Mafika Pascal Gwala was born on 5 October 1946 in the town of Verulam, a region predominantly inhabited by Zulus and Indians, in what was then Natal province (now Kwazulu-Natal). His father worked for the railways, while his mother was a domestic worker. Gwala was four years old when the Group Areas Act, Act No 41 was passed in 1950.

As he matured to adolescence through the 1950s and the early 1960s, the Nationalist controlled government began to vigorously institutionalize apartheid. The Bantu Authorities Act, Act No 68; the Natives (Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents) Act, Act No 67; and the Extension of University Education Act, Act No 45 were among the many acts passed in the 1950s to further segregation and control mobility and limit the rights of Black, Coloured and Indian South Africans. Most importantly, these Acts, in combination with intense police and government intervention in South African life, led to a radicalization of Gwala’s generation, a movement that would mature in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In a poem published later, Gwala describes the change in his home town:

Verulam has undergone unheard of metamorphosis

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 the barrel setting of a pepperbox

Soon after enrolling at the University of Zululand, also known as Ngoye, Gwala chose to sacrifice his studies to join the budding group within the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) that would break away and and eventually dissociate from NUSAS to form the South African Students Organization (SASO). Gwala began writing his first poetry around this time, between 1966 and 1967. Simultaneously, Gwala was also introduced to the Black literary magazine, The Classic by Omar Badsha. The Classic, had been launched in 1963 by Nat Nakasa as an outlet for Black literature, and was the host for Gwala’s first published short story.

In a short contribution, ‘Writing as a Cultural Weapon’ published in Momentum: On Recent South African Writing in 1984, Gwala remarks that his turn to poetry was a reflection of the mood in cultural expression at the time. He says that he, Oswald Mtshali, Mongane Wally Serote, Njabulo Ndebele, Webster Makaza and Meshack Hlongwane were all with The Classic literary magazine in Durban in the late 1960s, writing short stories. The atmosphere for Black writing was stifled and producing short stories, he writes, did not provide an adequate outlet for the ideological shift of Black artists.

The literary scene had been decimated over the 1950s and into the 1960s due to bannings, exile and death.

Since all Black resistance and action was under surveillance, Gwala notes that reading and cultural expression were the only means to maintain intellect and interest with life. Gwala writes that the 1960s had the justifiable feel of anger between and among the races.  He says that each time a daring act of resistance was reported, a Terrorism Act trial would follow swiftly. This perpetual sharp and incisive curtailing of political and cultural expression contributed to what Gwala calls an atmosphere and feeling of intellectual slaughter, tinged with a deep, ever-building and brooding anger.

The goal for Black writers and artists in the late 1960s when Gwala began to write differed from the 1950s and earlier 1960s. The new writers were looking for a shift not only in content but also in form. Gwala says ‘Black writers and artists had decided to trace their lost steps into their Blackness so as to plod better armed with ideas into the future’ (Gwala, 1984). Gwala notes that this new generation recognized, then more than ever, that psychological and physical liberation was the duty of Black South Africans and no one else.

Living in Durban during the years as SASO and Black Consciousness emerged, he reflects, was a peculiar experience since he had also lived in the city when its non-racial tradition was the norm. He writes that Durban’s place as the capital for the burgeoning Black Consciousness movement was an obvious choice given its tradition.

In an interview in 1979, Gwala notes that he is not quite sure as to when he specifically became involved with BC. His student body at Ngoye was resistant to action, but he cites his early friendship with Badsha and then other students as being particularly influential for fueling his interest. He remembers that students from NUSAS, especially White students were far more informed than he and his friends at Ngoye before he began spending time with Badsha and others interested in forming what would become SASO.

In December 1968, SASO, a national organization, was founded in Marrianhill, Natal Province under the guidance of Steve Biko. The immediate concern of SASO was to generate a community for Black students to form a solidified movement against oppression. In July 1969, SASO was inaugurated at Turfloop campus in Limpopo Province, and Steve Biko was named President. At this point, the issue of ideology and the basic criteria for individual affiliation with SASO was deliberately left aside; however, the leadership was intent on cultivating a Black identity – as opposed to an all-inclusive racial foundation - associated with a struggle against oppression. Participation in opposing oppression was a necessary component to identifying with the struggle. As the perception of the role of Black students in the liberation struggle began to crystallize, the ideology came to be named Black Consciousness, a purposeful term to dissociate Black identity from apartheid and White superiority.

