/ 9 November 1990

Poet meets paradox

The first things that poet Mongane Wally Serote noticed after he touched down at Jan Smuts Airport on a blistering hot Saturday afternoon last week: were the pistols of the black policemen and the politeness of the customs officials. ‘The atmosphere was extremely unexpected. There was a delay … my visa could not be found. The blonde girl at the immigration desk said ‘sir, please bear with us?’ ”I was not used to being asked to ‘bear with’ white South African officials. The last time I had dealings with officialdom it was in the pass office where one was treated like some terrible in convenience. “At Jan Smuts I could have been anywhere in the world. Everyone was eager to assist me to sort out the problem, very helpful.” 

But then, like most returning exiles, Serote collided with the paradox. He had to have permission to come home after 16 years away. The man who was born in Alexandra township does not have a South African passport but travels on a United Nations document. So, first he had to get a visa, then he had to get indemnity. Until three days before his flight, he didn’t know whether either would materialise. Furthermore, he is a legitimate visitor to this country only until November 24 – after which date he must return to England, the land from which he does not come. He claims not to know why he, the European head of the African National Congress’s Arts and Culture Department, was forced to obtain indemnity, a rubber stamp generally reserved for those with more immediately threatening military interests.

Little more than 24 hours after arriving in Johannesburg, Serote faced his first public engagement – as a panelist at The Weekly Mail‘s Book Week. The topic was ”culture and the democratic process”, a bland enough allusion to the cultural mayhem that descended upon us in earnest after 1986. Oliver Tambo’s declaring the cultural boycott ”selective” rather than ”blanket” in 1987 caused almost as much excitable chaos as did FW de Klerk’s unbanning of the ANC et al in 1990. From this time on, Serote’s word pretty much became boycott law. A steady stream of artists sought an audience with him at the Islington office of the ANC to gather advice about the boycott status of art exhibitions, mandates for musical tours, approval to take work out of South Africa and permission to bring work in.

It is unclear how much of a sense of that power Serote has: he admits mistakes, defends administrative inefficiency and enthuses about the spectrum of people he met-from cultural activists located well within the boundaries of collective decision-making to lone, anxious artists who really just wanted to secure the freedom to make their art in private peace and to public acclaim. ”Yes, it was a difficult time and I really wished I’d been younger so that I had had the energy to create the 25th hour of the day. But for me, it was also an extremely important time, a learning time. Whether we were agreeing or not, I was always struck by the insistence of people from home on searching for the best solution to the problem. 

”Some people, because their involvement in culture was as individuals, were very fearful of the idea of dealing with organisations. We had to try and work out why that was, to world out whether we were doing something wrong to make them so afraid … ” Serote concedes that the numerous stretching tentacles of ANC cultural structures world-wide may well have strained some muscles. ”Of course, at certain points, the structures became intolerant … in the light of the fact we were trying to create a society of tolerance, this was incorrect. ”On the other band, democracy is a hard won thing. It has to be fought for and we could not be ‘soft’. The aspect of illegality under which all these structures emerged forced us into a mode of survival whose techniques were alien to democracy. ”We brought in people who did not have experience, who did not have administrative skills. People were learning on the job, while managing crises. I don’t think it is an abstract request to ask for tolerance, although I am trying not to seek refuge in too many excuses.” 

Nevertheless, Serote says of that time, ”I think I felt more South African then than I ever have before or since.” Speaking of the South African present, Serote says he is ”all too aware of the need to locate ourselves in the 21st century. ”It is true that sometimes we don’t know how to use the spaces that are availing themselves to us. This is because we have never had them, we are· testing the tire with our fingers; it can become awkward.” Serote is adamant, however, that it is not the dismantling of the cultural boycott we should be discussing but the ”adapting” of it, 1o ”suit the needs of our current situation”. 

At the Book Week panel discussion last Sunday night, it was obvious Serote had not prepared a speech. Much of what be said was lost in the limbo of an incomplete sentence or idea. But when he gave illustration to his wandering argument justifying the continuation of the cultural boycott, he eventually became animated and incisive. He elaborates: ”You’ve been away 16 years. You come back to the only place you will ever call home, it’s nowhere else but Alexandra. · ”Alexandra …. a formula for devastating human life. What do you say? As I drove through it I was terrified, terrified to imagine how little children make it through from one day to the next in a town like that, a town that has felt the full impact of repression.” 

Serote has written several poems about his hometown, upon which he bestows a female persona – sometimes mother, sometimes whore, always victim: ”Alexandra, i give you my back now, the secrets are in my heart and i cannot look, for your legs are chained apart and your dirty petticoat is soaked in blood, blood from your ravaged wound.” 

Serote has lived in Tottenham, London, with his wife and five sons for much of the past 16 years. Yet he lives the somewhat cloistered life of a typical South African in exile. ‘There is a very strange thing about being an activist in exile: you live a South African life in those countries. Most of the friends you make, the acquaintances you meet, all relate directly to South African politics. Of course, one also lived a life that revolved around meetings and committees.” But even a life so largely defined by the spectre of ”home” was not insensitive to the issues that influenced his adopted environment. 

He developed strong feelings about the acts of social conscience he found to be an inherent part of British society. ”For instance, I saw how the society made life better for people like the disabled. You observe this and you realise that human beings belong to compassion. It’s very moving.” Serote came to a similar conclusion about the eclectic forms and origins of art he was exposed to. ”I remember for the first time going to hear the music of Bach played at a symphony concert. Again you discover this thing … I’m there, listening, and I know the person who made this is not black, yet I still discover the essence of our being in this music. It is the same when I go to galleries to look at European art. Again I discover that in essence we all belong to compassion. ”It was telling to be in a society organised in such a way as to at low this compassion to be expressed. My heart used to break sometimes to wonder why we, as South Africans, seemingly cannot discover this simple truth.”

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.


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