as the breeze moved. We could clearly hear car doors slamming shut in the parking lot on the far side of the tennis court. It was early, yet.
I asked him where he was from.
"Alex," he said.
I nodded. We stayed poised, looking at one another, but he volunteered nothing more, and for the moment there seemed nothing more to say.
Alexandra township to the north of Johannesburg, like Soweto to the south, was both a sink of poverty and a centre of intense political struggle; a "pool of cheap labor" for the oligarchy, and the smouldering site of continued resistance. Since the year of the burning of the schools -- I remember seeing the night sky glowing red above Alex -- the uprising had been spearheaded by the young, sometimes even by the children. With nothing but stones in their hands, or broken bottles and sticks, they pitted themselves against the armoured cars of the police, who shot to kill.
Little or none of this appeared on South African TV, of course, which was instead chock full of prime-time trash like The A-Team, featuring Hannibal Smith, the phony, benign white patriarch, and Mr. T, the morose black muscle-man, gorgeously barbarous in his clanking gold chains; or, on an alternative channel,Spiderman in murmured Zulu or Sotho. As for newspapers, hard as some may have tried to evade the laws gagging the press, the risk of fines and shut-downs compelled them in the end to report only "responsibly," i.e. what the police said.
Come and see the blood in the street, writes Pablo Neruda.
And the Neruda of South African poets, Mongane Wally Serote, in sombre lines that remorselessly buckle and break the language to fit the shape of the mouths of those who may not "speak English" but who still must speak, asserts, in their voice:
it were us, it is us
the children of Soweto
langa, kagiso, alexandra, gugulethu and nyanga
a people with a long history of resistance
who will dare the mighty
for it is freedom, only freedom which can quench our thirst --
While in the streets the children and the young people raised a banner emblazoned with a poetry of their own:
OUR BLOOD WILL WATER
THE TREE OF LIBERATION
At the funerals of those killed by the police, tens of thousands thronged stadiums in the townships. Here, oral poets performed, sometimes gaining a more tumultuous affirmation from the masses of the people than even the politicians and the ministers of religion. I suspected that the young man beside me was just such a poet. I knew little enough about the resurgence of oral poetry in the townships, but I did know that it was a popular poetry in the true sense of popular, a poetry of the people. I knew, too, that it was based on the oral tradition central to African literature, and entailed a political rejection of print publication, since, among other things, print's white ownership and distribution excluded the masses of the people; therefore, although a poet like Serote was held in high regard, his use of print was not emulated.
Since I was curious to know more, but barred by apartheid from township stadiums, I had bought a copy of a clandestinely circulating audio-cassette of the most popular of the oral poets, Mzwakhe Mbuli, and listened to it with great care. Although (or perhaps because) the drum-beats and other music backing Mzwakhe sometimes drowned out his voice, I played the tape again and again. Then I discarded it, lost it. But I still seem to remember snatches like
is growing rusty
on the pavements
which caught my ear because they seemed weak. It was not that I did not respond fully to the sentiment, the denunciation of oppression, and the general sense of impatience about a freedom that was lagging, but that the lines did not seem completely coherent. On its own, I could understand a phrase like "the pavements/of oppression," of course. Any urban person could. But together with the image of freedom as "growing rusty," the lines seemed to break down, to stop making sense. I puzzled over them. How was "freedom" being pictured? As a shining knife or some other object of bright metal, perhaps? Okay, but even so, I could not work out what the pavements had to do with the metal's "oppression." To my vexation as well as dismay, the poem began to seem to me an inadvertent self-parody which trivialised the very freedom it set out to praise.
I wanted to ask the young man beside me about Mzwakhe. Did he know him? What did he think of his poetry? The tall, loose-limbed Mzwakhe, with his large hands and pliant, expressive mouth, as I had seen him in photographs, looked very different from this young man, who was compact, tense, very stern and watchful. What did his type of poetry mean for me and my type of poetry? In any case, I wasn't completely convinced by my own analysis of the Mzwakhe poem. Wasn't I bringing to it the too-tight critical mindset of a person schooled in, ruled by, print?
"Literature in so-called `literate' societies gets frozen, only to be defrosted by those with a special technique, which they acquire through many years of specialised training," observes the Zulu poet and critic Mazisi Kunene. Kunene regards traditional South African oral literature as "living literature whose excellence lies in performance." The canonical quirk in my brain, a stubborn wrinkle, prompted me to reply: "On that definition, so is Shakespeare." And the crushing (and racist?) rejoinder that I had heard attributed to a great American novelist, somehow crossed my mind, too: "If the Zulus produce an Iliad, we'll read them."
Was I an Ice Man? And the young poet next to me, was he a Sun Man? I had the impulse to work intricately to a high point, an acute political angle, from which I could recognise in both him and me the workings of polarisation, of apartheid. At the same time, the poet in me wanted to know how I could write poetry from this.
