It is an honour to be with you this afternoon. The task at hand certainly daunts me. Yet, it is also animating. Beyond any singing of it. Adrenalin is another kind of jazz. Yes, I am here, and, sacrificed other important stuff, for this historic assignment. The possibility of opening myself up. For a kiss or a kick in the butt. A warm embrace. Egg bombs. Or a beheading.
The latter part is said in jest. It may perhaps be too dark, a big oops! Given the fact that in other parts of the world today, people’s heads are chopped. That, indeed, horrendous forms of literal and metaphoric beheadings do take place. Please, don’t switch off, thinking this event contains violence, therefore, sensitive viewers should avoid it. No! Kindly stay with me. By all means. Let us, talk some more.
Thank you, Professor Nhlanhla Mkhize, my elder comrade, artist and activist, Brother Omar Badsha, Ismail Mahomed, head of the Centre for the Creative Arts, Siphindile Hlongwa, curator of Poetry Africa, dear colleagues, artists, friends, and comrades.
My topic has a cosmic, political, and poetic sweep. This is deliberate. We are honouring a poet. It is a provocation. It is a quest for a meditative invitation of Mafika Gwala’s to be an integral part our continuing collective fight towards a better, just, equitable, peaceful, and safe South Africa for all. This is a moment of deep introspection. Towards justice, equality, and light. Ideas are prayers. Ideas are songs. Ideas are complex textures and lenses through which our world can be made luminous. Poetry provides such possibilities. Good poetry that is. Poetry from the pen of beautiful and unforgettable creative souls and committed revolutionaries such as Mafika Pascal Gwala in whose name we have gathered. Yithi! Mphephethe! Nzimande! Khondlwane! Jol’iinkomo! No More Lullabies!
An Ongoing Conversation
Why are we hurting ourselves, and embracing stubborn emblems of blood and hate again? How long has the sun been gone? How long have we lost words that heal, and give hope her famished rhythm? What is wrong with South Africa today? What are we doing to get things right? Why are we failing to uproot poverty the land? Whose land is it anyway! What can the poetry of Mafika Pascal Gwala tell us about the shame, and the mess we are in?
So many questions! So little time? I prefer to call what I am doing today, a conversation. It sounds better than a lecture to me. After all, I am not here as an all-knowing god. I am here to share a few ideas, in the spirit of Mafika Pascal Gwala. I will use many registers in this talk. I am doing this, not for the sheer thrill of it, but mainly for broader accessibility. I am not concerned with presenting a literary master class on the poet. Far from it. I am here to talk to anyone who can follow the discussion.
First Encounter with Gwala
Since, unlike most of the previous speakers, such as Mandla Langa, Prof Ari Sitas, Dr Blade Nzimande and Fred Khumalo, I did not have a close personal friendship with our beloved poet, let me in passing, say, how I fit into the broader Gwala socio-political and artistic imaginary. I first encountered the poet’s name in my English 1 class at the old University of Natal in Durban, now the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the hosts of this event, in the late 1980s. His 1982 poetry collection, No More Lullabies, was the book I was exposed to, and deeply treasured as a student and Black Consciousness activist. My English literary studies at the institution did not yield much. My teachers, including some iconic South African literary scholars such as Michael Chapman, and Margaret Daymond, were great. But my focus was not really on the studies, but my commitment to a revolution that, well, has not yet been fully realised. Gwala’ s poetry appealed to me for these key reasons: 1. He was black, and espoused Black Consciousness, a movement that animated my university activism days. 2. Also, his poetry was teaching me so much about the black condition under apartheid, history. 3. It has never bothered me that he later criticised the BC movement. He said a lot of sensible things in the main. Even better, his poetic ink lives in poets like Lesego Rampholokeng among others.
A Language of Rebellion
Reading Gwala’s poetry gave me a new language, a new set of bold ideas that were smart, radical, and poetic. Much-needed intellectual ammunition regarding many debates and issues that, at my age, were urgent, for me, to feel that being part of the liberation struggle, was worth it. And that, although dangerous, some people were doing it. It was right. Necessary.
