Poetry must reflect South Africa today

RENOWNED Brazilian poet of the last century Manuel Bandeira once said, "I don't want to hear anymore about lyricism that has nothing to do with liberation". His words were an indictment of anyone who wrote poetry exclusively for profit.

The Brazilian believed that poets should mirror reality.

There is no better situation in which to use poetry as a tool against an oppressive system than in South Africa.

According to poet and activist Mphutlane wa Bofelo those early anti-apartheid wordsmiths, inspired by revolutionaries in Latin America, the Caribbean and liberated North Africa, found their theme of articulating socio-politics in black consciousness thinking.

"Through the influence of Steve Biko and the philosophy of black consciousness, the poets and writers of the late 1960s and early 1970s saw themselves as spokespersons for blacks in the country," Bofelo wrote in a Kagablog essay.

After South Africa gained liberation the big question was: "What should post-liberation poetry look like?"

Some felt it had to reflect the country's honeymoon stage as Zolani Mkiva rose to become Nelson Mandela's official praise singer.

But others felt liberation was incomplete until the last inch of land was returned to its rightful owners. That gave birth to piercing poetry from Joburg's poetry underground movement with voices such as Motho-feela and Mbongeni Khumalo.

Both poets were not subtle in their complicity with farm invasions as advocated by the Landless People's Movement. Khumalo even claimed that his no-holds barred lyricism attracted the attention of state security.

Even Abahlali Basemjondolo, the non-governmental organisation fighting for home and land rights, was inspired by their poems.

Poet Mthunzikazi Mbungwana argues that post-liberation poets are mostly their own nemesis.

"Writers such as Es'kia Mphahlele and Mzi Mahola wrote because they wanted change. With time, poets became more concerned with the applause and the fame and less focused on the effects their messages had on the world. And when poetry loses its spirit of change, influence and truth, it's just words."

However, the formula for a post-apartheid poetic narrative was far from scientific. Voices mushroomed so fast that Kgafela oa Magogodi once joked that if you spit anywhere in Newtown, Johannesburg, your spittle was likely to hit a poet.

The time had come for Nomkhubulwane, Masello Motana, Mac Manaka, Kabomo and Uhuru Phalafala. The collective, Feel A Sistah , whose voices, including that of Lebo Mashile, Napo Mashiane and Ntsiki Mazwai, redefined the feminine poetic voice. Timbila Poe tried to inaugurate the Black Poets' Series, an initiative to publish as many of these post-94 voices as possible before companies swallowed them with cushy jobs.

Focus was shifted to the written instead of the spoken word, which was taking an elitist tone. Timbila's deliberate bias resulted in poetry collections by Myesha Jenkins (Breaking the Surface), Taban lo Liyong (Corpse Lovers and Corpse Haters), Mpho Ramaano (Talks with the Sun), David Maahlamela (Moswarataukamariri), Makhosazana Xaba (These Hands) and many others.

With such an intervention bearing fruit, the side-effect was that some spoken-word poets turned their slam poetry into cheap books. Still, the co-opting and elevation by the media and the government of some voices resulted in serum instead of venom.

Social commentator Nkuba Adam decries the outcome.

"Poetry went underground to escape commercial castration. Media space was overcrowded by praise singing award winners. Cowards controlled publishing houses, the enemy is no longer colour, but class conscious."

Bofelo argues: "Political developments post-1994 helped to ferment and sustain sociopolitical commentary poetry."

It's a point contested by activist and poet Zibonele Sindane who argues: "I would love to believe these muted voices did not become timid and subdued by the mediocrity of our political discourse and the complexity of our socio-cultural landscape. Perhaps the narrowing of poetry as a canvas for painting society can be partly explained by the growing tendency to disengage and be uncritical with ourselves and each other"

Mbungwana says, "I don't believe there was ever any real hype around poetry in S outh Africa . What really happened is that a few groups of people were celebrated as the face of poetry and the media rode that wave."

And some of those people have since left for the corporate world.

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments? Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.