It would be easy to leave poet Mafika Pascal Gwala on the scrap heap of the forgotten where he has been languishing. At 60, he can be a difficult man at times, still partial to his drink and one whose mood is undoubtedly affected by his receding memory — a horrific, bitter encounter for any writer.
Gwala’s circumstance is endemic of our age of sociopolitical amnesia, of a homogenised memory of the anti-apartheid struggle: for every Don Mattera remembered, there are several forgotten Gwalas.
Gwala’s body of work, which emerged with the Black Consciousness movement of the 1970s, includes two poetry collections, Jol’iinkomo (1977) and No More Lullabies (1982), where his predominately cynical eye transposes the rhythms of life on to the page with the swagger of a street urchin hooking into Miles Davis.
Gwala emerged alongside writers such as Mongane Wally Serote, Mbuyiseni Mtshali, Mandla Langa and James Matthews — a group known as the Soweto poets — in the late 1960s. Over the years he has worked in factories, as a school teacher and he edited Black Review 1973 and co-edited Musho! Zulu Popular Praises (1991) with Liz Gunner.
He has also done research towards an incomplete doctorate at the University of Manchester, which examined culture in the developing and developed worlds and is working on turning the research into his first novel.
Sitting outside his dinghy home in Hammarsdale, near Durban, he is alternately irascible and engaging. Gwala’s hands don’t so much shake, as shimmer occasionally, perhaps pointing to the memory loss, which he says doctors attribute to “old age,” and which has seen him giving up teaching at a nearby secondary school.
Our conversation is fractured, drawn-out, painful at times, yet illuminating at others:
On the poem The Children of Nonti
“What I loved about it was that it showed the inner possibilities of translation, from English to Zulu or from Zulu to English. I hardly worked at the poem, I just wrote it, one-way, in English. When I met Ngugi [wa Thiong’o] in London, I showed him this poem and he said: ‘You have lots of worries to make unnecessarily. Just decide for yourself that you want to write in Zulu, write in Zulu and then forget about it.'”
On writing in English
“No, I was not compelled to write in English, but then you are not compelled to not write in English too. It is a language with free use. It breathes colonialism, but it lives in an honest way, so there is nothing wrong really with writing in English, as long as you know how to control certain things.
On Black Consciousness
“There was Wally [Serote], myself, Mandla Langa and others. We didn’t take Black Consciousness as a kind of Bible, it was just a trend, which was a necessary one because it meant bringing in what the white opposition [to apartheid] couldn’t bring into the struggle. So much was brought into the struggle through Black Consciousness.”
On musicality and rhythms inherent in his work
“Not that I was aware of [this musicality], but people tell me that. The first time I heard someone say that, it was James Matthews, who asked: ‘How do you get to make music in the flow of your lines?’ From then on I noticed that it was true, before that I wasn’t aware of it. This was long ago, in the mid-1970s.”
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No mirth for bantus
No Mirth For Bantus
middle class bantu blacks
roll into black wedding parties
with a clumsy gait
of (a) dice on ghetto pave
not a single face
will moon through their sweaty foreheads
for a checkup on the
temperature of their
they come in bagged
with empty class
they’ll slip stares
about invitation cards
right across and all over
just in case
the ever so casual
should get their noses mugged
and pull off
their gadgeteering masks
of white brow etiquette. — From Jol’iinkomo