Here him in Tap-tapping:
‘I am still surviving
the traumas of my raped soil
alive and aware;
truths jump like a cat leaps for fish…”
Besides my lecturers at the university, I had a lot of dear comrades, and friends who loved literature like me. In certain cases, they knew more than I did. Two names come to mind, the late Prof Thengani Ngwenya and another postgraduate student Professor Vasu Reddy, now a senior academic working at the University of Pretoria. At the time both were postgraduate students in the English department at the University of Natal in Durban.
Gwala was part of Ngwenya’s research. We were both excited when he published an interview with the poet in the progressive Staffrider magazine. Through these discussions, I began to appreciate the artistic and cultural commitment of artists in the South African liberation struggle. That is when I grew to read the works of Don Mattera, James Matthews, Gladys Thomas, Miriam Tlali and Bessie Head among others. At high school, I had read Gwala’s contemporary, Mongane Wally Serote’s City Johannesburg, one poem of Sipho Sepamla whose title I have now forgotten, and Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali’s Inside My Zulu Heart. It was also such sweet joy to read an excerpt from Zakes Mda’s We Shall Sing for the Fatherland, whose imaginative power has stayed with me forever. As to how these works had passed the silly eyes of the apartheid censors at the time, is a question for another day. Whatever the intricacies involved in the slip-up, I continue to learn so much from these committed black writers who wrote at the height of apartheid and colonialism.
To end this introduction, this poem also remains etched in my mind, Ukubuza KukaMkhulu Unxele/Old Man Nxele’s Remorse written after the 16 June Soweto riots. It asks a simple, yet brave question for the times: Bafana bami/Badubula/izingane zethu/eSoweto; Yini pho esisayiphilela? In English the poem reads: Sons/They are gunning down/our children/in Soweto; What more/are we still living for?”
Gwala’s Relevance Today
“In his music one could hear the rhythms of protest, so eloquently expressed in the work songs of unskilled labourers; one could feel the moving pathos of the songs of widows of the reserves; one could be swept up in the spirit of defiance and revolt conveyed in the surging freedom songs. But, above all, his music resounded with a joy in life, which is at the core of our musical traditions.” Z Pallo Jordan
I will now discuss the relevance of Mafika Pascal Gwala in South Africa today. I will do so under the rubric of history, encompassing Black Consciousness, and international solidarity, mainly. It is impossible to read Gwala’s poetry, and not appreciate its rich and diverse musicality. That is why, I have opened this section with a poignant quote by Z Pallo Jordan’s obituary to the late great exiled South African jazz bassist-activist, Johnny Dyani, titled, Freedom on the Bass-line, first published in Rixaka: Cultural Journal of the African National Congress, in 1987, revised for Two Tone in 1992, and in 2017, by Jacana Media in Johannesburg. The musicality of place, and the rhythm of memory are recurring themes in Gwala’s poetry from Jol’iinkomo in 1977, No More Lullabies in 1982, and other poems which featured in different platforms. Listen to the musicality of Jol’iinkomo:
Up from the river near Lusikisiki
the Mpondo maidens would sing
This song: Jol’iinkomo
Down the Umtamvuna River
children waiting anxiously
for sunset: Jol’iinkomo!
The poem expresses his love for the laid-back eastern Cape countryside. Born in Verulam in 1946 and grown up in Hammersdale township near Durban where he lived for the most part till, he died on 7 September 2014, the poem shows his longing for the countryside. It seems to me, the countryside was important for his spiritual sustenance, reconnecting with the black experience far from industrialisation, and mattered for enriching his poetic voice with the dominant African cultural expressions, that were not easily accessible in urban areas.