The room had filled up with pale people. They sat calmly, quietly listening. This genteel drawing room in an old mansion of a wealthy white suburb was the last place I would have expected to find a young black oral poet. If I, from a white working class background, felt out of place here, how did he feel? Anyway, why should a man who could command an audience of tens of thousands in a direct encounter based on an unparalleled upsurge of revolutionary fervour be here, in this quiet backwater?
"Where are your poems?" I asked him.
He gave a quick broad grin.
"I know them," he replied. "I have already made them up."
"You know them by heart?"
"By heart," he agreed, and then repeated the phrase with a laugh, liking it.
Later, he would perform his poetry to the accompaniment of a drum and a flute, played by two teenage Alex youths. He would stand tensely, exhorting, declaiming. I can't remember the words. I have tried often enough, but I keep drawing a blank. It is not that the poetry was not powerful; simply that I was distracted. Because I happened to be reading next, my mind kept straying, as always just before I read, to the problems of my own manuscript. In any case, I expected to meet him again. He was intense, passionate. He stood with his hands clenched. To the audience, it seemed like an assault. Perhaps it was. Then it was my turn to read, and I went up to the table with my papers in my hands.
Afterwards, as everyone was drifting out of the room at the wine-and-cheese end of the evening, I joined him again. He was talking to one of the teenagers, who was rolling the big cowhide drum toward the door. I asked him if I could contact him by phone, but in addition to having no phone (which I expected: few township residents had telephones) he was unemployed. The best I could do was to give him my own number. For a while, we stood together outside. From a trellis above us, wisteria blooms hung in full bunches, diffusing their heady, sweet scent into the night air.
"What is your name?" I asked.
It was too absurd. A poet called Jingles. A black poet, a black oral poet, called Jingles. I could not believe it. I was reminded of all the derogatory nicknames for black men: Sixpence, Houtkop, (Blockhead) Forward, Caltex, Jukebox and, when racist invention ran out, Jim. I wondered whether his choice of name was not in some way deliberate. Was it meant to be ironic, confrontational? Once he knew and trusted me, perhaps, I could find out. I also wanted to know his real name, his African name, but as we spoke I did not press it.
He had composed his poetry in prison, he told me. He had been arrested in the aftermath of a street battle in Alex, beaten unconscious at the police station, and then kept in solitary confinement. It was dark in his cell. He could not tell day from night. (When he came to, for instance, he could not tell whether one hour had gone by or five or ten, or none at all.) It was cold. He had one blanket. But in the silence and the dark, he had found words forming. Words with shape, weight, rhythm, power; long surges of words, driving and insistent: poems. One poem arose, and then another and another. The compulsion to speak out, to sing, overcame him. He often wept, he said, as the words came welling up. Sometimes he would dream and awake to find the words already tumbling from his mouth. That was why he had been there that evening. It did not matter that the audience was white. He had to speak.
"Will you come to other readings?" I asked.
"Maybe!" he said with a laugh.
It sounded like a promise.
We shook hands. He seemed shy, but close. Warm. Strong.
A week later, he was killed in the street, not by the police, I heard, but by the young people of the township, the "comrades." His death, it seems, was a mistake. It happened in the heat of the moment. The comrades could not believe that they had not caught another man, a "collaborator." They knifed him before he could speak. At least, I kept telling myself, a knifing is quick and clean. Usually, if you were suspected of being a collaborator in the townships, you were put to death by means of the "necklace." You were trapped, beaten, harangued. An old motor car tyre was rolled out and slung around your neck. You were doused with petrol and burnt alive.
• • •
"Once, long ago," is storyteller's time, time outside of the circle of the clock, at odds with history. It is history which would compel us to recognise no other time as true but that which it records; history which identifies itself with real time, the time within which we live, the time of our lives. In the face of such "real time," Osip Mandelstam threw away his watch. And the speaker in one of Boris Pasternak's early poems cries out from a window: "Hey! What century is it down there?"
