There are those moments when a painting, photograph, song or novel sums up an entire epoch, a place, a war, a country. This is what zeitgeist, the German word for "spirit of the time", really means.
I don't think I have encountered verse that captures the brutality of the township experience in the way Makhafula Vilakazi does in his poem, I Am Not Going Back to the Township. In it, all our terrors, anxieties and nightmares about the township that limpidly lie hidden in the folds of the yarns told about the rainbow nation suddenly rise, erect and threatening.
In I Am Not Going Back to the Township, the title track of an audio anthology of his performance poetry, Vilakazi's baritone voice rides over the sound laid down by Impande Core, exponents of a sound they call "carrot funk". It's a baritone that's alternately desperate and tear-soaked, and bristling with the rage of the "angry black man", or forlorn and menaced, like a bull about to be castrated.
The poet paints a sorry portrait of the township, of "sis Betty" who "grew thinner" and coughed out her lungs; abortions performed using scissors; small-time politicians bribing voters with bags of mealiemeal; and the sheer violence of an existence eked out on the margins. "Do you expect me to go back to this shit?" Vilakazi's voice rings out.
The force of his work comes from the idiom of the township street and the sighs and cries of generations kept down by successive racist regimes. Vilakazi, who was born and raised in Chiawelo in Soweto, mixes the voice of the subaltern with his training as a lawyer.
For someone whose poetry is about the lives of people on the outer reaches of capital and the city, Vilakazi presents something of a paradox. He works at a commercial law firm that specialises in corporate law, mergers and acquisitions and commercial litigation.
And when you add the urban, creole sensibility imposed on the township that gave rise to tsotsitaal, you have a Bitches' Brew.
In his poetry, English, isiZulu and tsotsitaal scrap for dominance and no one tongue comes out victorious. His approach favours alleyways and side roads, underground rivers and abandoned mineshafts. He represents, to borrow a phrase, the underground of the underground.
Among the people whose trajectories have crossed his – mentors if you will – are Ike Mbonambi, one-third of the poetry collective Botsotso Jesters; the now late Sam Mugabe, a former Zimbabwean student at the University of the Witwatersrand, who introduced him to the techniques and inner workings of poetry; and Ekiel Hove, the poet's high school English literature teacher.
Vilakazi recalled how Hove overturned the protocols of teaching English literature at the township school he attended. Hove required his pupils to act out set plays and encouraged them to read beyond the curriculum by introducing them to Oswald Mtshali, Dambudzo Marechera, Ben Okri and others.
"I started writing and he would critique my work. That got me off the streets. I spent the weekend writing because I wanted to give him something new [on Monday]."
He realised that he "couldn't write about daisies" but rather about the condition that confronted him daily.
"I felt I couldn't express certain things in English very well. I had a thick thesaurus to get a word that would [help me] to say what I wanted to say better. But that was mechanical. So I started to insert isiZulu words when I couldn't find an English word. I am a township guy," Vilakazi says.
Mugabe reminded Vilakazi to be always conscious of who he was writing for. This influenced his choice of genre – the spoken word. "Traditionally Africans are oral people; this is not a criticism."
He finds people "hear me better, understand me better" when he performs his poetry. When he recorded it, he realised it was dry and monotonous, that he couldn't do 40 minutes of non-stop declamations without background music. So he engaged a producer and vocalist, Samkelo Lelethu Mdolomba, going as Samthing Soweto but formerly of the Johannesburg band The Fridge.
Although the poems Glen Dlamini, I Am Not Going Back to the Township and Ungipatekile show a solid production ethic, you can't say the same about some of the tracks during which a cellphone suddenly rings during recording or when Vilakazi's voice suddenly fades out.
Still, just for the poem, I Am Not Going Back to the Township, Vilakazi is worth checking out. He is an insistent and troubling presence, much like the township itself.
Makhafula Vilakazi performs on November 29 at the Bus Factory, 2 President Street, Johannesburg. To get a copy of his CD, email [email protected]