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Soweto Poetry 2007 - Preface


Soweto Poetry with identical content to this reprint first appeared in 1982.  The only addition here is the Preface;  the only modification, the subtitle Perspectives which wishes to clarify that what is offered is not an anthology of poetry, but an anthology of views, interviews, reviews, articles and bibliographical reference.

            The aim, close to the temper of the 1970s, was to understand and appreciate a burst of creative energy in the voices of the New Black Poetry, or Soweto poetry.  The aim of this reprint - 25 years later - is to acknowledge the enduring significance of Soweto poetry, the definitional term of which is discussed in the Introduction.

            Soweto poetry tapped the imagination, ideas and issues of a Black Consciousness challenge to the apartheid police state.  The expression presaged Soweto '76 in predicting the demise of a racially oppressive system and the hope of a future in a new South Africa, or, as BC phrased it, a free Azania.

            The idiom captures the revolutionary idealism of the times.  As editor of the original Soweto Poetry, I concluded my Introduction:  "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."

            Such was my own idealism.  A revision of my Introduction might have tempted me to revise my language.  But not my judgment.  Soweto poetry signalled not only political change.  It signalled also a global movement in poetry: a movement initiated in both the South and alternative spaces of the North.  In the North, reaction against the densely layered texts, the print-bound allusions, of the modernists saw, in the US, the projective, open-field expression of the Beat generation;  in Britain, the calypso rhythms of Linton Kwesi Johnson.  In South Africa Soweto poetry parallels Paula Barnett's identification of Caribbean poetry:  a poetry about the process of growth despite a history of exploitation;  of turning negative images to gain;  a gritty celebration of survival;  an injection of ethical power to the word;  a discovery of the oral voice, of a poetic language that can communicate not just with an elite, but with the majority of people (The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse in English, 1986: xxiii-lxiv).

            Soweto poetry has superseded its immediate political purpose to enter the literary life.  Mongane Serote, Mbuyiseni Mtshali, Sipho Sepamla, Mafika Gwala - the names appear on school and university syllabuses of new South Africans.  The volumes, including Sounds of a Cowhide Drum and Yakhal'inkomo, probably did take a backward-looking Establishment by the scruff of the neck.  To appreciate Serote's "City Johannesburg", for example, invokes an innovative aesthetic:

This way I salute you:

My hand pulses to my back trousers pocket

Or into my inner jacket pocket

For my pass, my life,

Jo'burg City.

My hand like a starved snake rears my pockets

For my thin, ever lean wallet...

 While pass laws have been revoked the "thin, ever lean wallet" remains for many a mark of tough urban living.  Without minimising a striking print-bound imagism the poem seeks power in oral expansions and contractions of the line as breath-unit.  It combines its visual imagery with repetitions, parallelisms and a refrain all of which emphasise the musical score as the principle of intonation and delivery.  If Soweto poetry presaged political change, it also presaged a new generation of oral-based South African poetry in the contemporary voices of Seitlhamo Motsapi, Lesego Rampolokeng, Kgafela oa Magogodi, and others.

            The high volume of ‘hits' in my advertisement of the original Soweto Poetry (www.michaelchapman.co.za) prompted this reprint of a book that was poorly marketed (by McGraw Hill, Johannesburg) and has long been out of print.  The hits suggest not only interest in the politics of the 1970s, but also in Soweto voices as still vibrant literary expression.

            I wish to acknowledge the contribution of Stephen Gray, the general editor of the series (Southern African Literature Series) in which Soweto Poetry initially appeared, not only for his vision of a future South African literature, but also for his encouragement of my editorial efforts as a then newcomer to the academic scene.


Michael Chapman


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