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Critic’s head is on fire

My first reading of Kwanele Sosibo’s review of Lesego Rampolokeng’s new book, Head on Fire (“Fragments of obscurity“, Friday, May 11), filled me with elation. Its combative style is something sorely lacking in South African literary practice these days. Week in and out we are faced by praise singers. On a second read, however, I was horrified. What appears at first as combative is revealed, upon a careful read, to be a gratuitous denunciation of one of the most potent anti-establishment poets of our time.

Sosibo tries to settle historical scores by attacking the poet for his valid criticism of the superficiality of our academic lives and the celebration by the white literary establishment of the mediocrity of black writers such as Fred Khumalo. One gets the sense that Sosibo has been injured by Rampolokeng’s middle finger, perpetually raised at the white liberal gatekeepers of our cultural life, who march in tandem with the ANC-permitted anti-black racism that masquerades as a democracy.

As someone who has followed Sosibo’s writing for a while, I find it odd that he has never attacked a white writer so virulently. This leaves one conclusion: he needed to deliver the scalp of the vagabond poet of black power to the table of whiteness. It is the power of whiteness that gently suggests to a black scribe: “To get ahead, give us the head of a recalcitrant runaway field negro.” Black slave catchers are as old as the black-white encounter.

Sosibo gives no sense of what Lesego’s new material actually signifies. We are only taken down the narrow path of Judeo-Christian morality’s blood-soaked, hypocritical revulsion at expletives. Rampolokeng’s use of language should be celebrated as anti-fascist – its power forces us to look full-on at the rotten corpse of liberation and all its gore.

Monopoly on mediocrity
Granted, we live in a time when Philistines pass as griots of the nation, but to reject the invitation to serious meditation that Rampolokeng’s work demands is to be complicit in promoting the lack of imagination Lewis Nkosi once so bitterly warned us against.

Truth be told, the majority of black writers in South Africa today hate writing or reading. I say nothing of white writers who have comfortably claimed a monopoly on mediocrity.

Rampolokeng goes against this grain and he is punished for it. 

Head on Fire presents us with a dilemma: How do we speak about this ugly condition nicely? He eschews the easy route of praise – singing or tiptoeing around power, all of it, from the smiling liberal white establishment to the iron-fisted black neocolonialists of the ANC. Often he throws us in the deep end and does not throw in any false rope to help us to climb back to this same shit-infested democracy, but if one swims a little further with the poet the rewards are plentiful.

A careful reader can feel in Rampolokeng’s violent meditations the kindness of Pablo Neruda’s Ode to the Sea, only Rampolokeng holds the whole sea in both hands and squashes it into our little heads and we explode. Did not Frantz Fanon say this? That the black must end the world? Sosibo and his ilk are trying to rescue a project that has gone too far down history’s public toilet. Whiteness must end. – Andile Mngxitama

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