Tuesday, 13 December 2016


‘Erecting Bridges to Re-link the World’: A Conversation with

Comrade Morakabe Raks Seakhoa

Nibir K. Ghosh
Comrade Raks Morakabe Seakhoa heads the wRite Associates (in South Africa) a one-stop public relations, strategies, project and event management agency that delivers highly effective implementable services and products, focused mainly within the arts, culture and heritage sector and beyond. From 1988 to 1997, he tenured as the Regional Co-ordinator and Secretary General of the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW). He has been Convenor of the Arts, Culture & Heritage Commission of the South African Chapter of the African Renaissance. He helped raise the visibility of South African literature and its writers through numerous events and activities. He has been involved in almost all aspects of the arts, culture and heritage since his release from a 5-year incarceration on Robben Island (1979-1984). Prior to and post his arrest and incarceration, he’d been involved in student, youth and political activism. He is currently  Senior projects Co-ordinator at SAMSA (South African Maritime Safety Authority), focusing on, among other projects, the Maritime Heritage Project he founded and launched on the 38th World Maritime Heritage Day, September 2016. For more information on this visit their website: www.samsa.org.za and check blog on maritime heritage. 

In this conversation Comrade Raks reflects on his role as an activist and poet during and after the tumultous anti-apartheid struggle.

Ghosh: Any reference to South Africa obviously reminds one of apartheid. As a social and political activist what memories of the repressive apartheid regime still remain vivid for you?

Seakhoa: The apartheid spatial planning still lives with us, so, much as one tries to ‘move on’ with life, it is not easy as the effects thereof are painfully evident and continue to define the psyche and identity of South Africans along racial, more than even class lines.

Ghosh: What events or circumstances initially motivated you to choose the path of rebellion?

Seakhoa: I was about 8 or 9 years old when my Mother went with me to town and was amazed at the stark inequalities between my Uitkykrural village life and that of the Lichtenburg white town folk. Electricity, water coming from taps, tarred roads, everything that my village lacked was in abundance in this town. I remember saying to my Mother, “when I grow up, I’m going to live in this town.” In 1975, at 14 or 15 I moved from the village to one of South Africa’s oldest townships, Evaton, in the Vaal Triangle (now Sedibeng District), Gauteng Province, where I got introduced to the struggle against apartheid in general and Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. It was just before the Soweto June 16 1976 uprising and the prevailing mood was generally rebellious against the Apartheid regime. We started to question a whole lot of things, marching against the government and related institutions over school-related and general issues around racial and class discrimination.

Ghosh: What activities as a student leader led to your imprisonment at the now famous Robben Island?

Seakhoa: Though I was not necessarily a student leader, I was always involved in anti-apartheid activities. What led directly to my incar-ceration on Robben Island was an act of sabotage that we – with 5 of my colleagues I recruited from Soweto and Sebokeng – carried out on a house of an apartheid security police officer in my Sebokeng town-ship. Through the then-banned Radio Freedom, broadcast by the ANC from Zambia and Tanzania, we obeyed ANC President, Comrade Oliver Tambo’s call to rid our townships of apartheid spies and sellouts, these included black police. What inspired the attack was our anger at this African cop’s agility and over-enthusiasm in ransacking the house of one of our leaders and mentors, Thabiso Ratsomo, during a police raid thereon. A white apartheid security police captain had asked Thabiso if he had a passport and when the latter said he did not have one, the black cop did not believe him and proceeded to rip open the ceiling from which fell a number of books, some banned and others deemed ‘undesirable’ by the apartheid regime. Needless to say, our handcuffed and manacled Comrade Thabiso ended up having his charges increased and sent to Robben Island.

Ghosh: What prominent experiences come to mind when you recall your five-year imprisonment from 1979-84 at Robben Island?

Seakhoa: Robben Island was a leading political economy university, among a number of other subjects taught there. It was also a testing ground of what we wanted the new liberated South Africa to be like. Kolkhos, one of the Russian Revolution’s policies of collectivization found converts in us on the Island. The little money we were sent (by parents and others) on the Island was subject to equal sharing with those Comrades who were not that fortunate.

Ghosh: At Robben Island you had the opportunity of meeting Nelson Mandela, the icon of the anti-apartheid movement. In what way did the meetings with him impact your own belief and vision?

Seakhoa: Well, Comrade Madiba did not disappoint by his sheer gigantic presence and sense of leadership. The first time I met him he was with the other Rivonia Trialists, after they'd consulted with their lawyers. What stands out for me is what he said, speaking on behalf of them all, that “you must debunk this myth that we are larger than life! We are all equal in this organisation, the ANC, and if you find we do not want to be corrected when and if we are not taking it in the proper direction, it's your duty and task for you to take over and correct things!”

