The paper reviews the life of South African poet Mongane Wally Serote during apartheid South Africa in the mid to late 20th century. During this time, Serote wrote many works that conveyed the suffering and anger of the oppressed black South African people. Despite being in exile and away from his fellow South Africans, Serote was able to inspire and promote a sense of unity amongst his people and help bring an end to apartheid in South Africa.

Key Words: Mongane Wally Serote, poetry, apartheid, African National Congress, Black Consciousness Movement, Sophiatown, Soweto, 1967 Terrorism Act, exile, Nat Nakasa, Black Theatre, Fulbright Scholarship, Medu Arts Ensemble, Department of Arts and Culture

Mongane Wally Serote: Ending Apartheid South Africa through Verse and Unity

As a result of the Afrikaner National Party gaining power in 1948, the people’s struggle against apartheid took many forms, including public protests and armed warfare. However, South African artists who created music, paintings, and poetry played an essential role in the battle against apartheid, for their works inspired and empowered the oppressed. One of these artists was South African poet, Mongane Wally Serote. Through his poems and novels, Serote gave a voice to those who had been silenced by apartheid, and revived their sense of freedom and their ontological dignity.

On 8 May 1944, four years before Apartheid began, Mongane Wally Serote was born in Sophiatown. Before 1955, Sophiatown was a multiracial township in Johannesburg where writers, musicians, and artists thrived despite the racism and oppression taking place in South Africa at the time. However in 1955, Sophiatown was annexed by the apartheid government as an area reserved for White South Africans, destroying the vibrant artist colony. Serote and his family were then forced to relocate, and he would eventually end up living in the impoverished township of Alexandra. He attended school in Alexandra and would later attend high school in Soweto. However, towards the end of his high school career, Serote became involved in the political struggle against apartheid, by joining the African National Congress. In 1960, the apartheid government banned the ANC from South Africa, leading to the birth of the Black Consciousness Movement. The BCM emphasized that blacks, in particular the youth, must collectively reject the laws created by the apartheid government and free themselves of the mindset that they are somehow less than whites. Serote, intrigued by this philosophy, joined the BCM. However, in 1969, Serote’s education and involvement in these groups came to a halt when he was arrested under the 1967 Terrorism Act[1] .

In 1967, the South African government passed one of the most significant pieces of legislation during apartheid. The reason the apartheid government passed the 1967 Terrorism Act was because they wanted to fight and capture ‘terrorists’. However, the real reason this Act was passed was because the government wanted to weaken the many anti-apartheid groups. This Act gave police the freedom to hunt down and arrest innocent people who were involved in these anti-apartheid organizations. Those arrested under the Act were taken to jail and detained without a trial, “and many of those detained under the Terrorism Act reported abuse by police forces. Others died in detention”[2] . Due to his association with the ANC and BCM, Serote fell victim to this unjust law, and was detained for nine months in solitary confinement. He describes this experience in his poem, Ofay-Watcher Looks Back:

As silent as plant bloom and the eye tells you: something has happened. I look at what happened When jails are becoming necessary homes for people Like death comes out of disease,I want to look at what happened.[3]

In this excerpt, Serote illustrates the shock and confusion of those who were arrested unjustly. Serote was anxious to discover why these prisons became a home for those who those imprisoned unjustly.

Following this traumatizing experience, Serote began to write poetry. During this time period, aspiring black artists and writers had difficulty exposing their works to the world. However in 1969, Serote had his first ever poem published in a magazine called The Classic. This magazine was created by black South African Nat Nakasa, whom also worked on the infamous Drum magazine[4] . By the time Serote’s first poem was published, he had already created networks with other creative thinkers in the BCM. Through these connections, he was presented with the opportunity to work with the Black Consciousness South African Student Organization. While working with them, he helped create the South African Black Theatre. Its productions exposed the prejudices and inequalities black South Africans faced. He believed that through teaching the black population how to be creative and think freely, they would be liberated from the unhappiness and complacency caused by the apartheid government[5] . Serote wrote in his poem White People are White People:

White people are white people,
They are burning the world.
Black people are black people,
They are the fuel.
White people are white people,
They must learn to listen.
Black people are black people,

They must learn to talk. [6]

Through this, Serote emphasizes that as a collective whole, the black South African community needed to break free of the mindset that they were somehow less than whites. They needed to “learn to talk” through art so as to oppose the oppressive apartheid government[7] .