The collapse of apartheid as a political superstructure in South Africa has had some impact on poetry, but not much. Apartheid continually presented itself with a granite face, a will to rule that translated into a deadly and clearcut programme of total control which, exalting white sovereignty, ruthlessly crushed anything, any thought or action, white or black, that seemed to contradict it. In response, it seemed as if a poetry of an equally explicit and forceful opposition was demanded. In general terms, the dominant question became: "How do we write a political poetry?" Specifically, the underlying agenda was always: "How do we destroy apartheid?" It seemed up to the actual poets to develop a reply, even if they refused (as some did) to countenance the question as applying in any credible way to poetry. But refusal is also a politics, a kind of reply. Under apartheid, poets could not escape the political imperative. Political pressure forced the development of a range of poetries, a jagged series of replies. That the most powerful of the political poetries could not effectively be shaped by the standards of Western high culture is a measure of the extent to which apartheid was perceived as stemming directly from Western ethnocentrism. Because apartheid propagandised itself as the last bastion of Western civilisation in Africa, Western culture as a whole became suspect, its "standards" tending to be unmasked and rejected as a form of domination. The most useful form of political poetry soon proved to be the slogan. A poetry which can be published in letters as high as you like on any blank wall or open surface is a poetry which appropriates public space and eludes, or takes a giant step over the head of, such controlled outlets as, for example, the literary magazine. If the literary magazine, strictly guarded by gatekeepers like poetry editors, who hold their positions because they can be trusted by the dominant culture to "know" what is poetry and what is not, is impossibly out of bounds for the poor and unpolished, the slogan is always ready at hand. In fact, the political impact of the slogan goes far beyond anything attainable by "literary" poetry. In terms of its ability to focus and mobilise collective action, as in the sacrificial tree of liberty that the youths and the children once carried into the streets of the townships, the slogan has been invaluable to the anti-apartheid political struggle, and remains in high favour. Today, however, the fighting slogan of the young comrades is a far cry from martyrdom. It is martyrdom's dialectical opposite-- the Pan Africanist parody of the democratic rule-of-thumb, one person, one vote:
ONE SETTLER, ONE BULLET
In order to understand a slogan like this it is necessary to think in terms of a politics of the poor and the dispossessed, a politics militantly opposed to simple arithmetical ballot-box equality, the type of equality which deflects attention from economic inequality, as in America. This is the politics that underlies theWretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon's brilliant analysis of decolonisation which, though written in the 60s, at the outset of the great wave of African liberation, reads like a blueprint of South Africa today. Take the very first sentence: "National liberation, national renaissance, the restoration of nationhood to the people, whatever may be the headings used or the new formulas introduced, decolonization is always a violent phenomenon."
The expunging of apartheid might be one heading. National reconstruction another. At the same time, if the limitation of oppression is regarded as incomplete until the land has been ethnically cleansed of all "settlers," the moral right upon which the revolution is predicated will be voided by genocide.
South Africa is undergoing irrevocable change. It is evident that much of the poetry of that change cannot be adequately reproduced in a high cultural journal like the Boston Review. Oral poetry, again, if it has to be recorded at all, tends to be best served by audio- or videotape. Oral poetry is poetry in action, a poetry of live presence and performance. Its words, which are all that could be presented here, often constitute the least part of the text, and tend to look like nothing, or nothing much, on the page.
In the absence of the politicised popular poem -- graffiti, slogan and oral performance -- the potential of the auton-
omous poem is is all that is left; the poem, that is to say, sufficiently independent, by virtue of its relatively complex word-power, to make an appeal to an audience beyond that of its immediate origins and supportive context. It is neither possible nor desirable to make the claim that autonomous poetry is the only true poetry, or that it is somehow beyond politics. At the same time, it must be recognised that the autonomous poem may be growing ever more alien to the community-oriented black South African political poem.
With those black South African poems which can be read as autonomous, there remains the problem of language. Since English is not the first language of black South Africans, as it is of African-Americans, no identifiable dialect of black South African English can serve as an alternative to the rule of standard English. What are we to do with the idiosyncratic English we can at times expect, when idiosyncrasy is not necessarily a drawback in poetry? What, for instance, are we to make of a poem like this, by Zachariah Rapola, another poet from Alexandra township? (Except that the original was hand-written, what follows is an exact copy.)
Virsil for an Urchin
achoing from farmished
lips stumbles from its
Where flies discreately
consumate their sodomy
You dissects the time-
to hoist flags for the
Your footsteps walking
are achoed in the
Where innocence is
apportioned to a select
rancid city by-laws
accost your apparation
and pin-stripped brokers
Oh! little brother
in conception you were
a canvass of distortions
moulded too hastily
to withstand pillages
The first impulse might be to standardise the spelling, but we are checked by the thought of what we would lose: "achoing" (the ache in the echo?); "discreately" (is the undoing of what is created, discreated?); "pin-stripped brokers" (brokers stripped by pins, their clothing in shreds, their pink bodies finely scratched, stippled with beads of blood, all over?); "existance" (the stance in existence?), and so on. Should some of the less interesting misspellings, like `adolesants,' be corrected, while others, which writers as diverse as the Nigerian Amos Tutuola and the Irish James Joyce seem to have prepared us to recognise as resonant distortions, be left to stand? After the spelling, should the grammar be corrected? What of the political implications of an American "correcting" a black South African? Editors do it all the time, sure. By this act, they become agents of the dominant culture.
It is one thing to tinker with your own culture. To tinker with another, to "correct" it, may amount to imperialism.