Ghosh: “Never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” In the light of this characteristic statement by Nelson Mandela, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, can we now presume that “oppression” in any form is a thing of the past in South Africa?

Seakhoa: Because the economic might of South Africa is still in the hands of the minority, it will take a very long time to shed the country of racism and class oppression. A few examples are utterances of some whites still referring to Africans as monkeys or shooting them dead and say they mistook them for animals.

Ghosh: It is amazing that with all your activism in the field of politics you found the time to write exquisitely powerful poetry? What factors initiated you into the literary world?

Seakhoa: I have to thank my late Father, Koko, for instilling the love of reading as he was always reading newspapers even though he didn’t go far with school. My interest in reading was further sharpened at school and also listening to poetry by political activists who wrote and performed their poetry at political funerals of the post 1976 Soweto Uprisings.

Ghosh: When did you write your first poem? What was it about?

Seakhoa: One of the earliest poems I remember writing is titled, “I Hate You, Bullet” in 1977. I wrote it at a funeral of a very young boy (about 7 or 8 years of age), in Soweto, who was shot dead from under a scrapped car where he was hiding away from police.

Ghosh: What striking similarities or differences do you see in the literature written during the apartheid and the post-apartheid periods?

Seakhoa: Our literature is becoming more whole now, in that it reflects on both the past but also more on the present. Current issues, such as HIV/AIDS, same-sex relationships, corruption, etc. feature quite a bit in our literature. Also a lot of books are coming out, reflecting on past exile experiences, betrayals, mutinies in the liberation army camps etc.

Ghosh: Do you believe in using words as weapons?

Seakhoa: Indeed! With poetry, music, art etc. we have been able to do lots, e.g. the ANC’s Amandla Cultural Ensemble played a big role in mobilising international Communities against apartheid before 1994.

Ghosh: In his own time P.B. Shelley called poets “unacknowledged legislators.” In our time W.H. Auden, who once concurred with Shelley, retracted his opinion and said “Poetry makes nothing happen.” What, according to you, should ideally be the role of a poet or writer?

Seakhoa: For me, the role of the writer or poet is to shine light in the darker crevices of society, thereby opening people’s eyes to these and thus, in a small way, calling them to action!

Ghosh: You have the rare distinction of being closely associated simultaneously with two Nobel Laureates from South Africa: Nelson Mandela and Nadine Gordimer. As an anti-Apartheid activist your admiration for Mandela needs no justification. What aspects of Gordimer’s life and work were you influenced by?

Seakhoa: Comrade Nadine was what the Germans refer to as a “mensch!” or we in South African indigenous languages would say she had “ubuntu” or “botho”, that is, she exemplified “humaneness” and “humanity.” She was also a very consistent and uncompromising political and human rights activist, these coming through her writing and everyday life.

Ghosh: Seamus Heaney referred to Gordimer as one of the "the guerrillas of the imagination." What is your view on Heaney’s epithet? Also, in what way did the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Gordimer impact the literary world of South Africa?

Seakhoa: Seamus Heaney is perfectly right! Comrade Nadine was a guerilla of the imagination in literal and metaphoric senses! She may not have joined the ANC’s uMkhonto we Sizwe liberation military army by carrying arms and blowing up things, but in a sense she did exactly that as her writing contributed in no small measure blowing up apartheid and preparing the basis for our liberation. She, in her lifetime, helped freedom fighters skip our borders into exile and military training as well as helping support and harbour some guerillas who came back into the country.

Ghosh:  In one of your poems written in honour of Gordimer after she passed away, you say, “Comrade Nadine, you came to me on this particular Xmas day,/ As if to question our silent munching your legacy away.” How would you interpret this statement?

Seakhoa: This refers to the fact that, Comrade Nadine, popular and having been such a very committed writer and activist, her legacy is not being celebrated enough. We are still to have a memorial service in her honour since her passing on a good two years ago! I am glad, however, that there are plans afoot to revive the Nadine Gordimer Annual Lecture that’ll probably be staged in her birthday month of November. Her legacy is too huge not to be honoured and perpetuated, especially among the youth.

Ghosh: You had the privilege of presenting personally to Mandela the precious collection of poems titled Halala Madiba–Mandela in Poetry that you edited with Nadine Gordimer and Richard Bartlett. How did Mandela react to your unique initiative of bringing together poets from various countries and cultures in the anthology to offer their glowing tribute to the legend? What common traits highlighting Mandela’s struggle did you find in the collection?

Seakhoa: Oh, Comrade Mandela was like a little kid being given a candy when Sindiswa (my wife), Comrade Nadine and I proudly handed over to him this precious poetry collection! He, in his trademark modesty, said he was not deserving of such a tome from some of the world’s most outstanding poets, including some of his friends and comrades such as Nobel Laureates Wole Soyinka and Seamus Heaney, as well as Cuban author Nancy Morejon Hernandez and U.S.A. young poet musician Tupac Shakur.

