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Soweto Poetry 2007 - Introduction

 

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Soweto poetry began appearing in the mid-1960s mainly in the Johannesburg-based literary magazine The Classic, and has continued to reflect an increasing post-Sharpeville racial polarization in South Africa. The work of poets such as Oswald Mtshali, Mongane Serote, Sipho Sepamla and Mafika Gwala took its impetus initially from South African student (SASO) Black Consciousness reactions to apartheid legislation, and subsequently from the 1976 Soweto disturbances. Theirs is a poetry which has been instrumental not only in re-establishing a vital tradition of black writing in South Africa, but also in prompting serious, often uncomfortable, re-examination by writers and critics alike on the function of, and the appropriate responses to, literature in a racially turbulent society. This collection of essays, interviews and reviews defines Soweto poetry as the single most important socio-literary phenomenon of the seventies in South Africa, provides a background against which this poetry may be seen, and traces its development to date.

The writing with which this collection is concerned goes by different names. It has been called Post-Sharpeville poetry, township poetry, the New Black Poetry of the Seventies, Participatory poetry and People's poetry, as well as Soweto Poetry. These labels all have a certain fitness. Soweto poetry, however, does seem the most satisfactory term for a distinct genre which emerged after the almost total proscription in the sixties of a previous generation of black South African literature. This earlier writing included the racy Sophiatown prose of the fifties, as well as the poetry of Mazisi Kunene, Keorapetse Kgositsile and Dennis Brutus. Soweto poetry, in the first work of Casey Motsisi, Njabulo Ndebele, Mtshali, Serote and Gwala, concentrated on the immediacy of day-to-day township life, particularly in Soweto itself. And Soweto, as a social and metaphysical entity, has continued to provide the stimulus for a poetry which has generally adopted a stark English idiom and a ghetto-derived imagery, and which has eschewed rhyme and closed forms in favour of open or ‘naked' forms. These stylistic features have proved to be utterly appropriate to the rigours of contemporary black South African experience.

Soweto poets do not of course all necessarily live in Soweto itself. Rather Soweto, especially since the events of 1976, has like Sharpeville before it gathered certain symbolic associations. On 21 March 1960 a Pan Africanist Congress anti-pass campaign ended in violence at Sharpeville township, while on 16 June 1976 in Soweto the immediate issue of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in black schools sparked off nation-wide racial confrontations. Fundamental to the cataclysmic events of both Sharpeville arid Soweto was the question of black rights in a repressive, white-ruled society. And the idea of Blackness is fundamental to Post-Sharpeville or, as it is here called, Soweto poetry.

Initially, Soweto poetry was directed in protest at a predominantly white ‘liberal' readership, with Mtshali's seminal collection, Sounds of a Cowhide Drum (first published in 1971), selling a record number of copies for a book of poetry within South Africa. The following lines from "Always a Suspect" are typical of Mtshali's early work:

I trudge the city pavements

side by side with ‘madam'

who shifts her handbag

from my side to the other.

 
Here the irony obviously depends upon a perceived discrepancy between commonly accepted notions of human dignity and the peculiar indignities daily heaped on blacks by the apartheid mentality. The subject matter was new at the time, but the poetic approach, including the condemnatory use of a white bourgeois background, was not unfamiliar to Western readers.

By the mid-seventies, however, the emphasis had shifted with Serote's Black Consciousness voice (predictably less popular with whites) finding its full power in an uncompromising poetry of resistance. This is a mobilizing rhetoric utilizing epic forms (in a highly contemporary, almost Brechtian sense) and traditional African oral techniques of repetition, parallelism and ideophones. By these means the poet seeks to impart to a black communal audience, often in a context of performance, a message of consciousness-raising and race pride:

 
i am the man you will never defeat

i will be the one to plague you

your children are cursed

if you walk this earth, where i too walk

and you tear my clothes and reach for my flesh

and you tear my flesh to reach my blood

and you spill my blood to reach my bones

and you smash my bones and hope for my soul

.......

i am the man you will never defeat

i will be your shadow, to be with you always

and one day

when the sun rises

the shadows will move.

 
After Serote's first two collections, Yakhal'inkomo (1972) and Tsetlo (1974), had presented the graphic horrors of township life, lines like the above from the sixty- page No Baby Must Weep (1975) signalled the way for such prophetic voices of apocalypse as we encounter in Gwala's Jol'iinkomoBehold Mama, Flowers (1978), Ingoapele Madingoane's Africa my Beginning (1979), Christopher van Wyk's It is Time to Go Home (1979), Fhazel Johennesse's The Rainmaker (1979) and, most recently, Mtshali's Fireflames (1980). (1977), Serote's

Soweto poetry has, then, during the course of the seventies, more and more presented a distinctly black-orientated vision; and as the poetry has moved in that direction, so the poets themselves have tended to revert to their ancestral or original African names. Oswald Joseph Mtshali ceased using the name Joseph in favour of Mbuyiseni; Mongane Wally Serote today rarely uses his English middle name, while Sydney Sipho Sepamla and Mafika Pascal Gwala now sign themselves simply Sipho Sepamla and Mafika Gwala respectively. Even the writer and critic Ezekiel Mphahlele has, since his return to South Africa in 1979, taken to preferring the Ndebele form of his first name, Es'kia.

