The Mark Gevisser Profile
A voice of truth and dissent
My comrades and friends killed my granny with fire…
But before that, they sucked her breasts dry… so that she could burn well
This poem by Sandile Dikeni, soon to be published in the upcoming two-volume edition of Staffrider, must be the most devastating and wrenching lines of literature to have come out of this country. It makes more sense than it might first seem that the 30-year-old poet is currently producing a weekly programme on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for SABC Radio. In 1986, in the Karoo hamlet of Victoria West, Sandile Dikeni’s comrades and friends necklaced his grandmother — one of the matriarchs of the tiny community — because she told them what she thought of them.
Shortly thereafter, Dikeni, a student activist, became renowned in the Western Cape for his “Guava Juice”, a paean to the Molotov Cocktail that he performed at rallies: “Shake shake shake my comrade … shake that guava juice.” Rhythmic, brutal, and with the compelling geometry of a war-cry, it became an anthem of the struggle that murdered its originator’s own grandmother.
Dikeni initially drugged away the trauma of the murder, he remembers, by intoning to himself the soporific that “the struggle has many casualties”. Later, in detention, “when I had time to reflect, I thought to myself, `No, man, we don’t do that. It’s your grandmother who brought you up. You love her.’ These are the moments of struggle when the critical thinking begins to happen …”
Ten years later, he is one of the most interesting and radical voices of our new society. His radio packages, first broadcast on SAfm’s AM Live and now on his Reflections show every Friday night at 7.30, are aural poems, lateral tilts at the world that are entirely at odds with the linear efficiency meant to characterize radio. Subjective and lyrical, they radiate an intelligence that is usually spliced out of radio reports.
His Cape Times columns, written from Gauteng — “beyond the grape curtain”, as he puts it — have become the most controversial pieces of public writing in a place that he slams, in the column itself, as having been “static for over three centuries”.
The man who spent an unhappy month as Allan Boesak’s media-man when he was briefly in the Cape government wrote, just before May’s local government elections, that the ANC in the region “is going to lose because [it] is a naive little organisation peppered with foolhardy Stalinists who cannot learn.” When his predictions came true, he slammed the ANC’s “arrogant kind of Africanism” for alienating coloured voters.
And his poetry, still struggling to find a South African form that can move effectively between the written and the spoken word, has grown rather than diminished, now that it is freed of the struggle- imperatives of the 1980s. He sounds, at times, like a jazzy, township Langston Hughes. What is breath- taking, though, is his understanding of history, and his ability to slot this understanding into the distilled imagery and performative rhythm of his poetry: “They say it is not by bread alone/ that we live./ I know/ It is by poetry alone that we survived./ With poetry dancing on our tongues/ we wiped the blood from our mouths /…/ we petrol- bombed our angry past/ we blasted our martyrs out of our brains/ and we made shrines out of their graves/ we weaved forgiveness on to our T-shirts/ and with the last remaining droplets of blood/ we tried to paint peace on angry dark skies …”
Grounding all these forms —radio, column, poems — is a rocky Karoo baritone. You kind of have to give over to it; to ride it as it riffs. “Do you feel,” I ask, “that because you’re a black journalist, there is sometimes pressure on you to toe the line?”
He takes a breath. Looks me in the eye. “I am not black,” he says, unflinching, before launching into a discourse — on blackness as a label rather than an identity, on non-racialism and progressive thought — that wanders through the ethnicity debate and the racism of Cape Town before landing squarely, and astonishingly, on the ostrich industry: “Texas is exporting ostrich products. We’re not. Why not? It’s because of a resistance to Africa! You hate Africa so much that you don’t want to identify with it!”
AM Live and Reflections presenter John Maytham speaks of the way Dikeni likes to “take ideas up for the intellectual joy of playing with them rather than for any programmatic goal”. Dikeni defines himself no more specifically than to say he is a “progressive”. Despite his political intuition, he nonetheless exploits the artist’s prerogative to be extreme, and wilfully eccentric, and contradictory.
We talk, for example, about the the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Does he sympathise with the position of the Bikos and the Mxenges, I ask? Of course he does, he says, explaining that Biko belongs to the world and not to South Africa, “so to take Biko’s rights and limit them to a political settlement in South Africa, it’s really not on … why can’t Mrs Biko’s feelings be universal, when people in Europe’s feelings can? When you’re Third World, you’re not universal. They box you. I, Sandile, suddenly become a black South African writer. Gordimer is a writer. Brink is a writer. They don’t publish in the African writers’ series. But me, Wally [Serote], you can count us, we’re black writers.”
And so into an inspired tirade against Rian Malan, Mark Behr and “white confessional literature. The Europeans love it. It pushes the moral high-ground back to white people, forces me to accept that they’re not entirely bad. They feel sorry, man! We’ll kill you if you don’t forgive. They’ll hug you to death, and you don’t have an option. And I hate it!”
His intellect is passionate and expansive rather than nitpicky and rigorous, which is perhaps why he is clearly not happy in radio, stifled by both the obduracy of the medium and the weight of the bureaucracy at SABC. He both exasperates and enchants his colleagues. He is, says SAfm’s head of live current affairs Charles Leonard “a wise person, a dreamer, a word and ideas person. A projects person. Not your ideal radio journalist, in that he won’t have three stories ready in the morning. He was still a pleasure to work with, because he was so inspiring.”
He has had a difficult professional life: his long association with Die Suid Afrikaan ended badly. There was a row that is impossible to unravel, and by the time he was appointed editor, the era of alternative media was over, and the venture was already doomed.
What he wants to do, more than anything, is write his novel. And so, as we sit in the stodgy subterranean cafeterias of Radio Park or in the benevolent chaos of the Troyeville semi he shares with his German lover and a “French dog” he has turned into a literary character in his column, he talks me into the Karoo, into Victoria West.
Like many people from small towns, he has a sharp sense of place. The novel, like his life, is about his father, who was tried, in 1968, on trumped-up charges of trying to poison Victoria West’s water supply. He was acquitted, but not before a year-and- a-half of imprisonment and torture, and a trial that rent the black community in two by turning it into “the victims and the betrayers”.
He draws a direct line between that trauma and the one that saw the murder of his grandmother nearly 20 years later, because if there is “no forgiveness, no remorse” society “has to have a scapegoat to cleanse itself … My grandmother was the scapegoat in 1986. The funny thing is the victims remain the same. Us, and me, indirectly.”
Perhaps to prevent a third turn of the wheel, a third trauma, this time maybe with a member of his generation, maybe himself in a way, as victim — Dikeni imbues his fiction project with vast expectations. His novel, he hopes, will provide the truth that will lead to the reconciliation of his community — a Karoo test-tube of the national process in which he is both victim and betrayer, both forgiving and remorseful.
One of his best radio documentaries was about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s amnesty hearings in Phokeng, outside Rustenburg. Dikeni could simply have told the story of how murderers were claiming that they were acting on behalf of the ANC when they killed one of their community working for Lucas Mangope. Instead, he looked beyond the legal bumf of that event to how the community itself was using it to heal deep traumas and wounds, thereby taking a rote political indemnification process and redeploying it as it was originally intended to be: an agent of reconciliation.
And somewhere along the way he both affirmed and betrayed himself by declaring that, as a result of the hearings, “the people of Phokeng are reconciled now”. It was a breathtakingly optimistic — some might say naive — observation for someone as avowedly cynical and as dissenting as Dikeni, and it gave some sense of his need to resolve his own conflicts, his willingness to expose this need, and the sheer force of his own humanity.