“The ‘baasskap’ cookie must crumble”

Mafika Pascal Gwala and the quest for a humane society

If Mafika Pascal Gwala, the combative, quiet, loud, tender, abrasive, protective poet who put the Mpumalanga township Hammarsdale on the national map - if he were here today - he would have been happy, irritated, elated and possibly even perplexed. The emotion that would have most likely dominated his mind, body and his psyche, would be that which could be compared to the tingle that comes over a fighter at the exact moment of combat.

I make this bold claim because today we’re in a state of flux, of confusion. Those who can foretell the future, who read the tea leaves at the bottom of our societal cup, are wont to invoke Gramsci’s mordant dictum that the old is dying and the new cannot be born and that in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.

On October 5th, Mafika would have been 70 years old, a septuagenarian born troublesome in a troubled world. He would be someone’s grandfather and just possibly an unwitting ancestor – bearing in mind that in the heyday of the black consciousness movement, there were a lot of gumbas, parties, where people got lost in the arms of anonymous lovers. He would be scrutinising the world from behind his glasses and probably shake his head at the instances of folly. And then he would launch into a critique on: where and how it all became so stuffed up.

A complete biography of Mafika Gwala has not yet been written. I believe that it would be a valuable project and would ask the young writers from Mpumalanga or one of the nearby areas  to think of this, as it would be of benefit to posterity. What we know of him is in the public domain, the circumstances of his birth on 5 October 1946, in Verulam – a Verulam of six or seven decades ago, which bares little resemblance to that of the Verulam of today. Situated about 27 kilometres from Durban and boasting a number of important religious places of interest such as shrines, temples, churches and cemeteries, Verulam was originally a racially mixed area, no different, perhaps than Mayville without the sugarcane fields, where Africans and Indians, who formed the majority, lived side by side. He was four years old when the Group Areas Act was passed in 1950, a singular piece of legislation that had the deepest of impact on the lives of black people.

We can make a fetish out of this, citing Sophiatown and District Six as examples of areas where the battles to roll back the effects of the Group Areas Act were most intense and the results exceedingly devastating. There is also quite a copious body of literature dealing with this disruption, with writers like Richard Rive, Bloke Modisane, Can Themba, Nat Nakasa cataloguing the full horror of it all. Much later, people like Madeline van Niekerk gave us a glimpse of the benefactors of these removals and relocations in her novel, Triomf, the new name for Sophiatown. These characters, poor whites given to incest, madness and alcoholism, would most likely have rubbed shoulders with Mafika’s father, who worked in the railways. For Mafika, Verulam presented a complexity that would kindle his creativity. One of his earlier poems notes:

Verulam has undergone unheard of metamorphoses

With the Group Areas Act having ploughed our lives

Leaving no other seed except boredom and germinating thoughts

Remember mixed and united Verulam?

All that is a dream circling around people’s minds

In rotation of a barrel setting of a pepperbox…

As in most of Mafika Gwala’s poems, the reader is seduced and lulled into an enjoyment of the words that come out in slow and measured cadences, the argument detailing a quotidian existence before the poet springs open the trap-door into a passage that leads to new meanings. Like most young black men Mafika’s was fascinated with Western films, although not with its glamorised, stylized and bloodless violence. The allusion to the ‘rotation of a barrel setting of a pepperbox,’ the revolver that did its fair share in the decimation of the Native American population in the nineteenth century, could stand for all the massacres committed in the name of religion, civilization and imperialist expansion.

When James Baldwin writes that, ‘to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in rage most of the time,’ he could have been referring to Mafika Gwala. I remember him clearly at our first encounter, which was either at Omar Badsha’s Douglas lane residence or somewhere on Grey Street, but most definitely at the Natal Society of Arts (NSA) on Guildhall Arcade.  It was there when I made a rather injudicious detour from writing to dabbling in graphic arts. It was Mafika and Omar who set me straight, advising me to consider putting down on paper all the stories of life that I was trying to reproduce through comic strip storyboard panels. (As a side note: I’d like to place on record that, had I continued with my quest, I’d probably be raking in millions as a creator of South African Manga comics.)

My first impression of Mafika was of someone who was quite intense, taciturn, and almost surly; I saw a young man – much older than me – whose whole body language discouraged familiarity. As we got to know each other better, he was much warmer and capable of explosive laughter; those who remember him will remember how he would laugh with his whole body, the laughter rumbling from his belly – usually at someone else’s expense.