It is precisely this emphasis on Blackness that most strikingly distinguishes Soweto poetry of the seventies from the black South African writing which
immediately preceded it. Broadly speaking, black writers of the fifties and early sixties, operating in a post-war climate of English-speaking South African intellectual liberal humanism, offered a liberal-inspired literature which tended to straddle Western and African philosophical and literary models. This is true of the romantic-symbolist poetry of writers-in-exile like Brutus and Arthur Nortje, as well as of Sophiatown writers such as Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi and Nat Nakasa.

By contrast, Soweto poetry has made its rejection of Western literary and cultural continuities almost a moral and stylistic imperative. Acutely conscious of new beginnings, those Soweto poets who have taken the trouble to hunt up fugitive copies of Sophiatown writing, or of, say, the work of Alex la Guma or Brutus, have felt this work to be somewhat ‘dated' (evidently this applies even to Mazisi Kunene, who markedly explores African tradition). Ironically, what does seem to ‘date' most black South African writing prior to Soweto poetry is its very ability to draw extensively on received English literary and linguistic conventions. Such verbal resources have almost not survived the kind of education made available to blacks particularly over the last twenty-five years. During this time, numbers attending school have admittedly increased proportionately, but the State has continued to tie expenditure on black education to the lower incomes of the black community. In addition, private black schools have definitely been discouraged, while since 1953 there has been implemented a programme of Bantu Education.

Soweto poets are in very real ways the products of Bantu Education. This policy, under Dr H.P. Verwoerd, the then Minister of Native Affairs, introduced so-called vernacular instruction for Africans up to and including the first year of high school. The practical effects of Bantu Education have been to make it difficult for Africans to study subjects in the sciences which have not been adequately translated into the vernaculars, and to lower the standard of teaching of both official languages, English and Afrikaans (the latter has in any case been increasingly rejected by blacks themselves). As Verwoerd stated to the Senate in 1954:  "There is no place for him [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour."

As far as the Soweto poet is concerned, the eloquence of what might be called ‘pre-Bantu-Education' black writing (an eloquence often nurtured by mission or church schools) is felt to be a self-consciously ‘artistic' eloquence. The eloquence of Soweto poetry, on the other hand, is felt to be the eloquence of the streets. The Soweto poet does not so much regard himself as an individualized poetic consciousness, but simply as social man: homo sociologicus. To be a Soweto poet, whether one lives in Soweto or in any of the other large townships, is to be involved first-hand in a People's Struggle. And Soweto itself stands as the metaphor of this new post-Sharpeville mood.

That Soweto poetry's black assertiveness has jolted, and continues to jolt, a complacent South African literary scene is, to say the least, an understatement. Certainly publishers of enterprise and vision such as Lionel Abrahams had foreseen the direction South African literature and thought were taking when his Renoster Books published its first book, Mtshali's Sounds of a Cowhide Drum, in 1971. But when Robert Royston, employed at the time by a British publishing subsidiary in South Africa, presented to his own company a collection of ‘new black South African poetry', the manuscript was rejected as risky and, in any case, not up to standard. Disappointed by what seemed an all too predictable response, Royston somewhat diffidently showed his manuscript to the then newly-established Ad. Donker. Like Abrahams, Donker also immediately saw the potential of a ‘new black poetry', and in 1973 published the anthology as To Whom It May Concern. This highly influential collection of black South African poetry has since been reprinted both in South Africa and abroad, and was in 1982 supplemented by the more comprehensive Voices from Within: Black Poetry from Southern Africa.

If many in South Africa were unprepared for Soweto poetry, this attitude was fortunately not shared by a number of energetic and newly-founded South African publishers who, since the early seventies, have continued to promote South African English literature. It is true that, apart from James Matthews's Blac Publishing House, these new firms are controlled by whites, and that ideally one would like to see black writing finding genuine black outlets. Nevertheless, had it not been for publishers such as Renoster Books, Ad. Donker and Ravan Press, Soweto poetry would have been condemned to appearing only in little magazines and newspapers, if at all.