In a later interview, Gwala remembers that the first priority of Black Consciousness was to,

shed the inferiority thing from the Black Man, he had to accept himself with the Black face, the situation as it was, rather than as a consequence of being Black . . . to accept his tribal or African background is to accept that there is nothing wrong with being Black.’ (Gwala, 1979)

In a newsletter published in 1970, SASO noted that Black Consciousness placed great emphasis on decolonizing the mind. Psychological oppression had, according to the movement, prevailed among Blacks and non-Whites for over 300 years and the victims of the system had the responsibility to overhaul the socio-economic system of apartheid. At the 1970 Conference, SASO officially parted ways with NUSAS.

Not until 1971 did SASO launch into publicized political resistance. The Second General Student’s Council in July 1971 resulted in the formal adoption of a Manifesto and Constitution both of which, writes Gwala, expressed in some way the feeling of being intellectually slaughtered prevalent in the 1960s. On the whole, mirroring the shift in ideology felt by the writers at The Classic, the Manifesto of SASO called for a new social outlook, world view, way of life, attitude of mind, or, in one word: consciousness. Gwala describes that as his activities with other Black Consciousness students and members increased, his sense of brooding anger, so common in the 1960s, adjusted to the new, more positive mindset of the BC movement. He refers to this feeling as one of hope, in place of defeat. He was encouraged by BCs ideals to wage a liberation struggle that would resonate with all of South Africa’s oppressed.

At the July 1971 conference, SASO invited a number of cultural artists to join the students for two weeks and discuss a cultural revival as part of the new Black Consciousness movement. The jazz-inspired Malombo Band and the Serpent Players led by Actor John Kani, Actor Winston Ntshona (both known for Sizwe Bonzi is Dead), and Nomsa Nkonyeni attended the conference. Gwala remarks that the conversations between these performance artists and the student movement fostered the new message of resistance that became characteristic of Black Consciousness. Gwala also writes that this encounter eased the dissatisfaction that was felt by young Blacks who were growing disinterested with the ‘colorless effort’, looking instead to assert themselves by associating cultural expression with Black experience.

From 2 – 9 July 1972, SASO held the Third General Student’s Council Convention. Gwala was invited to speak one night at a symposium along with Njabulo Ndebele, Don Mattera and Day Joseph. The theme of the talk was ‘Black Creativity and Development’ and Gwala notes that both his and Ndebele’s papers focused on an economic interpretation of history and political development in South Africa, but with a strong argument that culture was an inseparable aspect of the two.

In 1973, Gwala was invited to read with Oswald Mtshali, Mongane (Wally) Serote, Don Mattera, Phil Phetoe, Lefifi Tladi and Mike Dues at Turfloop’s Africa Arts Week, another cultural convention inspired by Black Consciousness. At this point, Gwala had begun to regularly contribute poems to the SASO Newsletter. These poems were targeted at a Black audience from the point of view of a Black citizen; however, he notes that ‘even then it was to dawn on me that there could be no pure Black’(Gwala ,1984). In the same year, Gwala was in Braamfontein, Johannesburg when he took the position of Editor with the 1973 issue of The Black Review. His succession followed the March bans placed on Steve Biko and seven other leaders of SASO. A compilation of news, editorials, and literature recording the problems, strategies and solutions of the black community, The Black Review was an influential publication spearheaded by The Black Community Programme. Gwala contributed a piece to the 1973 addition entitled ‘An African View of the Present Urban and Industrial Situation in South Africa.’ Its in-depth information on issues and the efforts of oppressed people throughout South Africa is regarded as an invaluable resource to forging the unity treasured by Black Consciousness.  