 He was much more at home among people like my elder brother, Ben or any of the black consciousness movement crowd at No 86 Beatrice Street, be it Steve Biko, Harry Ranwedzi Nengwekhulu or Barney Pityana or, later when the whole contingent came from the universities after the Tiro Affair of 1972, people like Ongopotse Abraham Tiro, Mthuli ka Shezi, Strini Moodley, Sam Moodley, Asha Rambally, Aubrey Mokoape, Debs Matshoba – and a host of others. There would be the gumbas at the University of Natal’s Allan Taylor Residence – where medical students and activists like Biko or Norman Dubazane or Jeff Baqwa would hold court; I think Mamphele Ramphele, Ralph Mgijima, Parks Madikizela and Diliza Mji already had ‘M.D.’ after their names, doing the rounds in the wards of King Edward VIII Hospital; their residences, colloquially called D.Q. for Doctor’s Quarters, were also handy venues for holding gumbas or as bolt-holes for escaping from The System, the Special Branch.

 In the early- to mid-seventies, with all this sound and fury, music and the tinkling of bottles and glasses – there was also a lot of seriousness; Mafika Gwala would most often be found at the centre of a group, the people around him listening intently as he expounded on some point. The medical students, assorted staffers and officials from SASO, the South African Students Organization, or BPC, Black People’s Convention, who operated under the rubric of the black consciousness movement, might have consisted of doctors and students and graduates from various universities and professionals. Mafika Gwala had left Ongoye, the University of Zululand to dedicate himself to the struggle, cutting his political teeth at NUSAS – a white-led, though multiracial student body – before being part of the breakaway SASO in the late sixties. He was one of the most informed, advanced of the people of the time, having studied Marxist literature and Franz Fanon (before he became a fashion statement), theories of revolution from Regis Debray, through Che Guevara to Carlos Marighella, the works of  Sekou Toure, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, and Malcolm X with  the rise of the Black Panthers as well as Angela Y Davis and her trial, and George and Jonathan Jackson. I remember our reading about the massacre of  black prisoners after the Attica riot broke out in September 1971. Mafika had read extensively about international conflicts, in Vietnam, the Spanish Civil War, and the Middle East – in a word, everything that hampered the development in Asia, Africa and Latin America  - the regions called the Third World - became his area of interest.

Here and there some well-meaning reviewer, scholar or critic has lumped Mafika Gwala together with the so-called Soweto Poets, a branding with which he was always at war. Mafika was first and foremost a South African writer with all the implications inherent in that geographic claim. He was also part of the region, of the continent, which he felt had been carved in 1886, distorting the reality of the African personality. I learnt from him about the migrations of solidarity that had taken place as long way back as 1934, when the Fascist Italian army under Mussolini invaded Abyssinia, modern-day Ethiopia. This spurred some able-bodied worshippers belonging to the Ethiopian Church (Ibandla laseTopiya), to start a great trek to Abyssinia to rescue their brethren from the jackboot of the Italian fascist. It’s everyone’s guess where the travellers ended up but, suffice to say, linguists and philologists and anthropologists still puzzle over the phenomenon of the existence of cognates in languages from the Southernmost Cape to the Equator.

I suppose the odyssey fascinated Mafika as it spoke of solidarity, this one based on a religious identity. It was no different from the solidarity he admired, like those of the International Brigade that fought for the Spanish Republic in the Spanish Civil War – and the writers and poets, Ernest Hemingway and Federico Garcia Lorca, who inspired him. It resonated with the solidarity that was espoused by the black consciousness movement, where a favourite edition of SASO T-shirts showed a black fist in the centre of a black script reading, CREATIVITY AND BLACK SOLIDARITY.

These were printed to herald a conference. As it happened, unfailingly, since conferences hosted cultural programmes, Mafika Gwala would be there, and – I believe – he was happiest while performing, especially since most of his readings were done with musicians he respected. These feature as vignettes in his poems – sing, how can we sing/with chainblocks barring us/ the Malombo sound? – bringing back the most vibrant times, even though we all knew that after the jubilation, the unmarked squad cars would roll up along the entrance to the SASO office, and by nightfall, someone would have received a banning order.