Such, in fact, was the fate of many anonymous black voices of protest which, long before Soweto poetry, had as early as the 1930s and 40s begun to be heard with some persistence in black newspapers like Bantu World, Umteteli Wa Bantu and Ilanga Lase Natal. These black voices directly addressed themselves to such current issues as the ‘civilized labour' (white job reservation) policies of the thirties, the Sophiatown and other squatter movements of the forties, as well as to black nationalism's rising expectations of a new dispensation in a period of rapid industrialization after the Second World War. I have purposely drawn attention here to the existence of this early and little known black South African protest poetry written in English, for it seems to me that some understanding of this writing of the thirties and forties is important to the study of Soweto poetry. It is said, for instance, that Soweto poetry is the first specifically black-  as opposed to Western-orientated writing to have emerged in English from black South Africans. But this is not strictly true. If a politically overt Soweto poetry owes little to the more liberal-inspired black writing that immediately preceded it in the fifties, it does have fascinating affinities with a yet earlier burst of black poetic activity. Despite severely limited publishing opportunities, it was during the late 1930s that the idea of Blackness first made itself felt in South African poetry. (For surveys of early black South African poetry in English see Tim Couzens's "Politics and Black Poetry in South Africa, 1930-1950" and Michael Chapman's "The Missing Dimension in South African Literature: Protest Poetry prior to Mtshali." (Both articles are listed in the bibliography.)

This poetry of the 1930s and 40s is most significantly represented by two figures: Peter Abrahams, who is better known as a novelist, and H.I.E. Dhlomo. Abrahams's only collection of poetry to date, A Blackman Speaks of Freedom!, appeared in 1940 and Dhlomo's epic Valley of a Thousand Hills in 1941. While it is doubtful whether many writers today are particularly conversant with the poetry of either Abrahams or Dhlomo (their books of poetry are difficult to come by), it is nevertheless tempting to locate in these two writers the origins of a characteristically Soweto style. This may be sought on the one hand in Abrahams's use of a tough, Americanized diction, on the other in Dhlomo's attempts, both in his critical writings and his poetry, to adapt African traditions to modern South African racial dilemmas. In view of this, it seemed appropriate to begin the Literary Background section of the present collection with pieces by both Peter Abrahams and Dhlomo. In the extract here, Abrahams (1954) recalls how, in seeking a valid idiom of protest, he turned in the 1930s not to a British humanist literature (as would have been encouraged by his church-school education at St Peter's), but to the harsh Afro-American poetry of, amongst others, Langston Hughes. As Abrahams asserts in the poem, "Self":

I am a shadow

Restless
Roving everywhere

 I'm a bum, hungry and lonely

.......

 I'm a poet

And through hunger

And lust for love and laughter

I have turned myself into a voice,

Shouting the pain of the people

And the sunshine that is to be.

Now it is true that the occasional American echoes which one encounters today in Soweto poetry owe little to the Afro-American literary tradition of Abrahams's forebears as such; nevertheless, a rugged, Americanized diction has been readily absorbed into a literature shaped by an authentic township milieu of jazz, American B films and an international Black Power rhetoric.

In fact, the international recognizability of Soweto poetry's Black Experience - from protest to liberating vision - becomes markedly apparent in the light of Larry Neal's famous description of the new Afro-American poetry of the 1960s, a movement which, like Soweto poetry, can be distinguished by the extent of its attempts to speak directly to black people about themselves:

They are not speaking of an art that screams and masturbates before white audiences. That is the path of Negro literature and civil rights literature. No, they are not speaking about that kind of thing, even though that is what some Negro writers of the past have done. Instead, they are speaking of an art that addresses itself to Black People; an art that speaks to us in terms of our feelings and ideas about the world; an art that validates the positive aspects of our life style. Dig: An art that opens us up to the beauty and ugliness within us; that makes us understand our condition and each other in a more profound manner; that unites us, exposing us to our painful weaknesses and strengths; and, finally, an art that posits for us the Vision of a Liberated Future.

                                                                                         ("Any Day Now", 1969)

 
The post-colonial poet from black Africa, rid of the colonizer yet maintaining close links with European formal education systems, has tended to devote a great deal of his time to expressing personal responses to experience. Both the black South African poet and his Afro-American counterpart, on the other hand, continually threatened by the proximity of a white culture, have increasingly felt the need to vindicate their Blackness. As Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) says:  "The Black Artist's role in America is to aid the destruction of America as he knows it ... black art/s we make in the black labs of the heart" ("State/Meant", 1965). This kinship between the South African and American black was something which Abrahams had evidently already sensed in the 1930s.

If Abrahams anticipated Soweto poetry in the important respect of presenting
himself, bare of literary adornment, as a people's poet', then Dhlomo can be seen
as the other formative figure. In articles such as "Zulu Folk Poetry" (1948), reproduced
here, Dhlomo had already set out many of the aesthetic principles which
Soweto poets, quite independently, would find conducive. Though his own Valley
of a Thousand Hills never did fully shed its reliance on an outmoded English
poetic diction,

Here Nkosazana, goddess bright of Light,

Prosperity, Child-birth, and Justice, lived.