The poem above, comes from Serote’s first collection of poems titled Yakhal’inkomo. Following the release of this collection in 1972, there was a mixed reaction amongst South Africans. The book received poor review from white critics, who labeled Serote as a 'protest poet' rather than reviewing the poetry itself. The black community on the other hand praised his collection, for they identified with Serote's poetry and proclaimed him the 'son of the people’”[8] . Due to the popularity and impact of Yakhal’inkomo amongst the South African people, Serote won the Ingrid Jonker Poetry Prize. Following this, Serote published his second collection of poems in 1974 called Tsetlo. Both Yakhal’inkomo and Tsetlo did not focus alone on the acts of violence occurring in South Africa at the time, but rather focused on the ideas of the Black Consciousness. Serote’s collections were concerned with “the dynamics of cultural and psychological metamorphosis from banal servility to self-awareness. He was mindful that Black Consciousness was merely a transitory point on the long road to emancipation”[9] . He to conveyed to his fellow black South Africans that they are not beings meant to serve the needs of the white man, but rather are being born equal and free.

Following the publication of his two poetry collection, Wally Serote was seen as a threat in the eyes of the South African government. Like others rebels before him, Serote sought to avoid the persecution of the apartheid government and joined the ranks of South African exiles who deemed their homeland unsafe. Escaping the grip of the apartheid government, Serote travelled to the United States of America. During his time in exile, Serote desired to attend university and applied for the Fulbright Scholarship Program. This American program grants international students scholarships to assist them in their pursuit for higher education[10] . Following his arrival, Serote was awarded the Fulbright Scholarship and attended Columbia University.

In 1975, a year following his escape, Serote published his third book titled No Baby Must Weep. However, No Baby Must Weep differs greatly from his previous two collections because it consists of only one poem. Serote explains in an interview that “I felt that the collective experience of the masses in South Africa was going to overwhelm poems as I wrote them. I couldn't write a short poem at that point”[11] . Although an autobiographical work, Serote combines the collective experience and his own experiences to convey that all of Africa shares this collective suffering:

i can say one day
this flower
will stand in the bright bright sun
this flower will have no petals
one day

is this not your child come home [12]

Through this, Serote encouraged his people to realize that freedom was only attainable by becoming a collective mass and working as one.

Following his third work, which greatly empowered and inspired the South African people, Wally Serote desired to continue writing in exile. His second major literary work in the United States was published in 1978 titled Behold Mama, Flowers. While creating Behold Mama, Flower, Serote described that, before leaving South Africa, he did not have a holistic understanding of the relationship between human nature and racism. While writing this collection, Serote studied the history of racism and oppression around the world. “I was also concerned with world power- politics, other liberation struggles, and, although it was late in the day, what America had done in Vietnam. I was conscious of the struggles in Guinea-Bissau, Angola, Mozambique - aware of how a people, in order to claim life, had to deny life. All of this is reflected in Behold Mama, Flowers”[13] . Through his studies, he describes the terrible acts of racism and violence committed by colonial powers and Western civilization. Furthermore, he probed the mind of the oppressor and conqueror:

here on these banks death is alive
it strides like a man who can't make decisions
who is orphaned from joy and peace [14]

Serote described that men throughout history who oppress others have become dehumanized, for they are absent of joy and peace. Through his poem, Serote explained that history continues to repeat itself, and each time, the oppressor eventually loses to the oppressed. Therefore, it is up to those oppressed by apartheid to fight back through different means of resistance. Some would take up arms, some would peacefully protest, while others would sing and create large public demonstrations, facilitating the power of the collective mass[15] .

