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
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
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,
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
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
headland as the giant Adamastor, who warned the Portuguese mariners
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
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,
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
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
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
definitions of identity; there is the temptation, however, to evade
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.
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.
University of Natal,