By 1974, Gwala had become well-known in the BC movement, especially with regard to his written contributions to The Black Review and SASO Newsletter. He was invited in February of 1974 by Onkgopotse Tiro to ‘bring black poetry to Whitey’s territory’ in Cape Town. (Gwala, 1984) While Gwala expressed some hesitation in bringing Black Consciousness to the Cape, he thought that the experience might be educational and therefore worth the discomfort. On arriving at home in Hammarsdale just before he was to leave for his trip, he recalls his wife greeting him at the door with, ‘Have you heard about Tiro? He’s been killed’ (Gwala, 1984). Gwala chose not to go to Cape Town as originally planned.  While attending the Tiro Commemoration Service, Gwala realized that his interest in expressing the anger and oppression of apartheid with poetry more than any other medium was becoming a clearer choice. For him, poetic form was unique in the way it could express truth.

The Black Renaissance Convention, held in Hammanskraal in December, 1974, was another platform for representatives of numerous Black organizations to discuss further political strategy and community development. Gwala was invited to the Convention as a guest speaker and delegate. During the Convention, he gave a speech entitled ‘Towards the Practical Manifestations of Black Consciousness’. This speech encouraged the attendees of the conference to avoid becoming bogged down in parochial attitudes. He warned that those who claimed to be intellectuals were under threat of alienating themselves from the very people they were trying to rally.  He sharply reprimanded intellectuals who tended to avoid interaction with working class Blacks. He stressed that liberation depended upon the collective will of the people.

These themes provided the main framework for his criticism of Black Consciousness. While he was very interested in the ideological beginnings of the BC movement, he has written on a number of occasions that leaders and members of BC should be hesitant to refer to it as the endpoint of a movement. Those that came to regard BC as such were the same individuals that Gwala accused of threatening the very core of the movement: a liberation by the people. But the goals of Black Consciousness were threatened by young men who were,

 ‘walking up the escalator of Black Consciousness: their lifestyle – their snobbery; their practice – collecting jazz and dashikis for boasts; their goal – bourgeois status.’ (Gwala, 1979)

Organized by Smangaliso Mkhatshwa and Maurice Ngakane of the South African Council of Churches, the Black Renaissance Convention had invited representatives from SASO and the Black People’s Convention. In a commentary on the impending conference, Mkhatshwa remarks on the aims of the organizers:

there is nothing that dispels prejudice, tribalism and sectionalist tendencies than knowing and discussing with each other points of view . . . this is one national Convention which was initiated and is controlled by Black people.’ (Mkhatshwa, 1974)

With its rather benign aims, it was perhaps unexpected that soon after deliberations began, Gwala reports that the meeting reached a stalemate. The younger, progressive ‘militants’ were opposed to striking any sort of compromise with the ‘old guard’ conservatives of the meeting. Gwala records that the older generation strategized to inspire compromise on the grounds of an indigenous past and shared African identity. Contrary to the expected reaction, the younger representatives were unimpressed by such romantic ideals. Instead, writes Gwala, ‘if we were to write on African greatness it had to be insistently linked with the present.’(Gwala 1984)

Gwala himself was encouraged to see the youth triumph in the argument The Black Renaissance Convention closed by calling for unprecedented political action, a far cry from the more tepid concerns originally set out by the organizers.

As the BPC strove in 1975 to strengthen its presence in the liberation struggle, Malusi Mpumlwana began to test the idea of BPC as a catalyst for uniting the national movement. Since its small beginnings as an off-shoot of SASO, dedicated to taking the movement beyond students and youth, BPC had grown in spite of struggling to retain any solid leadership. Mpumlwana deemed that this new position for BPC was logical considering that the BC movement was prime to shift from psychologically uniting the liberation movements to political unification.

The leaders of BPC realized the potential for bringing ANC and PAC leaders into the wider BC movement. After careful negotiations between SASO, BPC, BC, ANC and PAC leaders, an economic policy document was drafted at the BPC Congress  in December 1975. Gwala is known to have disagreed with the plan, and argued vehemently with Biko against it. At a further collaborative workshop in May 1976, held in Mafeking, Gwala was not alone in protesting the adoption or endorsement of policy documents by the BPC. He and others argued that these more institutionalized measures were the prerogative of the ANC.

