Thursday, 11 October 2018
The Voice of the Woman in South African Poetry by Walter Kefuoe Chakela - Re-Markings September 2018
Clutching the Knife on the Cutting Edge:
The Voice of the Woman in South African Poetry
Walter Kefuoe Chakela
South African literature comes from a history of a multiplicity of voices, reflecting the reality of our various human experiences. Some voices sang the praises of our landscape, sunny and aesthetically enchanting to those who beheld it. The Buffalo, antelope, springbok, and the crocodile were the main beings that populated the imagination of creators of this literature. Then there were other voices, no less appreciative of the beauty of our land but more concerned about the human tragedy playing out in this space, ugly and beastly. This demanded the urgent attention of the writer because, in the words of the Ghanain woman of letters, Ama Ata Aido, "there was no sweetness here." This concern elicited other voices, steeped in agony and pain and constrained to sing a more melancholy song bemoaning the country's vexatious human rights culture of racial abuse and apartheid brutality. Let us consider for a bit the poetry of Adelaide Charles Dube, relative of the founding president of the African National Congress:
How beautiful are thy hills and thy dales!
I love thy very atmosphere so sweet,
Thy trees adorn the landscape rough and steep
No other country in the whole world
could with thee compare.
It is here where our noble ancestors
Experienced the joys of dear ones and of home
Where great and glorious kingdoms rose and fell
Where blood was shed to save thee, thou
dearest land ever known.
But alas! Their efforts were all in vain
For today others claim thee as their own;
No longer can their offspring cherish thee
No land to call their own – outcasts
in their own country!
This poem was published in Ilanga lase Natal, a newspaper in Natal, on 31 October, 1913. This was a year after the formation of the African National Congress and the same year that saw the passage of the Land and Trust Act, dispossessing black people of their land. The type of English used clearly shows that the poet was influenced by a strong colonial education at the turn of the twentieth century. But despite this, the education did not tattoo her sensibility to quell her resistance to English hegemony.
We must also note that this was the period in which the land question, in this country, attracted the radical attention from writers, in particular from the most articulate of them all, Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje. Plaatje's seminal exposition in his book, Native Life in South Africa, blew the machinations of the colonial government sky high and mobilised the intellectual class, firmly behind the resistance to land dispossession. Women writers were also part of this movement, and wielded agitated pens in articulating their opposition to this evil Act. Plaatje's daughter, a few years after his death, wrote the poem:
His pen he wielded forcibly
His weapon always was the press
Speaking from public platforms too
The people to address
And though his earnings were but scant
Strife won him fame and reward
For here was one devoid of wealth
But buried like a lord.
We must note that this period in South African literary history was dominated by robust and colourfully descriptive prose. Poetry tended also to take its cue from this trend and produce epic pieces of descriptive verse, as in the case of A.C. Dube. Famous personalities such as Tiyo Soga, very easily the poet laureate of the country at this time, bestrode the literary space like the giants they were. Many younger scribes modelled themselves like them. The poet, Tiyo Soga, had such a profound impact on the young Nelson Mandela that he set the young man on a course to a life as a freedom fighter. Our woman poets were also to be swept off their aesthetic feet by this giant of a poet.
Many illustrious female poets emerged and populated the literary landscape to enchanting effect. Whilst they wrote from their own perspective, the overriding impulse was to add their voices to the struggle against colonialism and apartheid. They were critical of the posture the men folk adopted at times and argued that a stronger stand should be assumed. But, of course, patriarchy was very strong amongst the men. A view persisted that it was the responsibility of the men to protect the women. However, the traditional family ties were brutally dismantled by the colonial regime which left the women vulnerable to racism whilst the men were away, working in the mines and the cities. So, protecting the women was more out of mere sentiment than hard reality.
The next 20 years saw the South African government becoming very desperate to clamp down the opposition to its race policies and the notorious Land and Trust Act of 1913. Meanwhile, Sol Plaatje and his colleagues embarked on an international campain to promote awareness of the inequities of the Act. They spent inordinate amounts of time in England, addressing churches, civil society formations, academics, journalists, and political figures of all hues. This meant that they were away from their families for long periods of time. This absence was very hard on their families, especially their wives, who had to get by without the support of their men folk. This dynamic manifested in the literature of the woman writers of the time.