'Twas she when tyrant kings with blood reigned harsh,

Rose earthward the afflicted and oppressed

To liberate or soothe and shield from tears,


Dhlomo - like Abrahams -continued to emphasize, in his critical essays, the need
for the black South African poet to adopt literary forms suited specifically to black
socio-political circumstances. Reacting against what he saw as an aggressive white
materialism, as well as against an English-speaking liberal hypocrisy, Dhlomo
embraced a black nationalist ideal and a communal ethic. Seeking inspiration in
traditional African social and literary structures, he eschewed a Western-inspired
individualism and analytic modes in favour of ‘rhythm', synthesis, which is
central to the African concept of the unity of being: "True tradition is rooted in the
past, lives and speaks in the present, visualizes and inhales the future." This sort
of comment had been made by Dhlomo at much the same time as Leopold Senghor
in Paris was presenting ‘rhythm' and the idea of collective, rather than personal,
experience as the essence of Negritude. Further, Dhlomo's belief that rhythm and
collectivism are the African's unique contribution to the ideal of a humane civilization
would apply perfectly to recent Soweto poems such as Madingoane's
"black trial." As far as Dhlomo was concerned, the black poet's function was not a
Western-type exploration of the isolated consciousness, but the depiction of social
oppression and evolution: he was attempting to create an historically-conditioned
poetry with a social base. As had been the case in traditional African societies,
poetry was to be seen not so much in autotelic as in utilitarian terms.

As "Zulu Folk Poetry" indicates, Dhlomo obviously held strong views on the
crucial question of the validity for the black writer of Western literary assumptions.
This issue, however, so central to Soweto poetry as well, was one about
which Sophiatown writers such as Mphahlele and Nakasa, who immediately
followed Dhlomo, as well as poets such as Brutus and Nortje, were to remain
curiously ambivalent. In the interview, "The Early Years", for example, Mphahlele,
in re-creating the flamboyant ambience of Drum magazine in the fifties, talks
of Sophiatown literature's "proletarian" roots; but, as his remarks imply, it is a
"proletarian" literature written in highly ‘proficient' English that is evidently
hankered after. And this would be in keeping with Sophiatown's conception of
life and art: one which attempted to seek value both in the location shebeen and
the Houghton soiree. Unlike Soweto, Sophiatown was not so much about a ‘proletarian'
group interest as about a sense of daring individualism, whether of person,
incident or literary style.

Nakasa in "Writing in South Africa Today" (1963) offers a further perspective on
attitudes to art and society which were prevalent before the demise, around the time of Sharpeville, of South African post-war liberal ideals. Like many of the
Sophiatown writers, Nakasa obviously experienced genuine difficulties in attempting
to accommodate both African-directed notions of literature's community
function and liberal notions of art's universalizing powers. Having far closer links
with white intellectual circles than Soweto poets were to have, he finally called
for the ideal of a common, as opposed to a specifically black, experience. And it is
such sentiments which, ten years later in "The Nakasa World" (1973), would
provoke Serote's tart rejoinder with its implications for an uncompromising Soweto
poetry: "[Nat] saw white liberals as perfect." (For further information on
Sophiatown literature see Jane Grant's "Silenced Generation" and Nick Visser's
"The Renaissance that Failed", both of which are also listed in the bibliography.)

It is thus the philosophical and literary considerations of a Dhlomo, more so
than of Sophiatown, which have found closest affinities with black South African
writing of the seventies. In fact, Dhlomo's pronouncements on the task of the black
artist would not be out of place in recent articles inspired by Soweto poetry, such
as David Maughan Brown's "Black Criticism and Black Aesthetics" or Mafika
Gwala's "Black Writing Today", both of 1979. In summariziug a heated debate
prompted during the seventies by Soweto poetry and its status as art, Maughan
Brown highlights the fact that Dhlomo was in many respects a voice in a wilderness,
his plea that poetry reflecting the Black Experience be judged in its own
terms having been ignored by successive generations of South African commentators,
both black and white. (A notable exception here was Jordan K. Ngubane who,
in the 1940s, had perceived that different criteria might appropriately be applied
to evaluate protest writing: "what is effective is good style for protest poetry" -
Ilange Lase Natal, 26 April, 1941.)

Whereas Dhlomo, in the forties, had at times felt the need to adopt an almost
apologetic tone, quaintly seeking justification in standard British literary models
for his then ‘revolutionary' views on African aesthetics, Gwala in both "Letter to
Richard Rive" (1971) and "Black Writing Today" speaks out boldly for ‘black
standards' and for a ‘conscientizing' literature. This later commentator is able to
draw confidently on a prevailing philosophy of Black Consciousness, a philosophy
which by the early seventies had won widespread acceptance among South
African urban blacks and particularly among the youth.