Following these publications, Wally Serote graduated from Columbia University in 1979 with a Masters degree in Fine Art. After completing his education, Serote did not return to South Africa. Instead, he travelled to Botswana, where he became a member of the Medu Arts Ensemble. The Medu Arts Ensemble was created in 1977 by South African exiles whom sought to promote their African roots and culture through art. Now that he had reconnected with his South African comrades in Botswana, Serote rejoined the ANC and helped them in their efforts to overthrow the apartheid regime.

Throughout his exile, it had been difficult for Serote to learn of the events taking place in South Africa because of the government’s lack of transparency to the international community. However over these years, the acts and laws that had once been used to rule and control black South Africans had finally begun to turn against the apartheid regime. Civil unrest in the nation had led to armed violence and killings. Funerals of those unjustly killed by the apartheid government turned into large demonstrations, filled with song and grief. Through song, black South Africans came together and shared a common goal, to win their freedom. Due to this great civil unrest, the international community put pressure on the South African government to end apartheid and end its oppression of nonwhites. Due to the violence, protests, and sanctions placed, the apartheid government finally allowed the ANC to return to South Africa and the all-http://www.africamediaonline.com/preview/552_29.jpgwhite government was pressured to hold free elections. Following the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, Serote finally returned to South Africa. Upon his return, Serote was appointed to the Head of the Department of Arts and Culture of the ANC, where he would also serve as a member of the government select committee for Arts and Culture[16] .

Text Box: Wally Serote, 1990. Photograph by Gisele Wulfsohn. Permission: Africa Media Online

On October 1992, Serote was interviewed by author Duncan Brown about his experiences in exile over the past 18 years. Brown asks Serote an interesting question about whether or not he feels as though his writings suffered during his exile, due to the fact that he had been gone from the country and its people for so long. Serote responds, stating:

I think there are very basic things a writer survives on: the minute-to-minute experiences of our people; the smells in this country; the sense that one develops when one hears conversations within South Africa influenced by local events. I was denied this. So in that regard I've always said exile is a brutal assault on writers, especially since I know that many times I'm called a self-imposed exile. It's not true. At the point at which I had to decide whether to come back to the country or not, I had to choose between two evils, and I rejected that choice. To be outside does involve being removed from one's primary audience and primary resources, but I think one should always be conscious of trying to broaden one's audience - our audience should be the world. [17]

Serote does not deny the fact that during his exile he lost touch with the audience he had left 18 years before. Despite this however, through exile Serote was presented with the opportunity to see the world. He learned about the history and cultures of different nations and witnessed the way different societies treat one another. Serote incorporated what he learned into his writings so as to more clearly illustrate the struggles his people faced under apartheid.

During apartheid in South Africa, artists, musicians, and writers, through their inspiring and empowering works, had a significant role in bringing the end of apartheid in South Africa. Amongst these inspiring creators was poet Mongane Wally Serote. In Serote’s poems, he let it be known that in order to be truly free of white control, the colored people of South Africa must, as a collective mass, break free of the mindset that they are meant to serve the white man, and understand that they are born free. Through his poems, Serote awakened those who had been silenced by apartheid, and reminded them of their inherent dignity and freedom.

End Notes

[1] Marilyn Turkovich, "Mongane Wally Serote." Voice Compassion Education. 3 July 2011. Web. 20 Nov. 2016. http://voiceseducation.org/content/mongane-wally-serote.

[2] Jonathan Cohen, "1967 Terrorism Act, No. 83 of 1967." South African History Online. 25 May 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2016. http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/1967-terrorism-act-no-83-1967.

[3] Wally Serote, “Ofay-Watcher Looks Back.” Selected Poems. 21-26.

[4] Ndazana Nathaniel Nakasa. 2011. South African History Online. 6 December 2016 http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/ndazana-nathaniel-nakasa.

[5] Sam Moodley, “Black Theatre an Expression of Black Consciousness.” South African History Online. 6 December 2016 http://www.sahistory.org.za/sites/default/files/Paper_Sam_Moodley.pdf

[6] Wally Serote, “White People are White People.” Yakhal'inkomo, Johannesburg: Renoster Books, 1972. 1-8.

