The weight of the word

Applause can kill a poet, said Lesego Rampolokeng. He recalled going to a poetry reading in Pretoria where every poem, whatever its merit, received approbation from the gathering. That’s no way to develop a poetry culture. Nor is what he refers to as the illiteracy of some of our would-be poets.

But don’t blame lack of education only, said Keorapetse Kgositsile. “You can’t blame the classroom for your inadequacies because the classroom isn’t there to produce artists,” he said. “No teacher will tell you should become a poet. If you decide you want to become a poet then it’s your duty to be knowledgeable and to hone your skills.”

I was speaking to the two poets ahead of the Jozi Spoken Word Festival, to be held in Johannesburg from this weekend. This year’s activities include readings, a book fair, a publishers’ network meeting and book launches. Both Kgositsile and Rampolokeng will perform at the festival.

The two poets come from successive generations of South African poets. Kgositsile was born in 1938 and went into exile in 1961. He taught in the United States, returning to this country after almost three decades in exile, becoming a key figure in the African National Congress-affiliated Congress of South African Writers (Cosaw). He has published nine collections of poetry, and was declared South Africa’s poet laureate by the Thabo Mbeki government.

Rampolokeng was also associated with Cosaw in the 1980s — he is a child of the Emergency years and has often been seen as a hard-hitting, rebarbative writer. Born in 1965 in Soweto, he has published four poetry collections as well as a plays and two novels. His rap-styled work is meant to be performed, and some has been released on CD with musical backing by the Kalahari Surfers.

I could have talked to them all day. But we only had two hours. Still, the conversation ranged broadly across poetry and the state of the world, particularly Africa.

Europe and colonialism had undoubtedly “traumatised Africa”, Kgositsile said, but there’s no point in being romantic about the past. “We can’t glorify pre-colonial Africa,” he said.

Today’s xenophobic violence in South Africa could be traced to the Berlin Conference that created present-day Africa’s borders, which reflect colonial domination more than other solidarities and affiliations. “Are we saying the Europeans were correct in creating those borders that we are now killing for? Yesterday we looked at those borders as acts of imperialism. Today we defend them; we kill for them.”

Not that colonial borders are solely to blame for Africa’s problems. Kgositsile bemoaned what Zimbabwe has become and wondered how Robert Mugabe, whom he met initially through Nathan Shamuyarira, a scholar and Mugabe confidant, had become a self-serving ruler. He said it was imperative for Africa to take a close look at itself and examine where things went wrong. “How did we get here and where are we going?”

The poet laureate recalled a conversation he had with Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. Kgositsile was explaining the kind of challenges faced by South Africa in the 1990s when Achebe said: “At least you people have human problems, so chances are that something could be done if people are really interested in making an intervention. In Nigeria it’s too late.”

Just as Achebe argued in The Trouble with Nigeria, his critique of his native country, Kgositsile said some of the problems are because of a failure of leadership. Some people who haven’t shown outstanding leadership skills are elevated to positions of power, and then, “all of a sudden, we expect them to solve problems. Does being in a certain position give you wisdom? If you went there without wisdom you will remain there without it.”

Yet leadership can’t be over-glorified. South Africa blundered, he said, when it placed Nelson Mandela “on this high pedestal — so high we almost made him irrelevant. Then we folded our arms and expected him to deliver.” The task of transforming South Africa should not be the sole responsibility of the government but that of everyone who lives here.

Poets included, no doubt. What, I asked them, was the poet’s role?

“The role of the poet has never changed ever since there was poetry,” said Kgositsile “The poet has been there to affirm life as a creative activity, to criticise, to entertain. But there’s a misconception of the role of the imbongi as a praise-singer. That’s colonial bullshit.”

Rampolokeng has a poem titled letter in which a throng beseeches the poet “to tell us something we want to hear … [so that] our applause will be explosive”. But poets should not just tell people what they want to hear, and perhaps that’s part of what’s wrong with our poetry culture.

“I would be the last to dictate to any person how they should write,” he said. “But today we have poets who sing the praises of Cremora, South Africa’s railway services, Sasol …”

Rampolokeng had reservations about South African poetry. He noted how the younger generation of poets weren’t concerned about being themselves, instead resorting to slavish mimicry of established voices. “I don’t think poetry is that which falls off a production line. We aren’t producing canned fish. When Saul Williams comes you will have 30 Saul Williamses coming out of Thokoza and Tembisa.” Kgositsile agreed. “The young artist has a duty to discover his or her own voice.”

“When you are starting out it’s natural to mimic,” added Rampolokeng, “but at some point you have to stop and find your own voice. The writing of poetry is an attempt to find your own voice.”

Kgositsile had noted that education can’t be given the sole blame for a lack of a literary culture in South Africa. But, he acknowledged, it can be very difficult for aspirant writers to get going. He noted the fact that East London’s Mdantsane — the second-biggest township in South Africa after Soweto — doesn’t have a public library.

“How are writers supposed to come out of Mdantsane?” asked Rampolokeng rhetorically. “If they do, they will be illiterate writers.”

“South Africa wouldn’t pass a test as a reading country,” said Kgositsile. “South Africans are not as knowledgeable as they should be. The same applies to the United States.”

Apartheid denied the black majority access to a quality education, he reminded us, and that injustice has not been rectified. “It served those governments to keep people ignorant and that hasn’t been tackled yet [in the present dispensation]. People are still talking about training people to become employable and not to be better people.”

And values are askew, too. The generation growing up now, said Kgositsile, is “much more interested in owning things than in being knowledgeable”.

There is hope, though. Rampolokeng recalled that once in Medellin, Colombia, at a poetry reading, a huge banner was unfurled that read: “With bread and poetry we’ll live.”

South Africa needs bread, but it also needs poetry.

The poets set to perform at the Jozi Spoken Word Festival include Kgositsile, Rampolokeng, Myesha Jenkins, Robert Berold, Masojo Msiza and Peter Horn, Bianca Williams, Comrade Fatso, Khanye Magubane, Jessica Mbangeni, Niq Mhlongo and Zukiswa Wanner on July 31 from 6pm to 8pm and on August 1 from 4pm to 7pm at the Wits Ampitheatre

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