The South African black youth was left without political organizations after the
bannings at the time of Sharpeville, particularly of the African National Congress
and the Pan Africanist Congress. As a result, there has since been a tendency to seek
an ideological framework in Afro-American Black Power politics of the sixties (see
Peter Horn's "When it Rains, it Rains"). Black Consciousness, taking its impetus
from the Black Power movement and its extension in the Afro-American Black
Arts movement, was tellingly disseminated before their bannings or exile by
student spokesmen such as Steve Biko, Nyameko Pityana and Onkgopotse Tiro.
Further, this New Black Awareness was the motivating force behind a number of
important conferences held during the seventies, such as the SASO Conference on
Creativity and Black Development (1972), the Black Peoples Convention (1972)
and the Edendale Black Theology Conference (1973). Significantly, the philosophy
of Black Consciousness informs Soweto poetry in a fundamental way.

Briefly, Black Consciousness, to quote Allan Boesak's study, A Farewell to
Innocence (1976), is "an awareness by black people that their humanity is constituted by their blackness .... It is a determination to be judged no longer by white values, and it signifies a re-discovery of their history and culture." These concepts are basic to an understanding of Soweto poetry which - like Black Consciousness - usually involves a process of self-definition. Increasingly this poetry has begun to operate not only as a critique on oppressive systems, but - like Black Power - as a weapon of transformation. Like Black Theology, it seeks value in black community and in acts of social and psychological liberation. Soweto poets, not belonging to the sort of pre-Verwoerdian black intellectual elites that previous generations of black South African writers often belonged to, have made total their rejection of those petit-bourgeois expectations that have in any case been legislated further and further beyond their reach. Instead, and in keeping with Black Theology's social ethic, they have attempted to re-introduce an African humanism which has particularly made itself felt in a reverence for family and in the enunciation of principles of communalism. It is worth noting, incidentally, that the popular socio-literary magazine Staffrider, which more than any other has tapped the energies released by events in Soweto since 1976, has attempted to adapt both its editorial and distribution policies to the realities of black community existence (see in the coming pages, "Staffrider; An Informal Discussion").

The motto of Black Consciousness (Blackman, you are on your own) aptly captures the spirit of Soweto poetry as well. Moreover, a Black Consciousness insistence that ‘black' applies not solely to Africans but to all the oppressed of South Africa is demonstrated by the fact that a Soweto stylistic sensibility is to be found not only in the work of African writers, but also in that of coloureds such as Matthews, Van Wyk and Johennesse and in that of the Indian South African, Essop Patel. On the other hand, the term ‘Soweto Poet' or even ‘black poet', which has almost come to designate something more than simply skin colour, cannot quite so easily be applied to the coloured Jennifer Davids or to the Indian, Shabbir Banoobhai. The poetic range of both these writers, while it certainly incorporates areas of peculiarly South African Black Experience, constantly extends to most general themes.

Finally, in Soweto poetry we encounter what Bennie Khoapa, taking his lead from SASO, terms ‘The New Black'; "the mind of the new black is liberated from the patterns of a society built on the alleged aesthetic, moral and intellectual superiority of the white man" ("The New Black", 1972). Further manifestations of such a New Black Awareness are to be found in Bob Leshoai's "Traditional African Poets as Historians" (1979) and in Miriam Tlali's "In Search of Books" (1980); both of these articles express their authors' dissatisfactions with Europeanized educational and literary studies. Thami Mnyele in "A New Day" (1980) offers a parallel New Black perspective on the visual arts. (For New Black perspectives on the theatre and on fiction see Benjy Francis's "At this Stage", Mshengu's "After Soweto: People's Theatre and the Political Struggle in South Africa", and Mothobi Mutloatse's Introduction to Forced Landing.)

The intellectual and literary background to Soweto poetry, then, emphasizes a radically altered sense of reality in South Africa since Sharpeville. A failure of post-war ideals of gradualism, a rejection by blacks of the more patronizing forms of English-speaking South African liberalism, an acceptance instead of their group identity, of the importance of power and of the value of a literature of commitment, the central metaphor of which is change - these are the salient features of a poetry which, during the 1970s, has vigorously insisted on its own terms of reference.

Of course, Soweto poets do not, whether they like it or not, have quite the same problem earlier South African English writers had of having to confront Eurocentric literary influences which were often debilitating because unapt under the circumstances. As I have suggested, this, ironically, is largely because over twenty years of Bantu Education has virtually robbed the present-day black generation of a facility in the English language, and as a result in English, including Afro-English, literary traditions. (In addition, many works by black writers, which might have offered relevant examples, are currently banned in South Africa.) Yet, despite this, the creative imagination - as it has always done - has turned obstacles to its own advantage. In the case of Soweto poetry, it has forged a literary sensibility self-assertively and excitingly free of any obviously imported models.