Gender politics and the female aesthetics took a dramatic turn in the 1950s. The women were gradually becoming impatient with their role of being supportive to the men and sought a more active and radical role for themselves. To add to their frustrations, the government introduced the hated pass system which hitherto only applied to men. Now the women had to carry passes and had to produce them on request by the police. This was the last straw for the women. Thus, a march to Pretoria, the capital city of South Africa, was quietly conceptualised by progressive women of this country. Women leaders such as Lillian Ngoyi, Winnie Mandela, Ruth Mompati, were some of the prominent leaders at the helm of the campaign. The march made a dramatic arrival at the office of Malan, the then Prime Minister of South Africa. They demanded to see Malan but, conveniently, he was not around to receive their petition. They left the document with an underling instead. They had made their point and Malan ran for cover like a coward. A song was composed, apparently by Winnie Mandela, which had the lines, "You strike a woman, you strike a rock!" Up to this day, gatherings of the women of South Africa use this as a rallying anthem.
Literature produced after this historic event is notably cognizant of its import and therefore reference it perennially. The movement, the African National Congress, is undergoing ideological re-considerations destined to affect its fortunes for several decades. The armed struggle was seriously debated. Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, radically reviewed the wisdom of pursuing a peaceful struggle in the face of a government that responded with unconscionable state violence. The beginning of the process leading to the birth of the military wing of the ANC, Umkhoto we Sizwe, the spear of the nation, was underway.
Their adoption of the armed struggle inspired militancy not only in the male members of the ANC but also among the female constituency of this liberation movement. After all, the historic march to Pretoria served as a dress rehearsal for women cadres of the movement to assume a more confrontational posture against apartheid. This attitude was also manifested in the arts. Poets constituted an important component of the anti-apartheid struggle. People felt a compulsive need to assert an identity as self-defined, not as defined by the advocates of apartheid.
This was an era of a different black person, not one subservient to white supremacy. Bessie Head epitomised this generation of writers with her poem, "I am black, OK?" This poem, appeared in Bessie Head's papers, kept in Rhodes University, in Grahamstown.
I Am Black
I am Black.
Hot sun and the geographical set-up
Made me Black;
And through my skin
A lot of things happen to me
THAT I DON'T LIKE
And I wake each morning
Red murder in my eyes
'Cause some crook's robbed me again,
Taken what little I had right out of my hands
With the whole world standing by
And doing nothing...
Today is my day.
Going to get back tit-for-tat,
All you stole.
Going to fight you till you or I
Lie smashed and bleeding dead
And don't care who dies, You or I,
But going to fight -
Bessie Head wrote this poem in the Pan Africanist and early black consciousness period. This was towards the end of the fifties and early sixties. By March 1960, the apartheid government became very desperate to clamp down on black resistance. There was a brutal massacre of black people who resisted the pass laws of the White government. 69 people were gunned down in Sharpville, about 70 kilometres from Johannesburg. The brutal repression also happened in Cape Town where large number of people were killed or maimed. This period also found expression in the literature of the country. One notable example, significant because it provoked the poetic reaction of a young Afrikaner writer, was Igrid Jonker. The poem regained traction when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated on the 10th of May, 1994. He quoted the poem, written in 1960, in reaction to the Sharpville massacre:
The child is present
At all assemblies and lawgiving
The child peers
Through the windows of houses
And into the hearts of mothers
Who only wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga
The child is not dead
Not at Langa
Nor at the police post at Philip
Where he lies with a bullet
Through his brain....
(President Nelson Mandela's inauguration speech, 10 May 1994).
This Ingrid Jonker poem bore significance to the Mandela strategy and philosophy of national reconciliation. The basic tenet of this philosophy was to demonstrate to the white population that, although, for decades, they returned an inhuman government to power, they were not basically inhuman. The Ingrid Honker poem clearly showed the potential for human compassion that is intrinsic to the Afrikaner. We are years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and it is still debatable if we have advanced any further on inculcating Mandela's philosophy.
