Sandile Dikeni: A life of poetic activism

Firebrand: Sandile Dikeni understood South Africans and spoke to everyone through his searing writing. (Oscar Gutierrez)

Firebrand: Sandile Dikeni understood South Africans and spoke to everyone through his searing writing. (Oscar Gutierrez)

“That’s my activism; linked to my poetry,” says late poet, journalist and editor Sandile Dikeni in Guava Juice Generation, a video clip credited to Funiwe Gxavu and NR 75 Pictures.

READ MORE: Sandile Dikeni, poet and radio broadcaster

“My point of fame wasn’t really how eloquently I could articulate an anti-apartheid stance in strict political terms. It was more [a] cultural articulation of my anti-apartheidism.” In the film, he describes how the inciting energy of the poem Guava Juice (the title piece of his first published anthology which characterises petrol bombs as “dangerous little guava juices”), catapulted him from anonymity at the University of the Western Cape (where he was studying law) into the political theatre of the student representative council.

Dikeni (53) passed away on Saturday from tuberculosis.

Emerging out of the fiery 1980s, Dikeni’s voice tracked the country’s changes in real time. This ability to commiserate about life from all angles routinely saw him break down walls that had been erected for him and others of his hue.

“I met him at Pen Tech [now the Cape Peninsula University of Technology] when he was studying journalism,” remembers writer and close friend Ryan Fortune.

“But he had studied law at UWC before that, so he was probably the eldest in the class.
But within a few months of studying journalism he was appointed editor of Die Suid Afrikaan, which at that time was such a brilliant event — this young black radical upstart being appointed to this liberal Afrikaans publication. He wrote in Afrikaans and he did poetry in Afrikaans as well, you know.”

Fortune says Dikeni’s upbringing in Victoria West, in the Karoo, probably had a lot to do with his iconoclastic stature in South African cultural and political realms.

“About three years after meeting him I spent some time in Victoria West,” says Fortune. “It was amazing to see coloured people speaking Xhosa and Xhosa people speaking Afrikaans hanging out together at night. I think that upbringing formed part of his character and how he understood himself as a South African.”

READ MORE: No easy stroll to freedom for SA poetry’s restless howler

Sandile Ngidi, a fellow writer, calls Dikeni a transmitter of varied cultural experiences that, at the end of the day, belonged to the entire human race: “They just happened to have germinated from a certain political context — a political context of fire, turbulence, oppression and all the oddities that the apartheid state brought upon our people,” he says. “His work, to me, was ultimately about: what does it mean to be South African? And I use this in the present tense deliberately because those questions still face us today. Dikeni confronted that in so many ways and always with a broad smile and a piercing, sharp mind. He had that gift of just standing up and reciting poetry.”

Ngidi attempts to jog his memory, struggling through the iconic opening lines of a Dikeni poem that was headed for the pages of Staffrider:

A voice of truth and dissent

My comrades and friends killed my granny with fire …

But before that, they sucked her breasts dry ... so that she could burn well.

“It’s a gory poem. The first time I heard it, we were at Time Square in Yeoville. Fred [Khumalo], Lesego [Rampolokeng], Dikeni and I were seated one silly weekend, just talking and sharing the things that we were sharing. When he read that poem, he had not published it at the time, and I remember later on, Mark Gevisser wrote about it and described it as one of the most wrenching poems to come out of South Africa. So you get a sense that he was probing the human condition in all of its totality and he reminded us sharply of how deeply broken we still are,” Ngidi recalls. He adds that he cannot conclusively speak of the poem’s publication in Staffrider as the publication was reaching the end of its run in the mid 1990s. 

Ryland Fisher, a former editor at the Cape Times says: “In the 1990s he started capturing a lot more of the complicated, sensitive nature of the society and the divisions between those who had confidence and those who were uncertain in the change that was busy happening. There was also him feeling disillusioned with the ANC comrades who ended up enriching themselves at the expense of the poor people and not knowing how to deal with that kind of thing. That’s the kind of dilemma he found himself in and I suppose which a lot of other writers find themselves in.”

Fisher, recognising Dikeni’s ability to tap into the national condition seemingly at will, hired him as the publication’s arts editor in the mid 1990s.

“The paper at the time was still very much white and almost proudly serving the white community in Cape Town,” says Fisher. “It caused a bit of an uproar because I was appointing a black man. Of course there were many who thought he was going to fail but he turned the lifestyle and the arts section of the paper around. He won people over. Sandile had this amazing ability with people. He was very sensitive to trying to understand the complexity of the population that is currently living in this country. It’s a remarkable trait especially for someone like him who grew up in a very poor, oppressive and conservative town of Victoria West.”