Soweto poetry has not so much created its own dialect, but has in today's world favoured a colloquial English as a serviceable means of communication, one which, unlike Afrikaans, cannot so easily be emotively labelled the ‘language of
the oppressor'. It is an English whose fairly restricted verbal range is strangely suited to kinds of experience, intense but narrow. Unusual phonological features include Americanisms, jazz refrains and allusions, as well as a hyperbolic ‘boasting' imagery and a use of naming such as are found, too, in traditional praise poetry. There are also some experiments with tsotsi patois, adaptations of work songs and poems which contain sprinklings of the so-called vernacular (the latter signifying either a poet's means of remaining acceptable to ‘the people', or a fugitive attempt to evade censorship).

At the more elementary level, Soweto poetry's distinctiveness is to be located in the powerfully direct use of largely unexplored subject matter, as well as in peculiarly ‘Third World' modes of perception. The poems generally focus on a bizarre, semi-twilight existence, whose distorted shapes defiantly shout their condemnation of a racially neurotic society. The dongas of the ghetto streets are as much psychological as social scars, while night - a time of violence and fear - may with a sort of terrifying logic also be seen as a time of black truth: an inversion of a white literary and moral stereotype. The new martyrs are Mandela, Sobukwe, Tiro, Biko and Hector Peterson, while the immediate paraphernalia of oppression (bulldozers razing shacks, for example, and so dictating mechanical policies of ‘resettlement') are often mythologized into the demon-types of a contemporary South African landscape. A black child's ‘imaginative kingdom' may frighteningly present itself as a township of wrecked cars, hovels, scavenging dogs and siren screams. By contrast, the traditionally Western-romantic metaphors of river and sea have, particularly in Serote's later poetry, been adapted to new social ends: symbolizing (as do Pablo Neruda's railway lines) the linear thrust, man finally breaking free of structures which have hemmed him in.

As these few observations suggest, Soweto poetry does not display a sameness in its treatment of subject matter. And the Reviews section of this book should further indicate that the most significant work, while taking its larger unity from a common consciousness of being black under a system of institutionalized discrimination, has shown considerable internal variety. Alongside the utter contemporaneity of a poem such as Mtshali's "The Detribalized", which employs the device of naming in order to satirize the pretensions of the black nouveux riches, one finds Madingoane's highly contemporary use, in "black trial", of an African past to survey the present. Alongside Serote's surrealistic depictions of city life, one finds that same poet's intensely lyrical paeans to Black Motherhood. Alongside Sepamla's ironic use of Bantu Administration officialese, one hears his exploitation of an energetic tsotsi dialect. Gwala is capable of shifting from Afro-American jazz rhythms to tender insights into family life, while Van Wyk is equally at home with cumulative revolutionary rhythms as with permuted Concrete poetry.

Moreover, not only do Soweto poets make individual use of a collective material, but (as the Views/Interviews section shows) these poets' ideological and literary viewpoints are not always identical in every respect. A poet such as Sepamla, who is somewhat older than most Soweto poets, would tend to place a greater value on the element of artistic autonomy than would Gwala, while poets such as Van Wyk and Johennesse are prepared to sanction a wider range of artistic experimentation than is someone like Matthews. Yet, even within the single poet, there are at times interesting contradictions. Matthews, for instance, regards himself as a direct recorder of the "anguish of the persecuted", all artistic embellishment being a bourgeois luxury; however, in his Foreword to Patel's collection, They Came at Dawn (1980), he takes trouble to comment favourably on the latter poet's "art": "But few of those [poets] ... show sensitivity coupled with creativity and technique to make simple words sound new as Essop Patel does when he describes the injustices under which the black man lives. With others, the injustices become clichés that should be strung on a pamphlet and the writer reveals himself as a pamphleteer and not a poet." What does emerge persistently from these interviews and statements is not simply a call for ‘relevance' at the expense of ‘art', as some commentators and indeed some writers in the heat of the moment have claimed, but for a reversal of an orthodox Western hierarchy of literary functions - for a poetry in which the history of ideas will have legitimate dominance over, but not be exclusive of, a history of literary forms.

The problem of how to approach Soweto poetry, and of its status as literature, is also central to the last section of this book, which takes the form of a critical symposium. In her pioneering essay, "New Black Poetry in South Africa" (which is conveniently available in The Black Interpreters), Nadine Gordimer identified a number of recurrent post-Sharpeville themes, such as the crisis of African and Western values, the clash of the rural and the urban, and the rejection by blacks of colonial distortions and stereotypes. She also raised the question of why post-Sharpeville writers should have turned to poetry rather than to prose. Finally, she predicted the later, more extreme direction black poetry was to take by already identifying in Cry Rage! (1972) Matthews's manifesto of the "black ethos as challenger" rather than as challenged. These issues are taken up and developed by a number of the commentators gathered here.