Ghosh: You were once denied the U.S. Visa on the grounds of your internment at Robben Island when you were invited to participate at a panel discussion at Brown University, Rhode Island. What was your reaction to this episode concerning the world’s most powerful democracy that boasts of the inalienable rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?

Seakhoa: I was surprised with this reaction from “the land of the free and home of the brave,” especially because a few years before, I’d accompanied Comrade Nadine to the African Literature Association conference in the Atlanta where she was going to deliver the keynote address and I to introduce her. When the U.S. Consulate initially refused me the visa back then, Comrade Nadine called the then Consular General about this and a few minutes later, the Consular General herself called me back to her office and, voila! my visa was handed to me and in a few hours, Comrade Nadine and I were aboard a plane to the U.S.! I was too excited to realise that they gave a restricted visa, valid just for a few months! My feeling is that anti-apartheid freedom fighters’ names must be removed, en masse, from the U.S. “list of terrorists” and not ourselves to do so individually. After all, ours was a just and a noble cause against what the UNO had declared “a crime against humanity.”

Ghosh: You considered Chinua Achebe as “A Man of the People” and as a Crusader for “Social Justice.” To what extent did Achebe’s writings influence the man and the writer in you? Don’t you think it strange that though separated by colour, race, culture and gender lines, both Achebe and Gordimer were engaged in battling against oppression in all forms to uplift humanity?

Seakhoa: Well, I met Comrade Professor Achebe long before I met him, through his very relevant literary work that influenced not only me but hundreds of other activists back in the 1970s. His work was and remains so akin to our lived experiences during those heady days of fighting against racist apartheid oppression and capitalist exploitation. When I was in jail, his work, like Comrade Mandela said, “brought down the jail walls” around us. I was privileged to have been part of bringing him to South Africa to deliver the Steve Biko Annual Memorial Lecture over ten years ago. It goes without saying that he spent a lot of time with his fellow fighter and author, Comrade Nadine when he was here on many public and private platforms. I am glad to say I basked in the glory of it all, being in the esteemed company of these literary giants, my truest mentors.

Ghosh: In diverse capacities you have played a stellar role in bringing together writers from different communities, cultures and nations through various organizations like the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW), the South African Writers’ Federation (SAWFED), and wRite Associates etc., besides the exciting collaboration you formed between South African and Cuban poets. What motivated you into taking such spectacularly unique initiatives? What role and function can these communities of writers assume in addressing issues and concerns in this conflict-ridden era marked by the imminent “clash of civilizations”?

Seakhoa: I think it is the duty of us all, as writers, artists, academics and organisers to never stop making writers meet and work together from different backgrounds. It is only through these interactions, dia-logues and exchange programmes that the folly of “clash of civilisations” can be shown for the shallowness and fakeness it is. It is now more than ever that our organisations must collaborate and make this world a true tiny village where we are next door neigbours.

Ghosh: Coming down to your own poetry, what have been your primary focus and concerns in terms of both themes and expression?

Seakhoa: As a perennial political and human rights activist, my primary poetic focus has been the plight of the down-trodden, the super-exploited and poorest of the poor. Growing older has also meant paying some attention to my wife and children in my writing.

Ghosh: You have been remarkably enthusiastic in contributing your beautiful poems to the Re-Markings’ Special Number on World Poetry. Considering the tremendous response to the project by poets from every nook and corner of planet Earth, what impact of the precious collection do you visualize on both readers and contributing poets?

Seakhoa: I am very honoured and privileged to have been invited to contribute to Re-Markings as it is yet another platform for me to meet fellow poets and authors from all over the world: thanks to you and Comrade Dr. Tijan Sallah! It is without any doubt that the impact of this collection will reverberate all over for many an eon to come.

Ghosh: Winnie Mandela once remarked, “Maybe there is no rainbow nation after all because the rainbow does not have the colour black.” In the light of this statement, what is your message to the youngsters born in the post-apartheid era in South Africa?

Seakhoa: My message to the young ones is to find a creative way of re-inserting the colour black into the rainbow nation that is South Africa and, while they are about it, erect a zillion bridges to re-link the world back into one whole, living together in perfect harmony and peace.

Ghosh: What is your view of India with regard to the ancient as well as the contemporary?

Seakhoa: India holds the key to the world, drawing from her many ancient wisdoms and charting the way forward today in the fast-paced and changing atmosphere of information technology and scientific progress that mirrors none that came before.

 Dr. Nibir K. Ghosh is UGC Emeritus Professor in the Department of English Studies & Research at Agra College, Agra. He has been Senior Fulbright Fellow at the University of Washington, Seattle, U.S.A. during 2003-04.