These were the times when Mafika Gwala, the unofficial tour guide, would accompany Julian Bahula, Abbey Cindi, Phillip Tabane and Mabi Thobejane, the musicians who make the Malombo sound, across to the Goodwill Lounge or the Himalaya or any of the watering holes dotting that famous square mile with Grey Street at its centre; he’d regale them with stories of the Red Square, the Congress Hall, the Madressa Arcade, the Emmanuel Cathedral and Dennis Hurley, the Juma Mosque and tell them that these cinemas with exotic names like the Shah Jehan or the Raj or the Avalon-Albert, sometimes prohibited adult Africans from seeing certain films which could be watched by everyone else.

I remember a time when Dashiki, the jazz combo with Lefifi Tladi, Gilly Mabale, Oupa Rantobeng Mokou came to perform in Durban. This was just before people like Gwaza, Malebo and Keith Mokoape left for exile – or went to the bush, in the parlance of the hour – and before Tiro would be blasted by a bomb in Kgale, near Gaborone in Botswana on 1 February 1974. It was again an optimistic time and we walked, Mafika and the musicians and I down to the central part of town, to the bookstores, Adams, Griggs, even to the Lutheran Bookstore, seeking to replenish our literature stock. We don’t know what had possessed us, but we walked into the bookstores and came out with a haul of books, Facing Mount Kenya by Kenyatta, Not Yet Uhuru, novels by Ayi Kwei Armah, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Meja Mwangi, Nawal El Saadawi, Sherif Hetata – a veritable treasure trove of information. Lefifi had told us that we should just sign our names on the books – and they were ours. These were the good old days without bar codes on products. I think, though, the lady at the checkout counter was just too nervous to call our bluff. There were just too many black men with Afros, Adidas, jeans and dashikis, an excess of testosterone. Even the one wearing glasses must have looked scary.

Much later, the proverbial manure hit the air-conditioner.

The Frelimo Rally of 1975.

Mass arrests.


Mthuli kaShezi pushed onto the tracks of an oncoming train, defending a black person, 1972.

In those days of confusion, the system gobbled up its children and inevitably, June 16 1976 exploded and with it, the exploding heads of young people. Mafika Gwala was swept up in the maw of it all. I was in prison for a few months and then left the country.

When we met again I was in London, working as a Deputy Chief Representative of the ANC and Cultural Attache for the UK and Western Europe. We resumed our friendship, Mafika now going the academic route in Manchester and then doing research. Later, working with Liz Gunner to produce Musho, he showed his proficiency in his own isiZulu language, making him one of the most relevant people in the debates raging today about the marginalisation of indigenous languages.

Here and there some well-meaning reviewer, scholar or critic will lump Mafika Gwala together with the ‘Soweto Poets’, a branding with which he was totally at war. Mafika was first and foremost a South African writer who saw himself as part of the totality of the region. I learned from him the origins of his poetry, which, like poetry everywhere, has its genesis in speech and song. Even though he wrote, making known his concerns of the depredations of apartheid, which was most manifest in the urban setting, it was in the rural, farming experience that he found inspiration. This is not the idealized, pastoral backwater celebrated by Bantustan mandarins, ethnographers or liberal commentator hankering for the “pure” and uncomplicated Africa; it is the rural slum where poverty stalks young people, who can’t even attend school. It is the sweat on the brow of the black woman – the Children of Nonti – tilling the fields to eke out a meagre living; it is calling things by their ‘true-true’ names, eschewing the comfort of lullabies for a society that must wake up and take up cudgels if it is to survive.

Having worked as a clerk and someone exposed to the travails of work-seekers, apart from teaching and instructing in the theory of struggle, Mafika was one of the few poets in South Africa that brought in the sensibility of the working class.  

His nephew, Ndumiso Ngcobo, had this to say about his uncle:

‘Gwala was living in Hammarsdale, near Durban at the time of his death. He leaves a body of work that includes essays, short stories and a collection of poetry. He wrote two books of poems Jo’Liinkomo (1977) and No More Lullabies (1982) and also co-edited the book Musho! Zulu Popular Praises(1991), a literary commentary on Zulu poetry with English studies Professor Liz Gunner. His interest in politics extended beyond poetry; his qualifications include a MPhil in the study of politics of development in the Third World from the University of Natal and he was a researcher at Manchester University.’

In the words of the imbongi, praising one of the Zulu monarchs, Dingane ka Senzangakhona: ‘Vezi, kof’abantu, kuzosal’izibongo.’  Figure it out.