Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Sharp turns on an angry road

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] 

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

Zondo may miss chief justice cut

The deputy chief justice is said to top Ramaphosa’s list but his position as head of the state capture commission is seen as too politically fraught

Government fails to act on officials implicated in R3bn SIU...

Half of the 127 managers incriminated in gross procurement corruption have yet to be disciplined

More top stories

Zondo may miss chief justice cut

The deputy chief justice is said to top Ramaphosa’s list but his position as head of the state capture commission is seen as too politically fraught

Government fails to act on officials implicated in R3bn SIU...

Half of the 127 managers incriminated in gross procurement corruption have yet to be disciplined

‘Dung Beetle’ turns tech into art and plastic into fuel

Real dung beetles make waste useful and this steel sculpture does the same for plastic

Ramaphosa calls for public nominations for new chief justice

The president has named a panel of experts to help him draw up a shortlist of candidates in an unprecedented move that opens the appointment to consultation
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×