Key Personal Historical Markers
J.G.A Pocock argues that “historical narrative is a way of thinking about politics, and a species of political thought.” Essentially, how we tell history, is often, in fact, a way of making certain political statements or interventions that we consider urgent, for whatever ideological or even personal reasons. In Gwala, the historian emerges from the ghetto, and the smouldering cauldron of colonial violence, to call the names of the people, and help, restore their dignity through poetic song. Fellow writers and comrades Mandla Langa and Ari Sitas put it this way: “There is song, there is truth, there is oneness, there is laughter and struggle in the Children of Nonti. There is a meta-narrative and intricate narrative liberation. There is art, and there is resistance.” Place and protest feature a great deal in how Gwala writes history in the poetic form. Let’s hear Langa and Sitas again: “Despite the ugliness, despite the violence and civil war that gutted Hammersdale and Mpumalanga, despite the closing of one textile mill and clothing factory after another, despite the enduring hardships, we want to believe there is laughter and song, but is there resilience in the children of Nonti?”
This is an important question. I suspect it relates to the socio-economic dilemmas of our times. I do not have the answer to it, save to say, for Gwala, Nonti Nzimande, an indirect relative by clan association in the Eastern Cape, where he taught, was a legend. Nonti among some of the people in his teaching days in the Eastern Cape, in days where teachers could be shunted anywhere where there was a vacant post, who made his life bearable in those harsh days where he was far from home. Here are a few lines from Children of Nonti:
Nonti Nzimande died long, long ago
Yet his children still live.
Generation after generation, they live on;
Death comes to the children of Nonti
And the children of Nonti cry but won't panic
And there is survival in the children of Nonti.
What I also know is that there is still music in the children of Nonti. So that even when poverty persists, “…on these desolate roads there is song/ Song in the Black voices of the children of Nonti.”
Politicised Literary History
One of the perennial burdens of Mafika Gwala’s writing practice, was its constant conflict with the hegemony of white literary critics and editors, possibly one of the reasons, he did not publish as much a poet of his power and talent would have been expected. In this sense to read Gwala’s life, is also to be reminded of the power dynamics in South African literature, and the status of the black and radical activist in a world dependent on white goodwill, white liberal solidarity, and the harsh reality of the censorship boards. In this way, this reflection helps us endeavour to deepen our understanding of the struggles Gwala and his many writer-comrades such James Matthews were grappling with, and, trying to challenge, in the heat of creativity and the political fires of the 1970s, the 1980s and early 1990s. But the point worth making here is that publishing politics was not isolated from the broader politics of land dispossession, the Group Areas Act. For this reason, their relevance ought not be restricted to the margins of literary imagination and writing as purely a lonesome artistic endeavour. Also, he was not the first writer to face these challenges, since the likes of Sol T. Plaatje, B.W. Vilakazi, S.E.K Mqhayi, and many others has faced similar issues, under different historical conditions.
Apart from the overtly political issues of dictating to black writers, poets etc, the other charge African poets face, writes Wole Soyinka, is that “of aping other models, particularly the European.” Well, Soyinka adds: “The charge is of course frequently true, even to the extent of outright plagiarism, and covers the entire spectrum of stylistic development: twenty years ago, it was quite possible to read poems of (serious intent) which began “Gather ye hibiscus while ye may…” This is Soyinka in his introduction of Poems of Black Africa in 1975.
Mafika Gwala’s style was distinct in its powerful use of the Zulu traditional idiom of the izimbongi with various elements influenced by jazz, African music varieties, and many writers of the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement.
Writers like Nadine Gordimer also expressed similar concerns, perhaps under different circumstances. Gordimer, who was a patron of the Congress of South African Writers in the 1980s and 1990s, felt white liberals in general, did not go far enough in the fight for justice.
Black Consciousness and the Power of Cultural and Worker Mobilisation
Although to some people, Mafika Gwala might have denounced Black Consciousness, (saying it was a trend and never meant to be a Bible) as the central organising ideology in the late 1970 and 1980s (as done by the Azanian People’s Organisation for instance), his huge footprints in the BC movement remain to this day. Today it is almost impossible for any serious scholar on the BC Movement in South Africa to engage on this movement, without any mention of Gwala.