Well, then. What are we to do? Leave it alone? Print it as it stands? First let us ask the fundamental question, though: Does it make sense? To complicate matters, the lines have the ring of poetry when they are read aloud. Are they simply obscure, then? Is it that we lack the key to understanding them? Or is this poem incoherent, simply not a poem?
Not a poem.
The decision is made and we are relieved. We don't, we won't print it. In this way, the more detailed questions, poetic and political, do not have to be answered. Implicitly, of course, we know that they have already been answered. Refusal is a politics. No one need be reminded that exclusion is one of the definitive acts of power. An uneasiness remains, therefore, underlying the relief. Have we really understood?
And yet I wonder. When I read the black South African writer Es'kia Mphahlele's translation of "Ezinkomponi," an ode to the gold mines by the pre-apartheid black South African poet, Benedict Wallet Vilakazi, I find myself lingering over the following lines:
Because the white men are as stone,
Can you, of iron, not be gentler?
Here, I need no mediating political or literary theory. These lines come back to me of their own, often when I am thinking of other things, in a way that fulfils Mphahlele's own definition of poetry as "memorable speech." They come back, too, like a faint echo of the tone of the magnificent, grieving Don Cossack song with which Mikhail Sholokhov opens And Quiet Flows the Don.
To the two current phases of South African history -- first, the sweeping away of the white supremacist superstructure, and second, the construction of a new overarching nationhood for all South Africans in a multi-ethnic state -- two different types of poetry correspond. The first is the poetry of revolutionary upheaval, of the breaking down of the old order and the release of surging but inchoate potential, as we have seen in the excerpt from the Serote poem. The second is a poetry identifying with the imposition of a new order. Inevitably, the latter is a poetry of conformity. Part of its conformity lies in its resembling the poetry of the first type. The difference is that it tends to be less inventive, more concerned with consolidating the gains of the first. It has lost its freshness. Or rather, freshness is not the point. Affirmation of the new order is.
In the political rhetoric of the African National Congress at the moment, for instance, the phrase "a new dawn" is repeatedly invoked. At the close of a week of recent negotiations, Joe Slovo, a senior member of the African National Congress who headed the South African Communist Party in exile, said: "We need to send a clear signal to the South African people that the new dawn is in sight." And a week or so later, Nelson Mandela, in his oration at the funeral of the old-guard leader Oliver Tambo, who was for decades the president of the African National Congress, claimed: "We are watching a new dawn..."
Compare such words with the following excerpt:
we salute our new dawn
from trenches of gutted sunsets
in disembowelled memories
where a bullet opens a hole in the soul
of the nation & lays it bare...
These, the opening lines of a poem which could also not be placed in the present selection, (a nine-part praise poem by Lesego Rampolokeng, originally published in South Africa in 1991) are, it would seem, poetry of the second type, poetry that is beginning to settle into the mechanical gestures of an official nationalism. The blood-drenched imagery is backward-looking, bound by the agonies of a past night of race war -- a war which other poems, the settler/bullet graffiti poems and their variations incite; that is to say, project as lying ahead.
If South Africa has produced a political poetry, it is because so much depends upon politics. The autonomous poem, prickly about its independent identity, remains the least likely to be determined by an explicit anti-apartheid politics; the slogan, which abolishes the significance of the author, the most. Diversity is the mark of this poetry, however. A vast, vital but uneven range, poetry in South Africa extends from the most intensely private lyric to the most harshly aggressive public command.
Given this range, it is clear that what appears in these pages represents only an edge of the possible, if the possible is taken as the entire jagged terrain of South African poetry -- and the edge is taken as that which shows when the paradigm of the Western high cultural autonomous poem is applied.
If in speaking I have concentrated upon black poets, hardly mentioning the white, it is because I have spoken as a white poet. White poetry is everywhere present in my voice if not in my views. I am aware, too, that I may not be able to speak for the women, both black and white, though perhaps I may at least speak of them. No clearer or more perfect poetry has arisen in South Africa of the historical change than that of Ingrid de Kok; as well, perhaps, as that of Karen Press. To the work of the late Ruth Miller, eclipsed during the years of strident demand for an explicitly political poetry, Lionel Abrahams's poem turns with great empathy and insight.
South Africa is a country of many poets but also, and more importantly, of many poetries. Its poetic culture is therefore already multiple. If one and only one poetic voice is allowed to dominate -- the newly official political voice, for instance-- that voice will spread a silence, and the potential that may exist for the development of a multi-poetic culture alive to its own multiplicity will remain no more than latent.
Let the present selection not be thought of as ambitiously historical and political, a mapping of the present state of poetry in South Africa, then. It would be better if the poems were to sound like wind chimes in the wind. For Jingles. In memoriam.
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June 01, 2003
21 Min read time