The poet and urban planner was killed by thugs earlier this month. His friend and mentor Vonani Bila reflects on and honours the life of Moses Metileni, the humble giant who was committed to literature and social justice in equal measure
The senseless murder of Nzama Khaizen Moses Metileni on 8 July 2019 left me devastated. What kind of a liberated country slays and crushes an erudite poet and intellectual of Moses’s ilk? He chose to live among the ordinary people and wrote poems about his everyday encounters as a way of confronting the glaring suffering and hardship of the township and rural people.
His poetry is populated by dissidents and the discarded: a blind beggar with a bowl at corner of Bree street; the retrenched mine worker who returns home to die; the landless who invoke ancestral forces to reclaim the stolen and misused land; the shack dweller who watches as his corrugated tin house is razed by a brigade of the merciless Red Ants; the Mozambican immigrant named Mido Macia who is handcuffed and dragged behind a police van before dying in custody. His crime? “Parking his car on the wrong side of the road in Daveyton.” Moses’s poetry celebrated Pan-Africanism and a prosperous Africa, but also challenged the mad dictators who are hell-bent on strangulating the African child’s future.
Moses was a man with three master’s degrees – in urban planning, development economics (both University of the Witwatersrand) and creative writing (Rhodes University), a poet and a PhD candidate at the University of Wits. He fervently read the Bible alongside Karl Marx’s Capital and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and didn’t find any contradiction nor down any delusional opium.
He believed in hard work, justice, solidarity and equality; and cherished love and peace as values that make us better human beings. His poetry — inspired by several major poets such as the Egyptian-Greek wordsmith Constantine Cavafy and the South African James Magaisa — wasn’t meant to mislead the nation into taking up arms and stirring revolution without thinking, but to prick the consciences of those who wield power. He wanted to inspire societal development, instead of helplessly watching the forces of greed do as they wish while their actions breed a burgeoning disaster of poverty, racism and inequality.
Big Moss, as I fondly addressed him, was a humble giant with a trademark beard who was always willing to go the extra distance in everything he pursued in life. Born in 1983, he treasured his rural upbringing at Nkuri-Tomu near Giyani, despite the absence of express roads, universities and proper medical services. Here, like all of us, he ate from the same bowl with his siblings, played communal children’s games like xikoriyo and ximbvati. It is the same place that ignited his love for the Xitsonga language, music, parables, folk tales and idioms told to him around the whispering fires. It is the place that continues to be the centre of traditional cuisine of tshopi, tihove, masense and xigugu.
In recent years Moses envisioned building a library with relevant literary resources and internet connectivity at Nkuri-Tomu village so that the children of peasants who receive education in broken-down schools and under marula trees could match their counterparts in urban South Africa. With his deep knowledge and consummate skills in town planning, economics and governance, he was equally keen to transform the uneven, racially structured city of Jo’burg. He journeyed and walked along Bree Street, smelling the pungent smells of utter poverty and reeking urine, eating pap and vleis in makeshift food outlets, listening to people’s stories of misery and triumph, and, thus, sharply understanding the true colours of the South African economy.
He chose to live with his folk in Tembisa township on the periphery of Jo’burg. Surely he didn’t know that thugs, perhaps from the same township, would break into his house and snuff out his life so prematurely. Moses always believed that South Africa, and his township, Tembisa, would one day be a beacon of hope; a place free of violence, rage, corruption and greed.
On the night of July 8, thugs killed Nzama Khaizen Metileni and shot and injured his fiancée in Tembisa. Thugs, black or white, are all the same — bad news. South Africa should outlaw guns,instruments of death that daily leave children as orphans. Now who will take care of Moses’s three children: Ndzhaka (8), Ndzima (2) and Ntivo (2)?
Moses, who was often called Dzumba, steadfastly listened to Bob Nesta Marley’s solo acoustic ballad Redemption Song because, like Marcus Garvey, Josiah Tongogara and Steve Biko, he believed in the sovereignty of his mind — the mind that dares to confront the thorns and prickles of our phony liberation.
“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our minds/
Have no fear for atomic energy/ ’Cause none of them can stop the time / How long shall they kill our prophets/ While we stand aside and look?”
In his poem devoted to Bob Marley, titled, Sing Our Redemption Songs Marley, Moses echoes Marley’s voice.
“The minds of the oppressed remained chained in illusion / Growing dreadlocks tabooed by the learned / Owls and hyenas belong to the same tribe / Laws holding souls and spirits in captivity / Universities and churches graduate thieves and murderers / Women’s screams have become our lullabies.”
Moses’ commitment to poetry and the development of indigenous literature was practical and remarkable. He started Nhlalala Publishing, an outlet devoted to publishing mainly in Xitsonga. Under his publishing belt he churned out his groundbreaking political novellas Mpimavayeni and Nhlalala, as well as Loko Mpfula a yo Sewula — an anthology of poetry by 10 new Xitsonga poets. His poetry has appeared in local and international journals such as New Coin, Timbila, Botsotso, Tyhini, Asymptote and Illuminations, and the anthologies Endzhutini wa Xidemokrasi, I Wish I’d Said and the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology.
Before his untimely death he had taken up the arduous task of translating a selection of my English poems into Xitsonga. He had already translated Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s short story, The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright, and Peter Horn’s selected poems into Xitsonga. Only last month he informed me of his advanced plans of establishing the first Xitsonga literary prize in post-apartheid South Africa. “I want you to be one of the poetry adjudicators,” he ordered softly, and I nodded with great delight.
What kind of a people are we who murder the best of those among? My humble brother, fellow black poet, as we grieve your sudden departure, please know that the poems that you’ve penned will always console us the way Bob Marley’s Redemption Song consoled you, sharpening your political consciousness and sustaining your creativity. Moses will be missed dearly by his children, mother Betty Hlamarisa Ngoveni, and his siblings, Goodman, Olivia, Rivers, Mbhoni and Hlamalani. May God and your ancestors protect and guide your spirit forever, Dzumba.
Vonani Bila is a poet and founder of the Timbila Poetry Project in Shirley Village. In 2014 to 2015, he supervised Moses Mtileni’s MA in Creative Writing at Rhodes University.