Author, poet, struggle stalwart and healer Mongane Wally Serote was announced as South Africa’s poet laureate at a South African Literary Awards ceremony in Pretoria earlier this week. He succeeds his contemporary Keorapetse Kgositsile who passed away earlier this year.
Born in Sophiatown in May 1944, Serote’s first published collection of poetry was Yakhal’inkomo, which won the Ingrid Jonker prize for poetry in 1972. His debut novel, To Every Birth Its Blood, was published by the Ravan Press in 1981 and is steeped in the resistance culture of the 1970s. He has gone on to publish countless times.
Serote left the country in the early 1970s after serving nine months in solitary confinement when he was arrested by the apartheid government under the Terrorism Act of 1969. His political involvement went as far as being a member of the ANC’s military wing Umkhonto weSizwe where he served from Botswana.
Serote, a contemporary of leading poetry luminaries and black consciousness proponents such as Mafika Gwala, and Sipho Sepamla, received his Masters of Fine Arts from Columbia University in 1979.
Unable to return to South Africa after his studies, Serote remained in exile and helped form the Medu Art Ensemble alongside the likes of Thami Mnyele. He returned to South Africa in 1990. He has won numerous poetry and writing awards both locally and internationally, including the Pablo Neruda Award from the Chilean government and the Arts and Culture Trust’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Speaking a few days after the Poet Laureate award, he told EWN that the important realisation that drove him towards the pen was realising the fighting spirit of South Africans very early on in his life.
“I could have written romantic poetry or anything else, but that discovery made me say I want to be a part of this,” Serote said.