In the first of these pieces, "Black Experience into English Verse" of 1970, Lionel Abrahams had, prior to the appearance of Gordimer's "New Black Poetry" essay, located among poems in The Classic
similarly called for an "art of the unattractive"). But at the same time Manganyi,
quoting Mphahlele in support of his own views, regrets that Soweto poets, in
capturing the "agony of the moment", have too often sacrificed resonance, a
mythic dimension and the "historical sense." what has since come to be thought of as a peculiarly Soweto style. And Kelwyn Sole in "Changing Literary Activity in Black South Africa, Pre- and Post-Sharpeville" expands on the attempts by Abrahams to define a distinctive post-Sharpeville genre. Like Gordimer, Chabani Manganyi in "The Censored Imagination" directs himself to the reasons for a post-Sharpeville poetry rather than a prose revival (there have, incidentally, been recent signs of the latter as well), and observes that poetic and dramatic forms appear to be the most appropriate media for creative individuals in the grip of an "experiential overload." This is a remark remiscent of Mtshali's that the black man's life under apartheid is "endlessly a series of poems of humour, bitterness, hatred, love, hope, despair and death" ("Black Poetry in Southern Africa: What It Means"). Examining some of the effects of a censorious system on the creative imagination, Manganyi concludes that as far as the contemporary South African writer is concerned, the "unified image" sanctioned by literary tradition is an unforgivable indulgence (Gwala in "Towards a National Theatre" (1973) had

While not always agreeing with Manganyi or Mphahlele that an historical sense
is necessarily a prerequisite for good literature, other critics have from the beginning
found archetypal resonances in Soweto poetry. Initially, they have pointed to
poems such as Mtshali's "An Abandoned Bundle" in which the "agony of the
moment" (an infant dumped on a rubbish heap) is bitterly offset against a traditional
Christian allusion ("Oh! Baby in the Manger / sleep well / on human dung").
More recently, the archetypal resonances have become specifically African in
epics such as Serote's Behold Mama, Flowers and Johennesse's The Rainmaker.
So swift have been developments in Soweto poetry that Mphahlele himself has,
within a short space of time, had to modify his own views about a lack of historical
perspective in contemporary black South African writing. And it is interesting to
compare his remarks on this subject made to Manganyi with those contained in
his review of Mtshali's Fireflames of 1980.

In fact, Mphahlele's Fireflames review, taken together with Jean Marquard's
review of Mtshali's Sounds of a Cowhide Drum of 1971 and with Njabulo Ndebele's
discussion of the same of 1973, provides a useful summary of the broader
shifts of emphasis which have generally informed critical responses to black
poetry of the seventies. Marquard, adopting at the time an orthodox liberal humanist
stance, identifies as a key strength of Sounds of a Cowhide Drum its
striking observations of township existence; and behind this assessment lies the
classic Western assumption that the artist is an ‘interpreter' of a pre-existent
reality - a standpoint which has been increasingly rejected by black writers and
critics alike. Ndebele's views in 1973, for instance, were already at variance with
the generally favourable, some would say adulatory, white reaction to Sounds of a
Cowhide Drum
. In "Artistic and Political Mirage" he acknowledges the graphic
quality of Mtshali's descriptions, but notes as a serious limitation that poet's
apparent unwillingness to confront the fact of a reality which, far from being
monistic, is definitely alterable by man's social actions.

Likewise, behind Mphahlele's Fireflames review lies the assumption that the
responsibility of the black poet in South Africa today is to accept the implications
of an historically-conditioned rather than an eternal nature, and thus to prophesy
change. Whereas the early Mtshali may be described in humanist terms as an
‘interpreter', the later Mtshaii (according to Mphahlele) may best be described as
having assumed a "hard apocalyptic tone." The voice of Fireflames brings the full
weight of African experience (the historical sense) to bear on the present at the same time as it expresses bravely, without the devious twists of irony, a vision of a revolutionary future. Whereas early Soweto poetry had taken as its highest ideal that Western one of justice, the later poetry, especially that which has appeared since the events of 1976, has rediscovered the highest of African ideals: heroism. Serote, Mtshali, Gwala, as well as many poets writing in Staffrider magazine, have begun to focus not so much backwards on a bare Soweto existence as forward to a ‘pre-Azanian' phase of South African history, one wherein the construct of the ‘people', including the participatory ideals of black community, has increasingly begun to function as an inspirational myth.