His well-recorded critique of his dear comrade and friend, Steve Bantu Biko, who was murdered 45 years ago, was genuine, and rooted in Gwala’s concern that elitist tendencies in the BC movement were alienating workers and making it impossible for the movement to appeal to the genuine factory floor issues of the working class. As the BC had started on a sound footing in this regard, Gwala, and his other comrades in the trade union movement, sought to make the black working class the centre of mass political mobilisation. He valued the arts as a way of conscientizing workers, students and artists, as shown in the major initiatives in Hammersdale and Pietermaritzburg.
Like Patrick Colm Hogan, he understood that cultural identity “underwrites war and revolution. That is why, the Gwala, while doing different jobs at different moments of his life, wrote enduring poetry and essays in publications such as the Classic, Classic, New Nation, Ophir and Realities. As editor of the Black Review in 1973, he worked hard, and advanced the cause of the revolution. In the early 1990s with Liz Gunner, Gwala researched and published fresh renderings of many variations rooted in the Zulu izimbongi tradition. One remarkable feature of this enterprise, was the presentation of izibongo (often called praises), to also reflect how this tradition was still alive in families and ordinary folk etc. This bold project evokes earlier research in the late 1950s by Mazisi Kunene, and an earlier one by Sibusiso Nyembezi, looking at different aspects of this enduring traditional art form.
As scholars like Ari Sitas and Michael Chapman have argued, through poets like Alfred Temba Qabula’s Izibongo ZikaFOSATU, Praises of FOSATU, an old art form has been given a unique and powerful political life. Here, discontinuities and continuities relating to the past and the present, are discernible.
Possibilities of Progressive Theory
Given the general fact of the many failures of South African democratic project, especially, the worsening levels of socio-economic injustices, violent crime, corruption, and racial polarisation, black people are increasingly left without the nuanced and acceptable language for expressing their deepest material suffering. Black suffering and black pain are generally left to the occasional politician, and lack serious investment in practice and in theory, in much-needed scholarship that could help our society realise that what is at stake, at the end of it all, threaten to destabilise the vision of countless people who fought, and may died for liberation. Not just for democracy and the rule of law as abstractions. Scholars like Deborah Posel, while admitting that obsession with racialised readings of social problems should surprise no one, given our history, she believes the ANC Youth League (when it was alive under Malema), “also demonstrated its vacuity in producing any serious or effective solution to the deepening economic divides.”
Finally. Black people (African, Coloured, and Indian) are the ones who continue to be ill-done by the elite pacts of our miraculous political transition. Neoliberalism is here to stay. So is whiteness.
How do we respond to this huge dilemma? Surely, there are no quick answers. But, in the spirit of the life and times of Mafika Gwala, I suggest that hard as it is, let us again, talk about race. Under the progressive banner of Black Consciousness and international solidarity. Like he does in poems on Vietnam etc. Why?
- BC has a lexicon that exists already and is an organic product of the black condition. We need it as a nation.
- The BC ideology holds the possibility of re-organising the historically oppressed across ethnic groupings, especially as the spectre of tribalism has begun to haunt us yet again.
- BC as a mobilising idea for freedom, like feminism and queer studies should not be seen as a threat to our fellow white compatriots. It is for our collective future.
- We need BC as a philosophy that rebuilds communities & disavows xenophobia and so much bloodletting in black communities.
The following main sources were consulted:
Letters to My Comrades – Interventions & Excursions, Z Pallo Jordan, consulting editor: Collin Bundy, compiled by Keorapetse Kgositsile & Mothobi Mutloatse, Mutloatse Arts Heritage Trust & Jacana Media, 2017.
Mafika Gwala – Collected Poems, edited by Mandla Langa and Ari Sitas, South African History Online, 2016.
Poems of Black Africa, edited by Wole Soyinka, African Writers Series – Heinemann, 1975.
The New South Africa at Twenty – Critical Perspectives, edited by Peter Vale and Estelle H. Prinsloo, UKZN Press, 2014.