Speaking to acquaintances and friends, it seems Dikeni’s sphere of influence was immeasurable and expressed in wide-ranging gestures.

“He gave me a book by [Uruguayan writer] Eduardo Galeano,” says one of YFM’s founding DJs Sbu Nxumalo. “It was Faces and Masks. He changed my life entirely with that book. If I were to say anything about how he lived his life, it is a bit like the magic realism of Eduardo Galeano. He was doing impossible things. I saw a quote that spoke to Sandile’s way of being. It was ‘Let’s save pessimism for better times’. That was Dikeni.”

Nxumalo, known in music circles as “The General”, says that in the early days of the Politburo, a club in Yeoville, Johannesburg, in the mid-1990s where one was just as likely to hear Chiskop as they were to hear Salif Keita, oft-times it would just be him and Dikeni inside the venue.

“We were having a good time but if I ever thought of backing out of it, he wouldn’t let me,” says Nxumalo. “He would say, ‘This is the right thing. Shay’ uSalif. Mphinde futhi!’ He was committed and loyal.”

When YFM was set up, Dikeni was recruited as the programmes manager: “He decided that there was going to be a talk show at YFM. There couldn’t be wall-to-wall music and no consciousness,” Nxumalo remembers.

For filmmaker Teddy Mattera, when he made what he calls a sentimental film about the homecoming of a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder, it was Dikeni’s poem Telegraph to the Sky that he turned to to imbue his film with a sense of melancholy and gravitas. The two works share a title.

“If you read those lines now,” says Materra, “especially now that he is gone, they will stir you right to the backbones my brother. It is almost like a eulogy to himself.”

The title poem of his second anthology, Telegraph to the Sky, is built around the refrain, “Stay with me…”, which he uses as a springboard to muse on not only a freedom he cannot quite recognise but the slippery slope of a rapidly neoliberalising globe as well. An excerpt reads:

Nowadays

they don’t hang you by the neck

till you die.

They dangle you by the feet

till the blood comes to the brain.

It’s a high feeling that makes you reach for sky

but touch earth as limit

as ecstacy

of reaching some end

because some journeys are so long

and much longer

when you live in a dream forest

called poetry.

Poet Keorapetse Kgositsile with Sandile Ndikeni at the Writer’s Conference at the University of Pretoria. (George Hallett)

Fellow Congress of South African Writers comrade Lisa Combrink, herself a poet, wrote a memorable, precise tribute to Dikeni, honing in on the spirit and form of his craft: “I think the true beauty of Sandile’s writing was that it remained/ remains true to an unfinished struggle and to a bigger vision of life in its fullness and it was not seduced by the film tricks of a democratic order. His writing remains elusive in the sense that it cannot be appropriated and it stands firm in its meaning which is strengthened by its rhythms. It embraces freedom, love and friendship (which is also a camaraderie), and does so from a firm vantage point that does not vacillate, yet is playful and forever young. His poems are beautiful and uplifting yet communicate with a poignancy that is not overpowering.”

As a cultural activist, she says Dikeni was “fully part” of COSAW and “he engaged frequently with everybody who congregated in their Belgravia Road offices and beyond for readings and organisational issues… he was an important part of the life and soul of cultural politics.” She also noted his sharp creative memory; how he could “recite out of his head not only his own poems but also those of Bra Willie Kgositsile’s as well - much to our affection and amusement.”

Over a WhatsApp chat, Fortune sent updates of how Dikeni would be eulogised. Among the fragments were some from the letters section of the Cape Times. Some were long tracts about how he kept a fierceness of tone, and yet bridged social distances. Others were short, shocked discoveries of his death. Others still, implored us that his love of jazz, often expressed through “gallons of ink” in his columns, should never be forgotten.

Dikeni will be remembered via a Monday Blues Session from 7pm on November 18 at the Chimurenga Factory (157 Victoria Road, Woodstock). A memorial service will be held from 5.30pm on November 21 at St George’s Cathedral (5 Wale Street, Cape Town). He will be buried on November 23 in a family funeral

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011.
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  • Zaza Hlalethwa

    Zaza Hlalethwa

    Zaza Hlalethwa is a junior arts and culture writer at the Mail & Guardian. In 2018 she was the recipient of a Sikuvile commendation for feature writing. In 2019 she received the Gauteng region Vodacom Journalist of the Year award for feature and lifestyle writing. Her interests in the arts stem from a need to demystify the elitist and complex-looking art world while her pop culture analyses look to facilitate critical thinking and challenge perpetuated social norms by using popular, everyday references, multilingualism and prose.
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