In ‘Writing as a Cultural Weapon,’ Gwala notes that by 1976, the urban areas had changed dramatically. By the mid-1970s, many people in the urban areas had suffered forced removals. Families had been split as a result of government intervention and many people were without permanent homesteads. While before 1976, talk had circulated of destitute people in the cities, that year revealed the situation of Black South Africans with great clarity.

Gwala was invited to the South African Writers Conference at Wits University that same year, and while he could not attend, he contributed a paper to the conference. The Conference, attended by Black and White writers, closed with the germination of the idea for Staffrider magazine, produced later in 1978.

In Gwala’s eyes, the collaboration was the best achievement of the Black literary and art scene. Staffrider was seminal in its form and content because Black writers could contribute to it without fear of editorial censorship, an obstacle for Black writers often worse than state censorship. While these efforts in the cultural struggle were excelling, political resistance suffered a harsh blow. On 16 June, 1976 the Soweto uprising, comprised of 20,000 students marching against the new Afrikaans education decree for Black schools, was brutally attacked by police.

On September 12, 1977 Steve Bantu Biko died while in custody. Soon after, in October 1977, the South African state clamped down on the actions of Black Consciousness organizations, and the activities of 18 groups were officially banned. Gwala was among several of the leaders and members who were detained in the crack-down. He was held under Section 6 of the Terrorism act for 100 days before being released. As a result, Gwala missed Biko’s funeral.

Gwala’s Poetry: Jol’iinkomo, No More Lullabies and Musho! Zulu Praise Poems

It was during this turbulent year that Gwala’s first collection of poems,Jol’iinkomo was published by A.D. Donker, a White South African publisher.

Gwala describes the publication of his first collection of poems as a very consciously timed choice. In 'Writing as a Cultural Weapon’ he notes that the collection could have been produced in the early 1970s, just after Serote published Yakhal’inkomo. Instead, he very carefully calculated the impact of his poems. He wanted to contribute something to the movement that would be lasting and meaningful, desirable even, in the aftermath of liberation.

The process of creating something that had these qualities was not a simple or straightforward undertaking. To him, the predominant theme in South African writing is social conflict. Black writers involve themselves in social conflict as they write about ‘the Black’ as ‘fully-fledged human beings, with all the qualities that ought to make him a full citizen in his country given all his capabilities of sacrifice and resistance.' (Gwala 1984)

With Jol’iinkomo, Gwala’s poems took a form characteristic of his writing by that time. His work, written in English, had the lilt of Zulu, the inflection of ghetto-speech, and was stretched in its usage and combination to produce poetry that captured the African background, the resistance and the oppression of the urban situation.

The choice to write in English was in part dictated by the early imposition of English education in Bantustan schools by the Department of Bantu Education; however, it was also an appropriation of the English language as a lingua franca for Black South Africans.

It coincided with BC ideology of uniting the oppressed under a new definition of ‘Black’. Gwala defends his and other Black writers’ choice to use English, arguing that ‘the English language itself thrives on the adoption of foreign words and coinages . . . the words we use belong to certain periods of our history.(Gwala 1984)Gwala and other writers of the time did not use English for its social or cultural pretensions, but instead stripped the language down and forced it into the style and rhythm of the urban space. For example:

Speak my brother

There’s a lively chick

with a dainty smile

There’s auntie’s cool mama look

lest we start some shindig.

The spark tells me.

I’m not all screwed, yes,

I’m booze feeding, just. (Gwala 1977)

Jol’iinkomo, translating to Bringing the Cattle to the Kraal, was filled with poems that reflected experiences and inspiration from the 1960s and 1970s.

In an interview, Gwala claims that his writing was at its best in the years surrounding Jol’iinkomo’s publication as he came to ‘understand better the meaning and dimension of [his] blackness.’ (Gwala 1989). The title poem includes the line: ‘I should bring some lines home/ to the kraal of my Black experience’. This line alone is reminiscent of what Gwala and others were searching for when they turned from short stories to poetry in the late 1960s. It also alludes to the foundation of the cultural movement of Black Consciousness at the start of the 1970s: ‘to trace their lost steps into their blackness so as to plod better armed with ideas into the future.’ (Gwala 1984)

The poems of this collection reflect the shift in tone apparent in cultural expression in the late 1960s and the earlier 1970s. Poetry that used strong wording, with purposeful expressions and positive statements reflected the development of BC ideology that called for a newfound solidarity. Along this line, Gwala notes that all of his writing during this period aimed to convey a positive negation against South Africa’s cultural system. Rather than just protest poetry, this sort of work was didactic and inspiring as in Gwala’s ‘Getting off the Ride’:

I ask again, what is Black?