A generation of women freedom fighters were accepted by the high command of the liberation movement by the mid-sixties. In the beginning, these female cadres were confined to the administrative duties of the ANC in exile. But by the end of the sixties, a trickling of cadres was allowed to undergo full military training. Sankie Nkondo was one such poet-soldier to actively bear arms and operate in the military front as a trained soldier of Umkhoto we Sizwe. This poem serves to give a clear indication of her state of mind as a poet and a soldier:
The soldier poet shall sing songs
of praise and dire providence
for those who stand up to be counted
on the chart of honour and national pride
against the margins of mirth and morass
the poet is to groom the blooming flower
and trim the sprouting hedge and weeds
around the tomb the soldier patriots.
(Flames of Fury, Cosaw Publishers).
Sankie Nkondo testifies, in this poem, to the determination of the woman 'to clutch the knife on the cutting edge'. She could be waxing poetic about Winnie Mandela, Albertinah Sisulu, Lillian Ngoyi and many other brave women who bore the brunt of the apartheìd system.
1960s were very costly in terms of life and liberty to the liberation movements. The ANC, PAC, or the Black Consciousness Movement, all suffered from the brutal suppression unleashed by the apartheid system. The poetry written in this period is thematic of this.
Ruth First, a white intellectual and wife of Joe Slovo of the South African communist party, was one of the casualties of state assassination in exile. She was a Professor, teaching in neighboring Mozambique. She was sent a parcel bomb by the security police. She was dramatically blown to pieces! Sankie Nkondo wrote this poem in reaction:
Ruth's firm fingers held the spear in the middle of the
storm amid sinuous zones and obstinate quarters
her heels dug deep and rough and held on nonchalantly
with an adroitness and a foresight
Superior to that of the insipid enemy
fought for justice and equality
and who can deny that she becomes
the revolutions password and reality
and out there in Matola her spear
thrust and lies buried for someone
to pick it up and sharpen it to...
Koebergs foundations shall yet rumble
Ruth lives her name in struggle
since the arena dance beat is on
and the immortal communion is held
in the ceremony of grief for her.
(Flames of Fury, Cosaw Publishers).
Ruth First is celebrated as a heroine in South Africa by both black and white activists. In fact, there are many children in the country named Ruth First.
The present period, after the euphoria and honeymoon of Uhuru, is one of sober analysis of reality. Once the nation was quite prepared to grant the government the benefit of the doubt, where some mistakes were made, today people insist that this can no longer be the case. People take serious umbrage where issues of service delivery are concerned. Strikes are again a regular sight on the streets of the country. Politicians have a very hard time sustaining their credibility, especially now, three years after the death of President Nelson Mandela. The literature of the time once again bears testimony to this fact. Vangi Gantsho is a young poet whose work has woken all of us from our complacency. She uses language that is stripped of the trappings of political correctness, and plainly communicates her anger and disappointment with the Democratic government:
I Expect More From You
Because my father fought
Instead of spending time with us
he lay on cement floors
He forced my mother up and down
from prisons to hospitals to prisons
baby on back
searching for him
because of you
my mother nursed, sold, sewed
when he couldn’t work for us
because he worked for you
I expect more from you.
Poetry in South Africa, currently or back in history, has always been created from a range of social and political issues. in fact, South African literature is a good barometer of the social and political health of the nation. Poetry in particular, is more vibrant with social and political issues as compared to other genres. Thus, many young poets, choose poetry to express their views on contemporary South Africa.
· Walter Kefuoe Chakela is a practicing playwright, poet, theatre director and television producer. He is also President of the National Writers Association of South Africa. His footprint in literature and cultural exchanges extends continentally in Africa, Europe, America and Japan. He has over the years, contributed towards understanding the African aesthetics, and made every effort to draw attention to it, both on the continent and internationally. His poems were featured in the Re-Markings’ Special Number November 2017, A World Assembly of Poets.
Re-Markings Vol 17 No.3 September 2018 pp.15-21
Copyright: Nibir K. Ghosh 2018