/ 12 April 2024

The fragments of society are filled with poetry

Lesego Rampolokeng 6795 (1) 2 Min
In Word Down the Line, Lesego Rampolokeng talks to struggle poets about South Africa’s 20 years of democracy. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

the house i grew up in

hasn’t changed that much

the kitchen is still the kitchen

only with running hot water now 

the toilet is still outside 

in our backyard 

the coal box still stands 

packed full of magazines 

and pictures

This is the first stanza of Sizakele Nkosi’s poem june sixteen in her poetry collection, u-Grand Malume? (Are you ok, Uncle?)

The poem is set in the Soweto suburb of Dube, where Nkosi lived with her mother. Her uncles were part of the struggle and were arrested during the 1976 uprising. 

The two men went into exile in 1977. One never returned and the other was shot in Washington DC. Her mother spent the rest of her days “trying to find their bones”. u-Grand Malume? is dedicated to their lost souls. 

Nkosi’s debut poetry anthology, published in 2023, transports readers back into the imagery of South Africa’s dark past. When compared to the opening stanza of Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali’s 1971 poem the abandoned bundle, one can almost miss the point at which South Africa transitioned from an apartheid state to a democratic one: 

The morning mist

and chimney smoke

of White City Jabavu

flowed thick yellow

as pus oozing

from a gigantic sore.

It smothered our little houses

like fish caught in a net.

Nkosi said that not marking the transition was not intentional, but that’s just what poems are doing now.

“We haven’t healed from the past,” she says. “Like, we still very much carry the past as our shadow, you know, as ghosts that live with us, so maybe that’s why the poems are manifesting like this,” she says. 

“But it’s not something that I am conscious about during the writing process, now that I am thinking about it.” 

Sizakele Nkosi Pic 2 Min
Sizakele Nkosi’s debut poetry anthology ‘u-Grand Malume?’ transports readers back into the imagery of South Africa’s dark past.

The question follows: if poetry served as the voice for the people during apartheid, what do we need it for now? 

Lesego Rampolokeng, a well-known poet, produced a documentary in 2014, Word Down the Line, in which he tracked down poets from the struggle to talk about a then 20-year-old “democratic” South Africa which was meant to be revelling in freedom, but is still fighting with the legacy of its chained past. 

He spoke with James Matthews, who will turn 95 this year. He spoke with the late Mafika Gwala, who helped lay the foundation for Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement. He spoke with Jeremy Cronin, who discovered his poetic voice in the confines of a jail cell around 1976, and the late Sandile Dikeni, who said he was reading an Afrikaans book under his bed in Victoria West in the Karoo — while protests against the same language were breaking out on the streets of Soweto in 1976. 

These poets wrote about the power structures and human conditions, but they also wrote to the people in power and for those living in townships and urban areas. They didn’t always define it as “protest poetry”. 

Matthews referred to himself as a “dissident poet” who fights the system, where “each verse is a gun, and each word is a bullet directed against the oppressor; and the people through reading your works can relate to it and use it”. 

Gwala spoke about the need for more revolutionary poetry; but what does that mean in a democratic state? 

In 2014, he said: “There is a need for revolutionary poetry, but then when it becomes revolutionary, it’s condemning the very people who say they have liberated us, when actually we haven’t been liberated, we’ve just been granted freedom.” 

Democratic South Africa turns 30 this year, but there are fragments of the past in our present, and in an unironic way, it’s fragmenting who we are as a people. 

It is a further 10 years down the line from the documentary and we are recapping again. Rampolokeng says the enemy was pretty clear during apartheid. 

“When you launch your missiles, you know exactly where to aim. Post-1994, even though for me, apartheid has never died. It has not. It morphed into something else. It went into some kind of mutilated form,” the poet muses. 

“People still die today. There’s more poverty, landlessness, homelessness and so forth because that monstrosity was not eradicated. But the difference now is where to point. Where is it? Where?

“If someone deems themselves that radical or whatever, and they want to identify this monster that ought to be formed, where do they look?” 

He says there is a lot of confusion with poetry in South Africa today. “You read the poetry that’s come out recently, and you actually see a whole load of confusion. “I wouldn’t say people are not empathetic, people have lost interest in the day-to-day struggles,” he tells me. “No, actually I don’t think so. 

I just think we’re all struggling with finding a way to channel direction and mode of expression that’s equal to the time.” 

Poetry remains an expression of whichever form, but for scholar and poet Rampolokeng it has to come from a place of truth — of one’s own truth.

“I don’t define other people’s themes for them, or how they should write. If someone wants to write about their cat, be my guest. If someone wants to write about their dog, Snoopy, that’s fine, as long as they deal with it with truth, with utmost dedication, with respect and love for the word, which is what is central for me.”

Nkosi’s u-Grand Malume? is distributed by Botsotso, a prolific publisher that has recently released a stack of poetry. It has been ploughing this furrow since 1994, offering, as it says, “artists an opportunity to explore the truths of our inner and social lives with a freedom that did not exist before”.

Poetry can be something that is unexpected, personal and new for an individual. Take Raymond Isakow: the farmer in Delmas turned (unofficial) poet in Johannesburg contacted the Mail & Guardian with his slim anthology, Whale Tales. He’s 68 years old, retired and must undergo dialysis three times a week. Isakow first learnt about writing under the mentorship of Lionel Abrahams, but due to his condition he chose to focus on writing poetry. 