[7] Essop Patel, “Mongane Wally Serote: Poet of Revolution.” Third World Quarterly, vol. 12, no. 1, 1990, pp. 188. <www.jstor.org/stable/3992455>. 

[8] Essop Patel, “Mongane Wally Serote: Poet of Revolution.” Third World Quarterly, vol. 12, no. 1, 1990, pp. 189. <www.jstor.org/stable/3992455>.

[9] Essop Patel, “Mongane Wally Serote: Poet of Revolution.” Third World Quarterly, vol. 12, no. 1, 1990, pp. 189. www.jstor.org/stable/3992455.

[10] Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. 2016. The Fulbright Program. 6 December 2016 https://eca.state.gov/fulbright.

[11] Duncan Brown, and Mongane Wally Serote. “Interview with Mongane Wally Serote.” Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, no. 80, 1992, pp. 147. www.jstor.org/stable/41801972.

[12] Wally Serote. No Baby Must Weep, Johannesburg: Ad Donker, 1975.

[13] Duncan Brown, and Mongane Wally Serote. “Interview with Mongane Wally Serote.” Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, no. 80, 1992, pp. 148. www.jstor.org/stable/41801972

[14] Wally Serote. “Song of Experience.” Behold Mama, Flowers, Johannesburg: Ad Donker, 1978.

[15] Essop Patel. “Mongane Wally Serote: Poet of Revolution.” Third World Quarterly, vol. 12, no. 1, 1990, pp. 191. www.jstor.org/stable/3992455.

[16] Marilyn Turkovich. "Mongane Wally Serote." Voice Compassion Education. 3 July 2011. 20 Nov. 2016.http://voiceseducation.org/content/mongane-wally-serote.

[17] Duncan Brown, and Mongane Wally Serote. “Interview with Mongane Wally Serote.” Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, no. 80, 1992, pp. 145. www.jstor.org/stable/41801972


Moodley, S. Black Theatre an Expression of Black Consciousness. South African History Online. [Online] Available at: http://www.sahistory.org.za/sites/default/files/Paper_Sam_Moodley.pdf [6 December 2016].

Brown, and Serote. 1992. ‘Interview with Mongane Wally Serote’ Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, no. 80, pp. 143–149. [Online] Available at: www.jstor.org/stable/41801972 [20 November 2016].

Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. 2016. The Fulbright Program. [Online] Available at: https://eca.state.gov/fulbright. [6 December 2016].

Cohen, J, 2012. ‘1967 Terrorism Act, No. 83 of 1967’ South African History Online. [Online] Available at: http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/1967-terrorism-act-no-83-1967 [20 November 2016].

Gisele Wulfsohn, (1990), Wally Serote [Online]. Available at: http://www.africamediaonline.com/preview/552_29.jpg [6 December 2016].

Medu and Culture Liberation. 2011. South African History Online. [Online] Available at: http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/medu-and-culture-liberation. [6 December 2016].

Mongane Wally Serote n.d., image. [Online] Available at: http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/mongane-wally-serote[6 December 2016].

Ndazana Nathaniel Nakasa. 2011. South African History Online. [Online] Available at: http://www.sahistory.org.za/people/ndazana-nathaniel-nakasa [6 December 2016].

Patel, E. 1990. ‘Mongane Wally Serote: Poet of Revolution’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 187–193. [Online] Available at: www.jstor.org/stable/3992455 [20 November 2016].

Serote, W, 1975, No Baby Must Weep, Johannesburg: Ad Donker.

Serote, W. ‘Ofay-Watcher Looks Back’ Selected Poems. 

Serote, W, 1978. ‘Song of Experience’ Behold Mama, Flowers, Johannesburg: Ad Donker.

Serote, W, 1974. Tsetlo, Johannesburg: Ad Donker.

Serote, W, 1972. ‘White People are White People’ Yakhal'inkomo. Johannesburg: Renoster Books.

Turkovich, M, 2011. ‘Mongane Wally Serote’ Voice Compassion Education. [Online] Available at: http://voiceseducation.org/content/mongane-wally-serote [20 November 2016].

This article forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project

Collections in the Archives