/ 1 May 2021

The voices in Makhafula Vilakazi’s head

Makhafula Vilakazi Andymkosi 3
Poet Makhafula Vilakazi in Alexandra, Johannesburg. (Photo: Andy Mkosi)

In 2019, Makhafula Vilakazi receives an interview request from DJ Sbu, a fan of his work.  DJ Sbu has, however, never watched a single performance, only listened. Makhafula arrives at the Massiv Metro studios with his team. 

DJ Sbu beams an “I’ll be with you just now”. He plays a song, goes up to Makhafula and extends a gleeful, “Awu! Mr Ramashia, what brings you to my quarters?”

“Ngize kuinterview mfwethu, i interview nawe”. 

It is at this very moment that DJ Sbu realises that his lawyer, whom he’s sat across countless times, is indeed his favourite poet in the flesh. 

A Venda boy born in Soweto and raised in transit between Chiawelo, eMnambithi, and Vosloorus, Makhafula was brought up in a home of eight boys by an aunt who was a packer at Shoprite. A soccer player; a delinquent; a top student; a dreamer who dreamt himself into Wits Law School, graduating with distinction and going on to work in one of the top five law firms in the country. Later he was to open his own law firm, concerned primarily with supporting blacks in the arts.

There is a faculty indubitably possessed by Makhafula Vilakazi, born Matodzi Gift Ramashia. This is, as Isaac Newton puts it: genius, “an infinite capacity for taking pains”. 

This capacity, which is the spark that shoots from the contact of the finger of labour with the trigger of imagination, is at the foundation of the duality that pulses through Ramashia, a duality the poet puts to burning use in his latest album, Concerning Blacks

“Lamajita engikhuluma ngawo ayimi, ngikhulele elokishi shluphek’ endlini, kodwa since ngintswempu esgela; ngazthola ng’hol’ imali ebhaya ngingazi ukuthi ngizokwenzani ngayo, amaloan ngiyawazi, ibhima yamaleda seats bokweyami, uGift Skoloto uyimi, kodwa lapho nalaphaya!” — Makahafula Vilakazi

Ramashia has always been reserved about sharing this duality with the world, perhaps understandably so. Would a township thug still view his favourite poet the same if he found out that he is a well-off lawyer? Would he be more of a hero to the poor highschool boy if he were to know that you can be both Soweto and Sandton at the same time? 

These are among the questions Ramashia triggers when he unveils sides of himself in the  album, to the extent of giving two of the characters both his birth and poet name. 

SomDanger introduces us to Makhafula, a township guy with simple dreams, “iphupho … le-start, ne-room, negedlela, ne-sound”; a hard, honest worker who’s purchased himself a beat-up vehicle; a hopeless romantic who had given his all to his cheating and ungrateful childhood sweetheart; a man who has found it in himself to give up on an abusive relationship, “umjita osengena faith kufate”.

In turn, Gift Skoloto acquaints us with Ta’Gift, a once-naive-now-troubled man deep in debt; a man who builds for his mother only for show; an exhibitionist and careless spender, a-swayph’ amabhodlela kuze ku-stuck umshini. 

“The friends I had when I was growing up, ngiganga, ngibhema amadrugs, are the same friends I keep to this day; it’s their stories that I tell, of those who live and those who have passed.” — Matodzi Ramashiya

Somdanger and Gift Skoloto represent parts of Makhafula and Matodzi Gift Ramashia, but not entirely. The missing parts are you, our siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts, parents, myself. Where we, or they, do not fit, the poet has in his arsenal a voice that our larynx can chamber with ease. 

This takes us to a phantom third member to add to the duality: a divine spirit of sorts; one that has chosen Ramashia as the vessel of our voices and perhaps even burdened him. 

The phantom seems to incessantly dig at the poet’s “capacity for taking pain”. 

It brims this infinitude with all the township’s pains and joys. It has housed in the poet “yonke imidlwane elala endle kwelokishi”. If this member had not made a medium of the poet, how else would we hear the township speak back at us? 

Makhafula Vilakazi opens Concerning Blacks with a title track presenting all the voices — all the blacks from South African townships and beyond. Some find fuller form in the subsequent tracks of the album, from: “those who shook the hand that hung them” to those: “who gave to the poor, who were the poor”; all those: “who are Venda, who are Zulu, who are Tsonga, who are Sotho, who are Zimbabwe, who are South Africa, who are Nigeria, who are everything that divides them”. 

It is in this opening that Makhafula Vilakazi cocks his sustained juxtaposition. Throughout the album, we see consistent contrasts of two different worlds, both of which he has lived. 

He entrusts us with this weapon, only to remind us of the futility of words when we reach the beach of our journey. He exposes us to our own dichotomy — a rather treacherous one — though with a suspension of guilt, as if to say, “It is not our fault that it is our fault.” 

Throughout he speaks from a lived experience of one “who fought whiteness”, with both the content of his work as a poet and his establishment of the 100% black RAMS Attorneys. He also speaks as one who “sought whiteness” through materials and a lavish lifestyle as if to say, “I’m not going back to the township!”

He emphasises this notion by pressing its muzzle against our heads and pointing us to the reflection of ourselves by evoking those: “who lived to tell and those who died telling,/ the confirmed cases, and those who die silent deaths … /begging for breath.”

He reprises “begging for breath” in another piece, Tonight, with the orator as the innocent man who is aware of the danger the colour of his skin sirens: “the heavens of the night know,/ they know how the earth absorbs my feet/ into an abyss of another man’s last breath,/ another man’s last hour …”

This reprise is bridged when he invites us to walk in Iscathulo esibovu. The begging for breath here is performed by another type of black, a culprit — a victim — one who has named his pistol “Ingubo, eyakhiwe ngoboya benyathi”.

He unfolds this paralogical metaphor of a gun that is a blanket fashioned from a buffalo’s fur by setting the premise of the primary metaphor yamakhaza, expounding on how it is the cold that he was raised in which led to him seeking refuge in the heat of a gun: “Owakwethu, owangibeleth’emakhaza … / Eyakhe imidlwane ivika amakhaza ngezandla …”

He extends the metaphor until the very end in the most glacial of turns, with the protagonist ovika amakhaza ngezandla to his last breath. It is about finding a way to blanket himself and his mother from the cold with a pistol, dying in the wild outskirts of ilokishi, still begging for breath. 

Makhafula also shows us another side of this savage yegintsa — a compassionate and fragile side — through his relationship with his mother and his pregnant partner.

This delicate, gentle and loving demeanour is adorned in the best three-piece ye-Versace ne-ring ye-hollow point, and is paraded in the stunning love poem, MaBank Book. In this piece we meet the notorious black, the kasi protagonist — the taxi driver; he is unreservedly in love. In a re-enactment of Mbongeni Ngema’s Stimela (the best South African love song in my opinion), uMdraiseni us’shaya nge-trip ye-local through his exquisitely glorious love story with ingelosi yasekasi.

It is a remarkable love poem. In it, a black man is celebrating impintj’yakhe yegazi, attributing all he has to the woman who stood by him from when he had no place to sleep and the taxi was their steady. Now these friends bashay’ itwo-step estradeni with uMaBank Book in her sanamarena.

Towards the end of the album we meet a radical educated black in Ulele, a tired pan-Africanist with only words in his magazine; rifle aimed to the sky with the hope to make enough alarm to awaken umAfrica omuhle ophupha kamnandi, ophupha ama-daisy. He is the black who marches passionately with a burning calm towards an Azania aflame, with flares of Samora, Sankara and Sobukwe unmasking his rage. 

This is the same black, who in Words, at the reach of the beach of our journey, points us to the ocean, announces the futility of words, and with a roaring rage declares: “Words do not break chains, tata!/ I don’t want to South Africa anymore,/  I want to Azania./ Azania of no words./ Of death! Of birth!/ Unlearning white poison!/ White demons drowning in the Atlantic … / I don’t want to white anymore.”