Mafika Gwala: Potent voice not silenced by death
Mafika Gwala (1946 – 2014)
As long as this land, my country is unpoetic in its doings it’ll be poetic to disagree. (In Defence of Poetry, 1982)
Mafika Pascal Gwala died on September 6 in Hammarsdale, where he had lived for most of his life.
Born in Verulam, near Durban, he worked as a legal clerk, school teacher, factory hand and, on the Black Review (1973), as publications researcher. For a spell he researched adult education at the University of Manchester.
When I met Gwala in 1980, he had published the first of his two volumes of poetry, Jol’iinkomo (Bringing the Cattle Home), in 1977. No More Lullabies appeared in 1982.
I met him only one other time, a few years ago, when he participated in the Poetry Africa Festival at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
As the last poet on the programme, he had to cut short his reading. It was late; most of the audience had gone home, tired out by an introductory speaker and several of the poets who had overstayed their welcome on the stage.
Gwala accepted the situation with equanimity. The younger, fiery Black Consciousness (BC) activist-poet had developed a wry insight into our human zoo, even as he feared his own “Can Themba” reaction: seeing the world too often reflected through the bottom of a bottle.
Together, we recalled the heady atmosphere of the 1970s. Those years saw the emergence of a new black poetry in, among others, Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali, Mongane Serote, Sipho Sepamla and Gwala himself.
I recollected my own response in my introduction to the anthology of critical essays, Soweto Poetry (1982; republished 2007): “… poetry which over the last 10 years has boldly taken a Eurocentric South African literary establishment by the scruff of the neck and dragged it into an arena robustly and challengingly South African”.
Of these poets of the 1970s, Gwala displayed the greatest variety of thought and style. He moved from a Fanonist psychology of black affirmation to a critique of what today we call the local/global debate.
His poetry reveals a miscellany of influences including English Romanticism, international modernism, the American Beat poets of the Sixties, jazz call-and-response and traditional African oral praises and proverbs.
Kwela-ride is compressed in imagist suggestion. A passbook (dompas) arrest leads, unexpectedly, to renewal in ancestral communion: “Came the kwela-kwela/ We crawled in./ The young men sang./ In that dark moment/ It all became familiar.”
Getting off the Ride, in contrast, pushes its rhythms beyond the print-bound line to project its attack on racial and economic exploitation outwards to the world: “I ask again, what is Black?/ Black is when you get off the ride …/ O-m! Ohhh – mmmm!”
As in BC programmes of action, English expression challenged Verwoerdian ethnic division. English, nonetheless, had to be stripped of cultural pretension to capture the agitated temper of the urban black experience: “Saturday evening/ Berea Road Station …/ got to zwakala/ into this wholenight gig” (Night Party).
Whatever the influences – Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in Getting off the Ride, for example – the voice encapsulates Gwala’s distinct accent. The wider world of poetry is “bent” innovatively to the local demand: “In Afrika/ when a snake sticks out its forked tongue/ it is pleading for justice/ It’s not the tongue of the snake that bites” (Versions of Progress).
To return to the evening of the Poetry Africa Festival, the audience – mostly too young to have known the literary moment of the 1970s –had no idea that time had curtailed an opportunity to hear the voice of one of this country’s leading poets.
Hamba kahle, Mafika!
Michael Chapman is professor emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal