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South Africa’s poets write of our new struggle for freedom

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Poetry, like other literary and art forms, has played a significant role in the struggle for freedom both here at home and around the world, where we’ve seen it play at least three roles. 

First, poetry is a powerful medium through which to build solidarity — we see our lives in that expressed by the poet to create a shared experience about which we can rally and take action. It is no surprise that poetry of Wally Serote, Mafika Pascal Gwala and Oswald Mtshali was read at anti-apartheid rallies — these poems no doubt aroused emotions but, more importantly, in the lines of the poems, citizens heard their voices and saw their plights. 

In its second role, poetry sought to create awareness of the absurdity of the regime and the conditions under which South Africans lived. In this role we can know the heartbeat of a society by simply listening to its poets. 

William Ernest Henley

But poetry also played a third role, that of inspiration. No doubt the poetry of the aforementioned poets spurred people into action in their numbers, but poetry also inspired leaders of the freedom struggle. Think of the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley, which Nelson Mandela carried with him and is said to have read to feed his spirit. This is a reminder that poetry can bring change by working bottom-up through a society, but can also work top-down by inspiring a movement’s leaders who, in turn, can inspire action. 

In post-apartheid South Africa, one might be tempted to think that poetry has lost its importance as a catalyst for freedom. This is not the case. The reality is that we are still immersed in a freedom struggle — but it’s a new struggle. Whereas the pre-1994 struggle was targeted at political freedom, our battle now is targeted at social and economic freedom, to overcome the suffering that arises from social vulnerability. This new struggle has awoken new poetry and many new poetic voices. 

Social vulnerability can manifest as suffering that arises from deprivation of food and shelter, or sparked by racism, xenophobia and violence. One example of this violence is that suffered by women at the hands of men. 

“I don’t want to die with my hands up and my legs open,” writes Koleka Putuma, and “I can feel the laughter on every street holding a knife,” writes Busisiwe Mahlangu. The grip of this horrific and ubiquitous fear is palpable. Motivational speaker Brett Fish describes the production We Are Dying Here by Siphokazi Jonas, Hope Netshivhambe and Babalwa Makwetu as an “exposure of the oppression found in the lives of women”. In the face of this oppression we are indeed immersed in a freedom struggle.

To gain some insight into this new freedom struggle and the poetry written to express it, I analysed volume VIII of The Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology. It’s a comprehensive sampling of South African poetry that includes 81 poems by 63 poets in 10 official languages. 

These are intensely personal poems that describe lives filled with suffering (“I live like an animal”), violence (“last night a knife was thrust into his heart”) and experiences of disrespect (“they are looking at us like we’re shit”). The frequency of domestic sexual violence is described in the poem Fathers Who Are Not Fathers in which the poet writes: “Fathers who were in love with my mother raped me repeatedly.” 

This is what women experience every day — the constant threat of sexual violence and the particular threat from those men who frequent their homes. The poet continues, “I thought this was what was done by all fathers,” a line that underscores the psychological harm done to girls and women. 

Another disturbing reference is to a child in nappies being described as a “sacrificial lamb”. It’s a reference to the disturbing frequency with which children become victims of molestation. The amalgamated Afrikaans slang word moeggenaai translates to “exhausted from fucking”. There’s information in this crude language — this is not sex in the context of relationship or love or beauty, but something ugly and violent. More disturbing is that this line refers to a girl of school-going age. What kind of society are we living in when a schoolgirl cannot attend school because of exhaustion from regular violent sex?

These poems make for distressing reading. These are harder, more graphic poems than those written in the past. If we accept that the poets speak for our society, they reflect a sick society in which we live in constant fear as if we’re living in a jungle or a war zone seeking merely to survive. The reality reflected in these poems is that of a struggle for freedom, not from racist oppressors but from compatriots, our brothers (and sometimes our sisters). It’s not a struggle for political freedom; it’s a struggle for the freedom to live our lives without fear and suffering.

One reason poetry is effective in this new freedom struggle is its immediacy. In compact language and with striking metaphor, poetry holds up a mirror that reflects our reality, our oppression, our unfreedom. 

What then is poetry’s role in this new freedom struggle? Poetry can play the same three roles it did in the struggle against apartheid. There is solidarity in reading these poems — a sense that we are not alone in our suffering. These poems draw attention to the plight of the vulnerable. 

What we haven’t seen much of is poetry’s third role — that of inspiring action against our social oppression and inspiring action among our leaders. Perhaps this is the challenge that poets now face — to produce poetry that inspires the masses and leaders to action, to spur us on in this new struggle, toward this new freedom. 

Athol Williams is a social philosopher and author of 13 books. He is a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, focusing on corporate responsibility and ethics

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Athol Williams
Athol Williams is a social philosopher and award-winning author of 15 books. He is the chief executive of the Institute of Social and Corporate Ethics and holds degrees from Harvard, Oxford, Wits and MIT

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