As interesting as this may be from a purely sociological point of view, however, critics such as Mphahlele have still been determined to see Soweto poetry primarily as imaginative literature. Similarly, Mandlenkosi Langa, in his review-article on Serote's No Baby Must Weep, is concerned not only with the significance of that poem's "apocalyptic vision", but also with its intrinsic literary qualities, its lyricism, its evocative powers and its memorable use of language: "Serote is one of the few black poets of note who has managed to gain prominence ... without riding a bandwagon screaming Black Power." Langa's enthusiastic response to No Baby Must Weep - a response bold in its value judgments - is a particularly striking instance of the black critic's readiness to discard a Western critical ‘disinterestedness.' And from this point of view his article provides a fascinating contrast to Colin Gardner's "Mongane Serote's ‘City Johannesburg'." This latter piece is far less confident of making pronouncements of value, but rather stands back cautiously testing different critical approaches to the same poem, from classic practical criticism through to a ‘materialistic' reading.
Further perspectives on Soweto poetry are offered by Mbulelo Mzamane ("Literature and Politics among Blacks in South Africa") and by Peter Horn, whose article, "When it Rains, it Rains", I have already mentioned. Both of these critics argue for an almost exclusively ‘sociological' response. A counter is provided here by Douglas Livingstone who, in "The Poetry of Mtshali, Serote, Sepamla and Others in English: Notes towards a Critical Evaluation", subjects the work of these writers to a formalist critique. Tony Emmett, on the other hand, raises important questions in "Oral, Political and Communal Aspects of Township Poetry in the Mid-Seventies" about the necessity of our understanding a poem's context of performance. The concept of poetry turned theatre is here felt to contain important implications for those modern poets who genuinely desire to reach a mass audience. (This is what Neal, talking of contemporary Afro-American poetry, has called the "destruction of the text": the elevation of oral and musical improvisation above a Western, Platonic sense of Ideal Form.)

Taking up the question of performance, C.T. Msimang in "Ingoapele Madingoane's ‘black trial': A Contemporary Black Epic" indicates Madingoane's attempts to synthesize traditional-oral and contemporary-written forms. In the course of arguing for a knowledge on the part of the critic of African tradition, Msimang suggests provocatively that ‘sympathetic' commentators today are often too eager to justify meagre texts on the grounds of their being meant for oral delivery. He further maintains that those poets who regard themselves in the first instance as oral performers have inevitably compromised their positions by agreeing to appear in print with all its conventions, particularly its tendency to separate semantic and verbal content from sight and sound.

Finally, in contrast to a critic such as Livingstone who values the ‘defamlliarizing' properties of poetry, Gareth Cornwell in "James Matthews' ‘Protest Songs':
The Problem of Evaluation" is prepared to accept that poetry which primarily seeks to ‘conscientize' a mass audience must, above all, ‘make familiar,' However, in accepting a one-to-one relationship between protest poetry and topical events, Cornwell asks the crucial question: what if a poem, while eloquently rhetorical, nevertheless simplifies the complexities of action and struggle and issues forth as mere revolutionary romanticism? This is of course an obvious temptation for the black poet writing in an emotively-charged contemporary South African situation, And it will probably be by the very quality of its dialectical exploration, by its fidelity to the full weight and depth of the Black Experience, that the black community now and in the future will ultimately judge the value of Soweto poetry. In this regard Stephen Henderson's comments on criteria appropriate to contemporary Afro-American poetry are pertinent to Soweto poetry as well: "For Blacks the celebration of Blackness is an undertaking which makes value judgments" (Understanding the New Black Poetry, 1973).

In spite of this justifiable elevation of the ‘sociological' over the ‘literary', Henderson's remarks do insist that the two are not really separable; that black poetry is concerned not simply with black truth, but with the impact of that truth - something which presupposes the poet's special skill with words. Similarly, whatever we might hear about the functional immediacy, or even the disposability, of political verse, it is a measure of Soweto poetry's disturbingly forceful expressiveness that it has, almost despite itself, already managed to insist on its significance not only as sociological utterance, but also as imaginative literature in its own right. It therefore seemed worth concluding the Symposium here with Clive Wake's "Poetry 0f the Last Five Years" (1980), which attempts some assessment of the achievement of Soweto poetry in relation both to contemporary white South African poetry and to contemporary African poetry in general.

If Soweto poetry is regarded with some trepidation by the South African authorities as a potential instrument of social change (witness, for instance, the bannings of individual collections by Matthews, Sepamla, Madingoane and Mtshali, of single issues of Staffrider and of writers groups like Medupe), then Soweto poetry has no less proved to be a dynamic instrument of literary change. It is a poetry which over the last ten years has boldly taken a Eurocentric South African Literary Establishment by the scruff of the neck and dragged it into an arena robustly and challengingly South African.
The present collection of essays seeks to record and to convey something of this vitality.

 
Michael Chapman

1982
 

McGraw-Hill Book Company

1982 

ISBN 0 07 450634 X (series number)

ISBN 0 07 450614 5 (hard cover)

    ISBN 0 07 450632 3 (soft cover)

 
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