Black is when you get off the ride.

Black is point of self realization

Black is point of new reason

Black is point of: NO NATIONAL DECEPTION! (Gwala 1977)

In this same poem, Gwala refers to himself as ‘the African Kwele instrumentalist whose notes profess change’. (Gwala 1977) This self-reference as an inspirational, hopeful figure threads throughout the volume as the majority of these poems are optimistic and exhorting, calling on others to struggle as well.

Gwala’s poetry also includes sections that voice interest in liberation movements across the continent. By affiliating Blackness with the land of Africa as well as other regions on the continent, he calls for a reassessment of the imposed colonial story of South African history:

Black living has digged

the past

out of the mounds of Benin

has reaped hardiness

on the Ethiopian Heights

has dredged the glory

out of the womb of the Nile (51) (Gwala 1977)

These lines speak to the dignity of being African, an altogether different image of Black South African than that projected by the apartheid regime.

In the same year it was published, Jol’iinkamo was also banned by the Director of  Publications, based in Cape Town. 

In 1982, Gwala’s second collection of poems was published in a book entitled No More Lullabies. This second collection was devoid of the exuberance of the first, and was far less militant in its word-usage:

Undeniably there is.

There is a truth

with rings wider than a poet’s eye

There is, with all the odds against

a will to watch a child grow

Even if it is in a littered street

Or in a shack where rain pours

as water through a sieve

There is a hope

fanned by endless zeal

decisive against the spectre of Sharpeville

hardened by the tears of Soweto (Gwala 1982)

This poem in particular speaks to an interest in transition. The location of the poem as well as the references in the poem are still to the townships like those of his earlier collection.

Soon after publishing this second piece, Gwala moved to Manchester England to pursue further education. While in England, he published Musho! Zulu Popular Praises with Liz Gunner in 1991.

The book is an anthology of Zulu poems as well as commentary on the form of Zulu poetry. In Musho! Gwala published two praise poems in both Zulu and English. The two poems adopt the same rhythm of izibongo but the subject matter is more contemporary:

For SACTU had come down the Mnqadodo River at Hammarsdale

Setting Sun that never did set

Some thought that the red sun that was boiling hot at the bowels had set

The workers stood in closed rank on a hill and faced the sun’s rays

To the West

The sun had not yet gone under

Since SACTU did beget COSATU (Gunner and Gwala. 1991)

This section, taken from the poem ‘Harry Gwala’ refers to both the South African Congress of Trade Unions and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. The actions of the two unions and the workers among them are composed in a way to create interest, awe and praise of the process of succession – here it is from SACTU to COSATU.

After completing work at Manchester University, Gwala returned to pursue a Masters of Philosophy at the University of Natal.

Two of his poems were published in The New African Poetry – An Anthology in 2000. Each refers to the stress of oppression and apartheid. ‘From the Outside’ recounts the burial of a friend that is cast in a cloud of sadness and suspicion. The closing lines claim:

What got my brow itching though

Is that none

Of the cops present

Dared to stand out

And say

Madaza was a ‘wanted.’ (Gwala, 2000)

‘Promise!’ is a seemingly simple story of lost friendship in Durban as a result of forced relocation. However, the short poem is deeply critical and is calling for action of some sort instead of acquiescence to the conditions at hand:

Looks like we’ve been both lost in the grey

Dizziness of our townships. That we can’t meet.

OR-who hasn’t kept the promise. (Gwala, 2000)

In 2006, Gwala was invited and attended the Poetry Africa Festival in Durban. In an interview he mentioned that returning to South Africa was a bit startling as the country was a different place, without the same space for him or his writing.

Gwala passed away on September 7, 2014.

This article was written by Elizabeth Hudler and forms part of the SAHO Public History Internship


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