‘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.
“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 “sweet 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.”
Sandile Ngidi, a contemporary and 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 published in 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.
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:
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
of reaching some end
because some journeys are so long
and much longer
when you live in a dream forest
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.”
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