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Ngema and Campbell: Two Voices from Durban
Ngema and Campbell: Two Voices from Durban

[Sunday Tribune 14 July 2002]

Why should Mbongemi Ngema remind me of Roy Campbell?  Ngema's anti-Indian song, 'AmaNdiya', is certainly in the news.  Campbell is also on my mind, this year being the 100th anniversary of his birth.  Like Ngema, Campbell said some outrageous things.  Like Ngema, he claimed artistic licence for his opinions, even his prejudices.  If Durban for Ngema is a place where Indian South Africans shamelessly exploit African South Africans, Durban for Campbell was, unflatteringly, a grocer's paradise, its dullness relieved only by the inexplicable fact of his birth in the backwater.


There are sharp differences, however, between Ngema and Campbell.  In his youth Campbell was eager to attack colonial bigotry and, in his middle age, to regard communism as thuggery and lies.  But he never suggested that one race group avenge itself on another race group.  He actually despised group identification, or the 'herd instinct'.  He did in his poem 'Rounding the Cape' invoke the spirit of the Cape of Storms, Adamastor ('Night, the Negro'), to rain down destruction on colonial exploitation.  But his language is symbolic, his vision archetypal.  The artist in Campbell does not ¾ as Ngema proclaims ¾ simply repeat the loose talk of the shebeen or the taxi rank.  Instead, the artist tries to deepen insight, open new vistas of understanding, and shape moments of order amid the flux of experience.  Ngema's song would not pass Campbell's test of art.


This isn't to say that art should be politically correct.  Campbell took pride in being politically incorrect.  As a youngster in his early twenties, he insulted colonial South Africa including General Smuts.  After exiling himself first to England, then to Mediterranean Spain and Portugal, he insulted prevailing British literary fashions (Georgian hedgerow verse and Bloomsbury fartists).  He was among the first to recognise the innovation of T S Eliot's The Waste Land: a poem that he interpreted as the harsh eye of youth piercing the cant and calumny of 1920 Europe.  When the literary Left embraced Marxism, Campbell turned to the Catholic Church, to the bull fighters and horse riders of Spanish tradition, and to the essence of Lorca's poetry.


Shortly before his death in a motor accident in Portugal in 1957, Campbell flirted with the possibility of apartheid's providing opportunity for the regeneration of what he called the Bantu cultures of South Africa.  This should surely condemn him in our time.  But his reasoning ¾ if peculiar ¾ is at least governed by the life instinct, not the death instinct.  Zulu culture turned savage ¾ he believed ¾ because it sacrificed its heroic clarity to the omnipotence of chiefs and the manipulation of superstition.  European culture turned savage ¾ he believed ¾ because it sacrificed its heroic clarity to the befuddlement of Freud, Marx, and other false prophets.


What should be done?  Campbell, who loathed politics as susceptible to illusions and delusions, found kinship in a poetic universe.  But a universe scarred by hardship and struggle.  Sent after injury in the Second World War to guard an isolated promontory off the Mombasa Coast ¾ to keep an eye out for enemy submarines! ¾ he recollects the tribulations of an earlier soldier-poet who occupied the very same spot.  In evoking Da Gama's voyage around the Cape of Good Hope, the Portuguese Renaissance poet Luis de Camoĕs had originally anthropomorphised the Cape headland as the giant Adamastor, who warned the Portuguese mariners that their sons (the sons of Lusus) would never conquer Africa.  The point ultimately, however, is not about division, but about dignity.


Sitting on his isolated spot with a squad of Askaris of the King's African Rifles, Campbell seeks camaraderie.  The picture he carried with him, he said, was not that of the dreary landscape and ocean, but that of a black soldier, off duty, sitting and teaching the alphabet to some ex-nomad or hunter from the surrounding jungle.  For his own part Campbell ¾ one of the finest translators of French, Spanish and Portuguese poetry ¾ translated Camoĕs's lament songs including his description of the lonely coast:


There is a mountain, sterile, stark and dry,

Useless, hideous, bare and bald,

From whose cursed precincts nature shrinks appalled...


The impulse is what Ernst Fischer describes as the necessity of art: a magic that allows us today still to be moved by cave paintings or ancient songs.  It involves the yearning to unite our limited, individual beings to the possibility of a larger, more generous life; to avoid our mean, everyday thoughts or actions, and instead to oblige our mind, our imagination, to travel to where it need not degrade itself.


This is not the arena of political demagoguery.  I shall not apologise for Campbell's many crass utterances.  These wither away.  It is his nobler side that survives.  Similarly, we should not grant Ngema's anti-Indian song the importance of prolonged debate.  The greater, more generous character of South Africa's citizenry ¾ its desire for enhancement ¾ will condemn and bury the lyrics.  What we should note, nonetheless, is the fragility of the here and now. 


Robbed of the sweep that gave force and coherence to his play and film, Sarafina ¾ the sweep of liberation against oppression ¾ Ngema betrays a current difficulty in our society.  There is the need for new, complex definitions of identity; there is the temptation, however, to evade complexity and promote the bankruptcy of blame.  Accordingly, we have resentment at the so-called ‘Xhosa Nostra' in government, nasty displays of xenophobia, and now an anti-Indian song.


Whatever Campbell's muddled thoughts on apartheid as rejuvenating identities, such sentiments do not enter his poetry.  Rather, his poetry celebrates its ethics as bound to the idea of freedom.  His words achieve artistic autonomy above and slightly outside the speech of every day, but only so as to act in accordance with widely shared principles of respect towards other people.


On the hundredth anniversary of his birth, Roy Campbell ¾ an unlikely champion of human dignity ¾ might suggest to Mbongeni Ngema a return not to political correctness, but to the challenge of art.

Michael Chapman

Professor of English

University of Natal, Durban


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