“I’m new in this field, and I don’t know what’s acceptable and not acceptable and all I try to be is honest with my poetry and myself and all these things.”

His work is influenced by his surroundings, nature and people, and it does not necessarily carry a South African flavour or political seed in it, but it has truth. 

“I think the skill is to say things as they really are but to find the miracles in the mundane and the magic in the everyday things,” he says. 

Just like the simplicity in his poem Marico Dusk: 

The harem of hills lie stretched out,

In the purple shadow of the sun.

Their curves and hollows

Mist and smoke curled.

Dew moist foliage around shy weaving streams,

Which whisper and giggle 

with ancient delight,

At the sounds of returning evening,

Which rise like sighs to swim with the stars.

Waiting for dawn when they will join the choir

To reawaken creation.

Isakow said the biggest thing is to “demystify poetry and have poetry as a medium of spreading beauty and joy and truth and giving reflections of freedom and thinking about things deeper than just what you see.”

Poetry is not a single thing. It’s subjective and every poet and poem-writer can decide what they want it to be; and anyone else can receive it in the way they feel is right. 

There are structures, styles and scholarly devices that need to be applied to make a piece of writing a poem, but its aim is to connect a person to a subject with the magic of words and make them feel something. That’s what it did for the fighters during apartheid too.

Stacy Hardy, a creative writing ­lecturer at Wits University, draws parallels between poetry during apartheid and poetry as it has become. She said during apartheid poetry was the voice of the people and it was on the margins, and now as we move into a more capitalist society, poetry is for the market. 

“We’ve now said that it needs to be archived into a university space. It’s like this cartel in it, and only for a few intellectuals or [select] people, no longer the voice of the people. And poetry is our voice. It’s how we communicate our experience of poetry. It has always been our tradition in Africa that poetry carries our life stories,” Hardy says. “As we move into capitalist society, everything is a market. So poetry is a market, is there a market for poetry?”

Poetry exists in different spaces and forms. There’s the conventional and highly acceptable “page poetry”, and there’s the new and sometimes controversial “stage poetry”. Some people call it slam poetry. Then 

there are the “unofficial”, non-scholarly poets who write for themselves, their personal circles and social media, and there are ventures into gig poetry.

Poetry is “morphing” as Hardy says, but it’s not dead. There are a number of useful spaces where South Africans can have their work published, appreciated and critiqued. 

Apartheid had the likes of Staffrider magazine, and writers today have more choices, such as Deep South, Impepho Press, Botsotso, New Coin, New Contrast, Poetry Potion, Hotazel Review and more. 

Then there are communal spaces for writers, artists and poets to gather to read, recite and talk about their poetry; like Word n Sound Live Literature Company or Spoken Sessions for word performers and Hear my Voice to help develop spoken word artists. There are informal theatres, bookshops, bars and jazz cafés. But it is not confined to these institutions. 

Poetry can exist on your grandmother’s veranda or on the swings in the park you once played in as a child. Poetry is in the homes, the streets, the sky and the stars. 

I have a friend who goes by the name Sonnet. He lives in Gqeberha and he uses the streets and his home as inspiration for his music, writing and poetry. A 29-year-old Xhosa man who peeps between Johannesburg and home to try to figure out where he can be appreciated for his craft and skill; and where he can get paid to perform it and sell it. 

“I write about my experiences. I never thought I would live to see this day. I felt it was very important for me to document my life for some reason,” Sonnet says. “I used to think I’d be dead by now. So, when I was a teenager writing those poems, 

I always imagined there would be another child. Another young boy who felt like me, who might find comfort knowing that he wasn’t the only one going through that. There was someone like me who existed at some point who could identify with their struggles.” 

We contemplate his work and his musings, and they always tread on the topic of the difficulty of being a boy who grew up without a father and how he had to learn how to be a man by himself. It’s not directly political, but it’s a symptom of politics and he tries to find people he can share his pain with and maybe turn it into “profit”. 

Whenever we speak, he tells me about a new audition, an upcoming performance and something he is working on. Sonnet gets exposure, and he loves what he does, but that doesn’t pay the bills in this merciless economy. Is there enough space for the growing number of poets and writers in South Africa, and can we retain the essence of poetry in these spaces?

Hardy has a solution: “I think we have to bring poetry back into [spaces] because we’ve lost something … Let’s rekindle that spirit — I don’t think it’s lost. I just think we’re not looking in the right places. And we’re not taking it to the right places, and we’re not keeping it alive in the right places. You know, we were falling into the trap of capitalism.” 

If we’re talking about revitalising South Africa’s political poetry landscape, and speaking of the great poets of our past, Rampolokeng said: “If we had done that documentary 10 years prior to when we did it, there would have been more light and more optimism while recognising the cracks, but [another] 10 years down the line the cracks have widened, now the cracks have become a canyon. We’re sliding into it. In some kind of avalanche and we have to watch out, we have to write it. 

“My duty is to engage with the reality, ugliness, beauty and cruelties of my world and attempt to show all of that up, distil it and put it on a page. I hope there are others like that.”